We'll admit it. When we first heard about Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, a small voice inside our heads said cynically, "Just what the world needs...another World War II-based first-person shooter." Sure, it has some squad command mechanics, but it wasn't lost on us that those design aspects were rather similar to another military game, Full Spectrum Warrior. The big difference with Brothers in Arms is that it puts a gun in your hands and actually allows you to pull the trigger. And, oh, what a difference it makes! Brothers in Arms is paced more deliberately than other popular WWII shooters, such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. But the game more than makes up for any apparent absence of run-and-gun action with the raw intensity and realism of its battles combined with the added tactical considerations required in the challenging campaign. The online aspect is equally compelling, making for a complete and thoroughly impressive game experience.
Brothers in Arms puts you in the role of Sgt. Matt Baker, a real-life member of the 101st Airborne Division. The game's 17-chapter campaign stretches over a week's time. You'll start out the night before D-Day, when you and the rest of the division parachute behind enemy lines into France, fighting your way into and capturing the town of Carentan. Each chapter and all the settings are based closely on actual missions carried out by Baker's platoon. As you beat each mission, you'll unlock extras, such as photographs and reconnaissance photos, which show you how closely the game's levels match what Baker's platoon fought through in the critical first days of the invasion.
The game's presentation is extremely cinematic, borrowing cues from popular World War II fare such as Band of Brothers. Every chapter begins with a simple screen and title in stark black letters, narrated somberly by Baker's character. You'll also watch some in-engine cutscenes before and after missions that not only summarize the previous mission in the context of the war, but also get you personally acquainted with the rest of your squadmates. These presentational aspects set the mood of the game well, but unfortunately can't be skipped. There is one thing that breaks the mood of the game, and that's when squadmates who die in the course of your gameplay all of a sudden appear fully healthy in the next mission. This is a minor gripe, though, and the game would be unduly difficult if you weren't allowed to lose any squadmates over the course of a mission.
The quiet, introspective thoughts that Baker and his squadmates share between missions is a stark contrast to the intense, chaotic battles you'll fight. The game's campaign offers an interesting mix of mission types. Some will have you assaulting small towns crawling with German infantry, machine gun nests, and snipers. You'll also explore hedgerows filled with hidden mortar teams and German 88mm guns, which are a menace to your tanks. Another chapter has you clearing obstacles off of heavily defended farms in order to make a path for gliders to land. You'll need to deal with enemy tanks on a couple of missions, and while you will often have access to a bazooka or your own armor under your command in these cases, it's much more thrilling and satisfying to sneak up behind the enemy tank, climb onto it, and drop a grenade into the hatch to take it out. You'll also be treated to shooting gallery-style missions later on, where you're defending a position while armed with a sniper rifle. The campaign should last most players about 10 to 12 hours on their first play-through. There's plenty of incentive to play on the higher difficulty settings, though, as this forces you to perform in a more disciplined fashion with sharper command decisions.
Depending on the mission, you'll command either one or two squad elements, each of which can consist of a few infantrymen or a tank. Infantry are either designated as an assault team or a fireteam. The former is usually armed with submachine guns and is better at charging and eliminating enemies, while the latter carry rifles and are better at establishing a base of fire on an enemy position for suppression. Like in Full Spectrum Warrior, you'll see icons over enemy positions to signify their condition. Fully suppressed enemies will not move or fire much, and when they do shoot, their accuracy is poor. Unsuppressed enemies are much more accurate with their shots and may actually move, either to get a better attack position, or to find more useful cover.
This design conceit gives you incentive to actually use established army doctrine to find, fix, flank, and finish the enemy. One or two of your elements hold an enemy down with a base of fire, while you can move yourself or use another element to flank around the side to take that enemy out. Players who are more hands-on will obviously want to take the finishing aspect into their own hands, while more strategic-minded players still have the option of sending in a squad element to do the dirty work. Either way is satisfying, and throughout the course of the campaign you'll find cause to use both methods. It's also worth noting that, unlike in Full Spectrum Warrior, enemies behind cover are not invincible to direct fire. If you're a good shot with a rifle, you can still pick off an enemy who pokes his head a little too far out from behind cover. That said, the game still offers you a big advantage to try to find an unobstructed line of fire.
To help you with the job of maneuvering, Brothers in Arms includes a mode called "situational awareness." It's basically a pause state that zooms out and gives you an overhead view of the map with limited rotation and zoom ability. From here you can examine your own position and the position of your squad elements relative to that of known enemy positions. This mode is extremely helpful, as it allows you to make more intelligent decisions about maneuvering and positioning. You can only see enemy contacts that you've already made, so you can't cheat to see what else might be lying in wait up ahead. However, it's still possible to use the situational awareness mode to confirm the number of enemies behind cover, so there is some advantage to always peeking at this screen every time you find a new contact.
