Brothers in Arms E3 2004 Impressions

Gearbox goes for realism and tactics in its impressive World War II first-person shooter.

Brothers in Arms is a game that we only learned of in the past month, but from that initial impression, it was clear that Gearbox is designing a special kind of World War II-based first-person shooter. We had the chance to check out the game at the show, and we remain convinced that Brothers in Arms will deliver some much-needed realism and tactics to the genre.

The game is based on the true-to-life exploits of a squad of paratroops from the 101st Airborne during World War II. This isn’t Easy Company from HBO’s acclaimed Band of Brothers we’re talking about, but another squad that, through misdrops and other mishaps, saw action in all the major battles of the campaign.

In the game, you’ll play as a squad leader, and you’ll lead your squad through all sorts of battles. Unlike regular first-person shooters, the emphasis is for you to use real Army tactics to defeat the enemy. To that effect, your squad is divided into two elements: a fire team that suppresses the enemy and an assault team that closes with and destroys the enemy. It sounds complicated, but you’ll easily be able to command both squads using a standard console controller. (The game is being developed for the PC, Xbox, and PS2.)

Gearbox’s John Antal, a retired US Army colonel, former Ranger and dean of the US Army’s Tank School, took us through a new level. The level is set on D-Day plus 5 (the fifth day of the Normandy invasion), and you have to lead your troops to secure a farmhouse on the outskirts of the vital French village of Carentan. The mission starts off in a field divided by many stone walls, and as soon as your troops enter a clearing, the Germans open fire on you.

The game realistically models morale, and the artificial intelligence of each soldier means they react as elite Army paratroops. The squad members scattered for cover and then automatically began laying suppression fire on the enemy. The squad leader directed the fire element to maintain fire, and then signaled for the assault element to use a stone wall for cover to try flanking to the left. However, when they tried to peek around the wall, a German MG-42 machine gun opened fire. Unable to counter the massive rate of fire coming from the MG-42, the squad leader then led the assault element to the right flank.

They soon hit a road, and when the assault element crossed, a German bullet took down one of the GIs. However, the remaining assault team members managed to cross the road and catch the Germans in a crossfire. Unable to withdraw, the Germans were eliminated, but when the assault team went for the farmhouse, another German squad appeared, and a firefight erupted. Finally, the squad was able to take the farmhouse and secure the MG-42. The squad leader was able to turn the machine gun against the Germans, but the sudden appearance of German panzers quickly turned the tide of battle.

The sheer amount of historical detail and authenticity is amazing, but it’s the squad tactics system and smart AI that impressed us the most. First-person shooters are starting to incorporate concepts such as morale to mimic real human behavior, but Gearbox is mating morale with real Army tactics to an extent not seen before. The game looks beautiful, and the sound effects sound like they belong in a Hollywood movie. Brothers in Arms will ship in October.

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