Still my brother's keeper.
If it feels like you just left the European theater of operations, you're absolutely right. Earned in Blood, the follow up to Gearbox's awesome WWII shooter Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, makes an appearance a mere seven months after the original game stormed gamer beaches.
With such a short period in between releases, you can bet your BAR that one of two things happened: either this is a piece of junk that was pushed out the door because of the popularity of the first game, or it's pretty much the same as the first game. Fortunately for FPS war nuts, it's the latter. Like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill double feature, it seems as though the guys in charge of Brothers in Arms simply didn't have the time or space to pack everything they wanted into one box. With Earned in Blood, they get the chance to continue the epic saga of the U.S. Army Paratroopers in WWII.
Earned in Blood actually picks up during the events of the previous game, but from the perspective of Cpl. Joe Hartsock, a soldier whose path crossed Sgt. Matt Baker on the Road to Hill 30. The entire game is told by Hartsock as a flashback, though when the bullets are flying, you'll forget all about it.
It sure doesn't take long to get to the action. Even if you never visited Road to Hill 30, you'll be out in the field like a top squad leader in no time thanks to the game's simple command structure. With the efficient point and click command cursor, you can move squads under your command to specific positions, rally to your point or fire on enemy encampments. It's a bummer that you can only give commands to the squad rather than individual soldiers, but this system still works well.
And it's a good thing it does, because the entire game is based on the simple principle of find, fix and flank. For the majority of the game, you control two squads: a fire team and an assault team (occasionally you'll also have control of a tank squad). Regardless of the squad, the gameplay follows the flow of locating the enemy, fixing them in place with suppression fire, then moving into position and flanking them with the assault squad.
But despite the seemingly simple strategy, Earned in Blood is anything but easy. Thanks to a bump up in the game's A.I., enemies are smarter than before. Rather than just hanging out in whatever bunker they've hunkered down in, the bad guys can and will abandon ship to make for better cover. They'll react to your movements appropriately, adhering less to scripted actions than most of their WWII game cousins. Then again, they also have a weird psychic ability to instantly find your position as soon as you fire the first shot, no matter how good your cover is. It adds some spice to the challenge but occasionally gets annoying.
Another minor A.I. quirk happens with your own men. While the allied A.I. usually performs well, every so often a member of your squad will go rogue and freak out. This seems to happen most when there isn't enough available cover; one of your guys will set up in front of the cover rather than trying to sit back or perhaps drop to the ground. I suppose that this sort of in-the-thick-of-battle confusion has real-world precedent, but with the rest of the A.I. working so well, it feels out of place.
In spite of these issues, the Story mode in Earned in Blood admirably continues the Brothers in Arms tradition of serious action and strategic field craft. All of the great features like good squad control and authentic presentation from the first game are implanted firmly in this edition.
Where the main mode remains mostly the same, the multiplayer opportunities have been kicked up a notch. New for Earned in Blood is Skirmish mode. This allows you to set up games across ten different maps and four different types, including Objective, Timed Assault, Defense and Tour of Duty. All four are interesting and good fun, especially the challenging Tour of Duty, which throws you into a five mission challenge with one life and one squad. These are also available as single-player games, but naturally are much more rewarding when played co-operatively.
The multiplayer mode found in Road to Hill 30 makes a return as well, allowing you to slug it out with an opponent on opposite sides of an objective-based mission. There are more maps to keep you busy, but the process is still the same. Just command your squads into the best positions and take the other side down.
The PC version plays a bit better than the Xbox; FPS vets may prefer the mouse and keyboard combo over the use of the controller. Make no mistake, though - the Xbox version is no slouch and easily holds its own. Close-quarters combat is rougher around the edges since console controller sensitivity can't compare to a good mouse, but the experience is hardly worse for wear.
The same can be said of the terrific delivery. Brothers in Arms was a beautiful game thanks to great graphics and outstanding voice-work, and Earned in Blood doesn't stray far from that shiny path. As it is less than a year old, the engine still looks great, and the voices and soundtrack are just as pleasing as they were original.
In turn, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood does a good job of picking up where its predecessor left off'such a good job, in fact, that it feels as if we never left the field of battle. Even with the improvements to the A.I. and enhanced multiplayer experience, the game feels more like an expansion pack than a stand-alone product. Don't let that stop you from donning your helmet for another firefight, though. This is still one helluva soldier.