The command interface in Brothers in Arms is fairly streamlined. By holding down the left trigger, you'll get a command ring, which you can then move around the landscape to command your selected squad element to move. The squad artificial intelligence is fairly clever. If they know they're moving into the line of fire, they'll fire at the enemy position while proceeding in a low and fast manner. They'll also stack up behind any nearby cover and automatically fire at any enemy that comes into sight. You can order them to intensify their fire on a position for suppression or call for an all-out charge. Your squad is smart enough, however, to refuse orders to directly charge a machine gun nest or enemy tank. While the streamlined command interface keeps things simple, it can be frustrating at times in the uncommon cases when your soldiers don't get behind cover properly or take a strange path to their target. You also don't have the ability to specifically call for a grenade toss, although they will throw grenades on their own from time to time.
As far as controlling your own character, Brothers in Arms offers a couple of twists from your standard shooter. You can move about (albeit a bit more slowly than in most shooters) and toggle between standing and kneeling positions, which expectantly affects your accuracy. You'll notice this most with the Springfield sniper rifle, as the scope drift is dramatically lessened while kneeling. What's different about Brothers in Arms is that the default setting does not give you a crosshair with which to aim. If you choose to fire from the hip, you're pretty much guessing where your shots will land. In effect, you are forced to toggle the zoom, which lets you aim your gun along the iron sight in order to shoot with any degree of accuracy. Your movement speed is also cut down to a fraction while aiming, so if you want to fire while on the move, you need to make a choice between movement speed and shot accuracy. This adds to the game's realism and feels less contrived compared to other games that simply expand your crosshair reticle as you run.
You'll use an array of different weapons, including M1 Garands, Thompson submachine guns, BARs, and fixed machine guns. You'll also pick up antitank weapons, such as bazookas, and you can loot weapons off of dead enemies. In general, you're probably better off sticking with the guns you start each mission with until you start running into the elite German Fallschirmjager, who carry the Sturmgewehr automatic assault rifle. Grenades are very limited in the game. You don't get them in every mission, and you can't seem to loot any off of corpses. It's also fairly tricky to toss them; learning how to arc them just right will take some practice. Just be careful to pay attention to your tosses. If you don't suppress an enemy position before throwing a grenade, you're liable to get that pineapple tossed right back in your face.
Unlike many other games of this type, multiplayer Brothers in Arms isn't just an afterthought. The multiplayer aspect retains the squad command aspects from the single-player campaign, resulting in a game that plays unlike anything else on Xbox Live. Matches can be set up for two to four players online on any of 10 objective-based maps. Most of these maps will involve demolitions of some sort, with one side attempting to plant a bomb on a strategic target, such as a bomb or antiaircraft gun, while the other side tries to prevent the bomb from exploding over a fixed period of time. Each player in the game controls one or two squad elements, and you can also hop out to situational awareness mode to check your surroundings, although the game does not pause in this mode during multiplayer matches. If the soldier you're controlling goes down, you can press a button to immediately take control of another member of that squad element. Get your whole element wiped out, and you'll need to respawn at your original spawn point with a fresh element.
The overall feel of multiplayer Brothers in Arms is much more strategic than a typical shooter. There's a lot of depth involved with coordinating attacks with your teammates, such as trying to confuse the enemy with feints or linking up on one side of the map for an all-out charge. Raw skill at first-person shooters certainly helps, but aiming skill alone doesn't quite compensate for a player who utilizes his squad commands to the fullest. That aspect gives Brothers in Arms a unique style, and one which should give the game lasting appeal for multiplayer. For those stuck offline, a split-screen mode for two players is available. But being able to see your opponent's movements takes a lot of the mystery out of a match, making it much less compelling than playing online. In our testing, the online play worked pretty well, with only a few problems in latency.
The graphics and sound in Brothers in Arms add to the game's overall excellence. Character models are good overall, offering up some nice detail in motion with the way they carry their weapons and take position behind cover. Squadmates who have taken a lot of hits will also limp noticeably and won't run as quickly. The models do appear a bit blocky at times, however, and the character faces have a somewhat lifeless, mannequin-like quality to them, particularly in the eyes. Vehicles and weapons are realistically modeled in both the way they look and the way they sound, as are all the settings in the game, including the position of foliage, roads, and buildings. Bullets kick up debris and dust depending on their impact point. In fact, if you're being fired upon, you'll see bits of dirt kick up and "stick" to the screen as the bullets plink and whiz by your head. Your squadmates will also yell for you to get down. These are useful visual and audio cues that alert you to when you should duck your head back behind cover.
You'll see noticeable blood spray as you fire at and hit enemies up close, but this isn't done gratuitously. Certain cutscenes, however, can get rather gory and graphic. Add that to the cussing you'll hear, and you'll have a game that captures the grim reality of war (which is also found in any movie or miniseries). What's also interesting is that there's no music at all during gameplay. An orchestral score is limited to the menus and loading screens. Again, this seems like a conscious design decision, adding to the cold overall feeling that the game offers.
By bringing together the best aspects of squad-based shooters with the freedom of a more action-oriented game, Brothers in Arms offers a unique gameplay experience in the unlikeliest of genres: a World War II shooter. The campaign is varied and lengthy enough to keep players thrilled from beginning to end. There's even good incentive to play through again at higher difficulties. Combined with a well-designed and thought-out multiplayer aspect, Brothers in Arms offers one of the best World War II gaming experiences to date.