Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood Updated Impressions - New Missions, Skirmish

We take an updated look at the next Brothers in Arms game from Gearbox Software.

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We recently had a chance to take an updated look at Earned in Blood, the follow-up to Ubisoft and Gearbox's strategic World War II shooter Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30. As we've mentioned in our previous coverage, the new game will be part retelling of Road to Hill 30, part all-new adventure, told from the perspective of Red Hartsock, a soldier who served with you in the original game. Though Earned in Blood is coming out only eight months or so after Road to Hill 30, it has apparently been in production for much longer and is being developed with careful attention paid to feedback from the community. Fans of the previous game have clamored for more urban combat as a change of pace from the open meadows of the previous game, which took place mostly in the scenic French countryside. They have also requested tighter artificial intelligence and enhanced multiplayer modes, and Gearbox has apparently gone after both of these points as well.

According to retired Army officer and Gearbox designer Colonel John Antal, the new game is focused even more on the realistic use of tactics framed around interesting stories. In addition to including better infantry combat, Earned in Blood will feature more interactions with military vehicles, including half-tracks and tanks (Antal's personal favorite), but more than ever, the game will focus on the "four Fs" of infantry combat. These are, of course, finding enemies, fixing them in their positions with suppressive fire, flanking them while they're pinned down, and finishing them off. Antal suggests that "real war is all about pattern recognition," in reference to the organized movement of small fireteams in the field.

Since the enemy in the game will be smarter (and also more numerous in later missions), you'll often see multiple squads of German soldiers covering each other's flanks, liberating their comrades from your pinning attacks, and aggressively seeking to flank you in return. The idea is to simulate a more dynamic version of chess on the battlefield--instead of simply flanking one squad of hostiles and winning the entire mission, you'll have to think on your feet and try not only to aggressively contain the enemy, but also to avoid their countermeasures or risk getting pinned down yourself. This enhanced challenge and deeper strategy will come packaged in a real-world story that Gearbox hopes players will find just as compelling as that of the first game. "History is more exciting than fiction," Antal said, in reference to the countless amazing stories of courage and inventive strategy in the face of overwhelming odds from the Second World War. (When asked about Gearbox's next project, and whether that will also take place during World War II, Antal simply smiled and suggested that whatever setting the game takes place in, it will focus on the team's three core principles of authenticity, tactics, and a compelling story.)

We then had a chance to see the PC version of the game in motion from up close, and we saw that the new game not only looks cleaner and sharper than the original, but also looks like it will offer a much tougher, much longer challenge. (While the previous game could be completed by players of average skill in about 10 to 12 hours, Gearbox suggests that the new game will take average players about 15 to 18 hours.) We saw two missions in the single-player game--one in an open field, one in a city. In both cases, we watched as our team inched through hostile territory, sending assault and support elements to bear down on enemy positions and hold them down until they could be annihilated. However, as we saw in these missions, several enemies appeared in multiple groups that actively sought to sneak around our ranks, even as we pinned down their comrades, so in one instance, pulling off "the perfect flank" on one enemy squadron meant nothing, as we were ambushed and cut down by another. Apparently, one of the game's major plot devices will be to have soldiers from other companies swap in and out of your squad as part of a joint effort to drive the Germans out of the area. This will culminate in much larger battles at the end of the game, when other friendly fireteams not under your control will desperately try to hold off the enemy, just like you are.

"Combat is more dense," explains Gearbox's Marc Tardif. Unlike in the previous game, you'll find yourself fighting through fewer empty pockets and more enemy entrenchments. The action will be fast-paced and more challenging overall, with more enemies for you to keep track of. Fortunately, Gearbox is employing focus testers to keep the challenge without adding any frustration--and just like the first game, the new game will have a reinforcements system that will automatically kick in and send in more troops to help out if you die three times in a row. And to make sure that the new game's larger groups of enemies and their friendlies don't end up falling into predictable patterns or somehow getting lost or stuck, Gearbox has expanded its testing department considerably to make sure as many bugs as possible are hammered out before release.

In addition to the campaign, Earned in Blood will offer an expanded skirmish mode, in which you'll be able to play not only as American soldiers, but also as Germans in a series of interconnected missions. The new game will bring back the first game's 10 skirmish maps and will add 10 new ones, and it will also add specific, optional objectives to the maps, along with standard game types. One of the enhanced multiplayer modes will be cooperative defense, in which you and your buddies attempt to fight off never-ending waves of enemy soldiers. We watched as a small group of Germans attempted to hold off a small artillery encampment against constantly respawning American soldiers, who not only attempted to storm the base from the front, but also crept in through the back and hid for several seconds before attempting to ambush them.

Earned in Blood seems like it should have plenty to offer, considering its longer, tougher single-player game, its expanded multiplayer modes, and its enhanced Xbox Live options, which will include stat tracking and an allowance for downloadable content (although Gearbox hasn't specified exactly what sort of content will be downloadable yet). Fans of tactics, gritty shooting, and authentic war stories should keep an eye out for the game when it comes out later this year for the PC, the Xbox, and the PS2.

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