It's no secret that first-person shooters are among the most popular of genres, and that some of the most popular first-person shooters are World War II-based games such as the Medal of Honor series, Battlefield 1942, and Call of Duty. What all these games have in common is that they combine intense combat with a strong sense of immersion to make it really feel like you're running around the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Now developer Gearbox is readying its own World War II game, Brothers in Arms--a game that will model what it's like to be stuck in the war with only a few good men (and a whole bunch of enemies).
Gearbox has a long track record of developing ports of other developers' games. Brothers in Arms will be the company's first original product, something that the folks at Gearbox have been working on for more than three years. According to Gearbox president Randy Pitchford, what will differentiate Brothers in Arms from other first-person shooters is its historical authenticity and, more importantly, a gameplay system that will put you in the role of a squad leader giving orders to your men in battle. You'll command men who act and behave like real soldiers--they employ proper tactics and procedures in combat--but it'll be up to you to lead them to victory.
As Pitchford explained, the team wanted to get away from the standard gameplay found in most first-person shooters in which the player's job is merely to react to the presence of the enemy. In those games, you usually run around a level until you stumble on some bad guys--then you just shoot them. In Brothers in Arms, your job will be to think much more proactively; in essence, you'll need to evaluate the battlefield as a real squad leader would and then direct your fire teams to maximize their effectiveness. Or, as the US Army describes it, you'll have to use the "four F's": find the enemy, fix the enemy in position with suppression fire, flank the enemy, and then finish the enemy off.
As a squad leader, you'll command up to two fire teams, each of which can consist of up to three soldiers. Army doctrine dictates that one fire team serves as the assault element; these soldiers are armed mainly with submachine guns and grenades, and their job is to close with and destroy the enemy. The other fire team serves as the base-of-fire element; armed with heavier weapons like Browning automatics, these soldiers provide suppressing fire to keep the enemy pinned down while the assault team maneuvers to flank them. The Army calls this tactic "fire and maneuver," and it's been the cornerstone of infantry operations for decades. In Brothers in Arms, you'll use it against your enemies, and they'll use it against you.
Pitchford demonstrated this tactic to us using the Xbox version of the game. He led his men along a road to the strategically critical French town of Carentan. A blocking force of Germans was detected, and the soldiers in the US base-of-fire squad automatically opened fire to suppress the enemy. These soldiers fired from cover using alternating fire, taking turns firing and reloading to ensure a steady stream of fire. Pitchford directed one fire team to maintain suppressing fire, while he ordered the other team to follow him on a flanking maneuver around a farm. However, as they swung around the farmhouse they stumbled upon a group of Germans attempting to maneuver on them, and a second firefight erupted in the field.
It may sound complicated, but you'll be able to control fire teams relatively easily. In the Xbox version, the controls are similar to those used for other first-person shooters, such as Halo. The thumbsticks control your movement and your direction, while the black button alternates between weapons, and the right trigger is used to fire. The white button will switch between which fire team you're giving orders to, and the left trigger will summon a context-sensitive icon that will let you give different commands to a fire team with just one press--similar to the system in Interactive's Freedom Fighters. If you place the icon on the enemy, your fire team will be ordered to attack that enemy. If you place the icon on a door, the fire team will charge the doorway. And if you place it on a location, the fire team will advance to that point and look for cover.
Another Band of Brothers
All the soldiers in the game, including the enemies, will exhibit what is called situational artificial intelligence. That is, they will not only follow correct tactical procedures, but they'll also behave like real human beings would under fire. Soldiers will cower under cover if they're receiving suppressing fire, and they'll fall back, shift positions, and adapt to the tactical situation on the battlefield. As the squad leader, you'll be able to call up a tactical overhead view of the battlefield. The game will pause during these moments and you won't be able to issue any orders, but you will be able to analyze the battlefield and figure out what you need to do next.
All the weapons in the game will be modeled after the real thing, including the M1 Garand rifle, the Thompson submachine gun, and the German MG-42 machine gun that makes a sound like cloth ripping when it fires. Your soldier can carry only two weapons at a time, but you can pick up and use any weapons in the game, including German ones. Ammunition won't usually be an issue either, since you should be scavenging ammo from the bodies of the fallen. However, since Gearbox does want the game to be realistic, there won't be any health packs or canteens lying around that will miraculously heal you, nor will the game even have a point-based health system (where you have 100 health points that you gradually lose, like in practically every other shooter). You can be killed if you're not careful; if you do something stupid like stand in the open, bullets will zing by and you'll suffer grazing hits as a reminder to find cover. If you don't move, you'll suffer more grievous wounds that can affect your performance in battle; sustain too many and you're dead.
The game will follow the real-life battles of the 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, and Fox Company of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. This squad distinguished itself during D-Day by being the only squad to participate in all the major actions of the campaign. Gearbox has gone to great lengths researching for the game, including spending lots of time at the National Archives unearthing long-lost photographs, maps, and after-action reports. The company even dispatched teams of developers to Normandy to take surveys of the terrain for themselves.
The company also got a huge boost when John Antal, a retired Army colonel, a noted historian and author, and former dean of the Army's armor school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, joined the project full time. Over the course of a year, Antal taught the developers tactics and had them participate in simulated outdoor battles to drill home the concepts in the game. Antal became so involved that he eventually joined the company after he retired from the Army.
Brothers in Arms will feature an impressive graphics engine. Gearbox doesn't want to talk about technical details yet, but so far it looks beautiful. In the Xbox version that we saw, the Normandy countryside seemed to come to life. Gearbox used old photos and aerial maps to capture every detail, including the red and white window frame on one house. The game uses impressive high-dynamic range lighting and soft shadowing, like the soft glow of daylight to the dark shadows of the hedgerows. The engine can also render huge levels, an important factor, so you have room to maneuver fire teams on the battlefield. And in the level Pitchford demonstrated to us, there were no loading times at all, even as his squad battled its way along the road into the outskirts of Carentan.
Soldiers will have a wide range of facial expressions. You can even see their eyes track you as you move around, and you can see when they bite their lips anxiously. Your soldiers will also have distinct personalities; they are all based on real-life individuals. (Gearbox is changing the names of the characters because it is taking some fictional liberties with the personalities.) Publisher Ubisoft is currently negotiating with recognizable Hollywood talent to provide the voices for the soldiers.
It's also clear that Brothers in Arms is a special project for Gearbox. Pitchford said that the game has been something he and Brian Martel, Gearbox's vice president, have been thinking about since their days at 3D Realms working on Duke Nukem 3D. The company began historical research more than three years ago, and most of Gearbox's employees have been quietly working on the game for the past two years. From what we saw, it certainly looks like Brother in Arms will be both fun and innovative, as well as a testament to the men who fought and died in the Normandy campaign. The game is currently scheduled to ship for the PC and the Xbox this year.