World War II shooters are plentiful and popular on consoles and even on the PSP, but until Brothers In Arms DS was released last week, Nintendo's handheld had been without a WWII game to call its own. What Gameloft was able to accomplish with Brothers In Arms DS is impressive from a technical standpoint, but it seems that most of the developer's energy was focused simply on getting the game to work, not on making a great game. If you absolutely must have a handheld WWII-based shooter and the DS is your only option, Brothers In Arms will probably satisfy that need. It's still not very good, though.
Brothers In Arms DS is divided into three campaigns, each of which contains half a dozen or so missions. These missions were clearly designed for the person on the go and generally take only around 10 to 20 minutes to complete. The game's not terribly difficult, which means a skilled player could finish the whole thing in around four hours--though you can go back and play the additional difficulty levels that unlock as you progress. Up to four players with their own copy of the game can take part in ad hoc deathmatch and team deathmatch modes. There's very little in the way of customization options, and you absolutely need four people for it to be remotely fun, but the inclusion of multiplayer is appreciated.
The console versions of Brothers In Arms may have focused on providing a strong narrative to suck you into the proceedings, but on the DS there's very little setup before each mission. Once you've started a level, your objectives are conveyed to you via boxes of text. Other than a few short phrases from soldiers here and there, there's no audio dialogue. Another significant difference is that unlike the console versions, Brothers In Arms DS isn't a squad-based first-person shooter. Instead, it's a third-person shooter where your only concern is with the character you're controlling.
And there's plenty of reason to be concerned about controlling your character, because the controls can be quite challenging. You view the action on the top screen, move with the D pad, and fire with the left shoulder button--that's simple enough. Here's the complicated part: You use the bottom screen's touch-sensing capabilities to look around, aim, change weapons, reload, use your weapons' sights, and throw grenades. Reloading your weapon is as simple as tapping the clip icon and dragging the stylus to the center of the screen. Changing weapons is simple as well; you tap the gun icon, which opens a dropdown list of your weapons, and then just tap the weapon you want. Taking cover behind an object or a wall is surprisingly easy, too--you run up to the object and the game places you behind it, so all you have to do is aim and fire. Unless you're using left-hand mode, which uses the face buttons in lieu of the D pad, you'll never use the face buttons at all, and there are no alternate control options.
When you're doing only a few things at once this scheme isn't all that bad, but when the action picks up it becomes quite challenging to manage. Dragging the stylus to aim works OK if you're only dealing with a few stationary enemies, but it takes several swipes of the stylus to turn completely around (there's no option to change the sensitivity), and your enemies are so tiny that it's tough to aim with any level of precision, even with the game's somewhat generous auto-aim feature. To throw a grenade you tap the grenade icon in the lower corner of the bottom screen, and then look at the top screen for the aiming reticle as you drag the stylus across the bottom screen, letting up when you've reached the desired distance.
When it works properly this method is fine, but too often you'll find that the screen didn't recognize that you hit the grenade icon, which results in your character staring at the sky; or, you'll stray off the sensor area and the game will decide you only wanted to throw the grenade a few feet. Either way, it's bad news. Eventually you'll come to grips with the control scheme, but you'll never become physically comfortable with it. You're forced to hold the DS with just one hand--more specifically, with the sides of your fingers while your index finder is crooked over the left shoulder button. After a few levels, the pain can be excruciating to the point where you may have to take a break to rest your hand.
Though the perspective may have changed, the types of missions you'll be participating in should be familiar to anyone who has played a Brothers In Arms game, or for that matter, any other WWII FPS. You'll use a bazooka to take out enemy tanks, plant charges to blow up enemy weapons and strongholds, use a stationary machine gun to fend off an enemy charge, wield a sniper rifle to pick off enemies from afar, and even pilot a jeep and a tank. The levels are small, and the game's rigidly linear. You'll occasionally be able to flank the enemy, but nearly any time that's an option it's because the game specifically says "flank the enemy," not because you were able to come up with some crafty strategy. Enemy artificial intelligence is minimal--most soldiers will stand still directly in front of you as you shoot them. In fact, if you move to the side just a bit, they'll typically keep firing straight ahead, as if you never left, as you plaster them with fire.
Even though the game's not tremendously difficult and the levels are quite linear, there are plenty of checkpoints, and the markers that show you where your next objective lies are never far off and are easy to find. In fact, much of the game is so darn friendly that it almost feels as if the developer is apologizing for the control scheme and just wants you to have a good time by blasting Nazis. If you're OK with the less-than-ideal controls and the straightforward nature of the gameplay, you'll probably have a pretty good time with the game--you've just got to be the forgiving type.
The first time you turn on the game you'll be wowed by the graphics that Gearbox was able to coax out of the DS. The frame rate is adequate--it never approaches 30 frames per second, but it's adequate. The characters are nicely animated and show a fair amount of detail when you get close to them. The levels aren't large by console standards, but they still give the appearance of being a decent size--until you realize you're constricted by barriers (both visible and invisible) to a small, linear path through those levels. There are even some destructible environments, so you can have the pleasure of blowing up large cannons and buildings, and you can even drive a tank right through a wall.
The first impression is a good one, but once you spend a little more time with the game you'll really start to notice how much had to be sacrificed just to get it running. You'll spend a lot of time behind cover, which means you'll often get to see the camera peer right through solid buildings. Just as often, the camera will get stuck behind a wall, leaving you staring at a pixilated blob while the enemy blows you away. Moreover, the draw distance is terrible. Buildings, trees, and, worst of all, tanks will pop up right in front of you. But even with these issues, the game's nice looking and a technical achievement. If you're listening to the game through the DS's built-in speakers there's not much to get excited about, but if you're playing while wearing headphones you'll enjoy authentic-sounding weapons fire, robust explosions, and even some chatter from soldiers.
How much fun you have with Brothers In Arms is purely a function of how desperate you are to have a WWII shooter for your DS. If your expectations are low and you just want to run around tossing grenades, firing guns, and making unintelligent Nazi soldiers miserable, then the game is worth a look and you might have a pretty good time. However, if you're expecting anything near the experience you'd get from the console games, or even the watered-down PSP game, you're going to be sorely disappointed.