King of the hill.
For a war roughly sixty years behind us, it seems odd that World War II has been one of the most widely used backdrops in recent video gaming. Part of this is surely due to the intensity of the landmark Saving Private Ryan, which in turn prompted the success of games like Call of Duty. Most WWII first-person shooters stick to the same old run and gun formula with hopes of cashing in on the popularity of the genre, although only a few games like Battlefield 1942 have managed to break the mold and rise up the ranks.
Now, we're finally treated to another soldier brave enough to cover new ground in this old arena. Ubisoft and Gearbox's excellent Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 tells the tale of Sgt. Matt Baker and the boys of the 101st Airborne, who were dropped into enemy territory in preparation for D-Day. The Xbox version made serious waves earlier this month, and I'm happy to report the PC version is largely identical.
If you want to keep it real, you'd be hard pressed to find any game more true-to-life than Brothers in Arms. Set during a one-week stretch starting with the D-Day invasion, the game follows Sgt. Baker, a real-life vet of the war, and his small crew as they plow through the enemy and fight as a team to stay alive. The single-player mirrors Sgt. Baker's real-world experience, lending an air of authenticity to the carnage.
And unlike other war games, Brothers in Arms adds a tactical element to the traditional action-packed battle plan. Rather than playing as one man in a larger squad, here you take on the responsibility of leading a small team through the madness of WWII. After a few introductory solo-missions, you'll be put in command of three other A.I.-controlled soldiers, your band of brothers, who will be on hand to watch your back and provide you with additional support. What you do with this support is up to you; do well and you'll eventually gain command of a tank or two or even an additional squad for more command options. Being Squad Leader certainly has its perks.
Occasionally, the action is so fast and furious that you'll just have to put your head down, fire your gun and throw strategy right out the window, which Brothers in Arms handles well enough. Most of the time, though, your ability to command your squad is the key factor in determining your success.
Controlling the squad is fairly simple, making it really easy to put your men right where you want them. The command ring cursor is accessed with the right mouse button, giving you the ability to quickly order the squad to take up certain positions, fire on a specific enemy emplacement or even charge in head first. You cannot control specific members, though – the squad must move and act as a team at all times, which occasionally proves frustrating and takes away a bit from any sense of total control.
However, the PC version does benefit from the mouse and keyboard combination, especially for those born and bred on PC shooers, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to escape the gun waver as you're zoomed in. It's just more comfortable.
Should you need some help, the game comes with an optional "Situational Awareness" mode. This overhead map view lets you scan the battlefield for the best possible position for your troops, taking into account available cover, enemy strength and position. It's definitely handy, although the more you get used to Brothers in Arms' control scheme the less you'll find yourself needing to use it.
Besides, your mates exhibit pretty good decision making skills on their own thanks to the outstanding squad A.I. They move in formation and automatically take up firing positions when they aren't running from enemy fire. Point them in a specific direction and they'll head out to that spot, find some useful cover and crank out the lead. Even if you just order them to follow your movement, they'll make sure to provide cover fire should anything come up. The enemy A.I. is, for the most part, up to the challenge. The bad guys also take advantage of cover, react to your shots and move to improve their position on you when they can.
But Brothers in Arms is more than just a fragfest – it's an eerily realistic one. Each of the men in your squad have their own unique personalities that develop as the story progresses, with Baker's narration tying everything together into one nice, neat package. Bullets zing overhead while blood and mud flies in your face. You can even be knocked on your tail, complete with ringing ears and blurry vision if an explosion hits too close to home. The standard crosshairs are missing (at the default setting), forcing you to line up shots with your eye rather than a big, shiny X. Unsurprisingly, you won't find any health packs or power-ups anywhere, so you'll just have to shoot first and faster than the other guy does.
Rounding out the realism is the amount of historical detail that went into the development; some of the unlockables include side-by-side comparisons of historical photos versus in game environments and it's amazing how closely it all matches up. Without question, Brothers in Arms is the most immersive depiction of war ever seen in a video game.
Generally speaking, the weapon selection is nothing new, featuring the usual assortment of authentic WWII rifles, machine guns and explosives. They all feel distinct thanks to different kickbacks and zooms, but don't expect to be flinging nades like Master Chief - grenades are a bit hard to come by and a little tricky to use.
Depending on which of the three difficulty levels you choose (a fourth can be unlocked), it will take approximately 12 hours to complete the single player component. But if you feel like going career even after your tour of duty is up, just check out the game's robust multiplayer.
The PC version of Brothers in Arms naturally features both on and offline multiplayer modes. Rather than turning itself into a typical deathmatch twitchfest, the game sticks to its squad-based guns and puts up to four players in charge of multiple squads. Each of the 10 multiplayer missions has an objective, like taking out anti-aircraft guns or retrieving documents and returning them to HQ. As in the single player campaign, strategy plays as large a role as shooting skills. If you happen to fall in battle, you'll step right into the boots of one of your squadmates until the last man has gone down. It's handled well and provides a cool alternative to the dozens of fragfests cluttering the shelves. The ability to co-op the game's campaign is sadly missing, but it's hardly a significant problem.
Whether on or offline, Brothers in Arms is a good looking game, thanks in large part to the gritty, well animated characters models. Realistic environments and a variety of nice visual effects helps set the right mood. PC gamers will be happy to know that the game doesn't require a video card with massive power (32MB minimum), but checking the list of supported cards might be a good idea as some cards, such as the GeForce 4 MX series, are not supported.
For that matter, lower-end users should also take into account the fact that the game only runs on Windows 2000 or XP systems and requires a DVD drive and a fairly hefty 5 GB install. Your mom's old Dell might have a hard time with it.
Brothers in Arms also features a high-quality soundtrack along with big, scary wartime sound effects. Good voice-acting helps bring your squadmates to life, and though everyone has a penchant for cursing, expletives never seem very out of place in a war-game. When you see a fully-loaded tank bearing down on your position, "darn" just doesn't cut the mustard.
But Brothers in Arms certainly does. The realistic squad based action is handled well and provides a satisfying journey through the nightmare of war. Even though the WWII genre is flooded with tin soldiers, Sgt. Baker and crew stand head and shoulders above the rest.