The problem with war is that it's real. Bullets can really kill people. Under mortar fire, one piece of shrapnel is enough to send you to the great beyond. It's good then, that we have video games to allow us to experience both the exhilaration and repulsion of war from the safety of our couches. Gearbox Software's Brothers in Arms: the Road to Hill 30 is so good that afterwards, if you make it to the end, you might develop the fabled hundred-yard stare. It simulates war in a way that I've never experienced, and does it better than Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, or even Battlefield. It is one part shooter and one part strategy, placing you in command of up to 2 squads of three people, and forcing you to adhere to combat tactics that, rest assured, you will have mastered by the end. Brothers in Arms is the best war game on any console, period.
To put things in perspective, I previously reviewed Call of Duty: Finest Hour for the Playstation 2; though I enjoyed the game, it had aspects that turned me off to the war genre - mainly, it was too arcadey. Another of its many problems was the tiny level design. Brothers in Arms doesn't suffer from any of the criticisms I made of Call of Duty: Finest Hour; Brothers walks a finer, much tighter line of presenting war, but it succeeds with honors. Because of its balance of gameplay and technical excellence, it is a more authentic and enjoyable experience.
Developer Gearbox Software could be labelled anal about getting their WWII levels and feel authentic. In this case, it's a remarkable trait. The levels in Brothers in Arms were constructed from a large number of aerial recon photos of european landscapes taken during World War II. If that's not enough, Gearbox went and visited the areas they were recreating so they could get the changes in terrain down to the meter. And still, if that wasn't enough, Gearbox enlisted the help of Colonel John F. Antal (retired) as war historian and advisor. Their work and research paid off.
Brothers in Arms: the Road to Hill 30 puts you in the shoes of Sgt. Matt Baker, the squad leader who didn't want to become squad leader - he'll keep reminding you. Baker is much like a poet. He gives details from his life that help bring the war experience to the level of rawness made famous in movies like Saving Private Ryan¯ and the series Band of Brothers.¯ Brothers in Arms has more to do with the latter than the former, but borrows from both. It's moments like Baker's before-the-mission dialogue that makes the game not just another war game. There's a heart here, and Gearbox knows it; the heart is found in the soldiers amidst foreign lands and in what they have to say. Their dialogue back and forth is overall emotional, but without melodrama. Baker's dialog is top notch. In fact, everyone's vocals are great - with the exception of less than great¯ every once in a while - and their voices are believable. This adds to the heart-wrenching nature of the war, giving you the feeling that yes, you can kill Nazis, but yes, you're taking lives. Still, in the battlefield I like to shoot first and ask the Nazis about their personal lives later; they'd do the same for me. In game, Allied soldiers (namely, your squad) will shout to you, Baker get down!¯ or Sniper!¯ or I'm out, give me some cover!¯ as if their lives are really on the line. It's intense and exhilarating to hear intelligent dialogue actually used. The dialogue not only is good, it's smart. If they shout give me some cover¯ for instance, it's a good idea to lay down a suppressing fire to keep the enemy fixed.
One of the most useful implementations in Brothers in Arms is the suppression indicator. The suppression indicator is a red circle that appears over enemy squads when they come into view. It functions to give the player two types of information. One, it gives the location of the enemy, and two, it tells when the enemy is suppressed. As the enemy becomes suppressed the circle will change from red to a transparent gray. When the circle is gray the enemy will have more difficulty aiming, try to run for better cover, or just cease firing altogether. This is an intuitive system to learn, and helps dictate the strategy for the player. Don't worry, if you think the suppression indicators are cheap or make the single player game too easy (they don't exist in multiplayer), then you have the option to turn them off. Be forewarned, the game becomes exponentially more difficult as you might have trouble locating enemies. Experts might scoff at the suppression indicators altogether, but novices and intermediates will likely leave them on.
The left trigger brings up the squad command option, where you can tell your squad to take cover, lay down a suppressive fire, or desperately charge a location. Even though the options for commands is rather limited, it is staggering how deep the system can be can be - it can just as easily turn the tide of battle. The only command that I wished was included was a throw grenade here¯ command. Your squad will toss grenades at intervals, but don't seem to realize that once you reach the end of the level, they get restocked with grenades - so they might go an entire level without tossing one. Still, I can't complain about the AI. The AI in Brothers in Arms is some of the best I've seen in a shooter, whether enemy or ally. Tell your allies to go to cover; if they're flanked they'll swing around to the opposite side, keeping the barriers between themselves and the enemy. Allies stay low as they run, fire at enemies they see, and toss grenades when enemies are clustered. Enemies will do this too. In fact, the enemy AI is incredibly sharp, taking new positions when they're threatened. They'll also try to flank, so paying attention to field movement is important.
Also interesting is the lack of any crosshair (initially anyway). To aim any rifle it becomes increasingly important to look down the iron sights and wait for your swaying to stop before firing. Gamers used to Rainbow Six 3 and the like will immediately know that crouching (thumb click left analogue) increases your chance to hit exponentially. Finding a good crouching point out of enemy range is just as important as finding cover. The crosshairs can be turned on and are a thing of preference. They can help when players are shooting from the hip or in close combat . If you have issues judging where your bullets are going you might want them on. I prefer to play with them off since aiming down the iron sights is the way to go. It's nice that they give the option, though.
As far as the button layout goes, things couldn't be more intuitive. The only straggler is the throw grenade¯ which is assigned to the black button. It's a trial of timing as you rise, throw the grenade, and duck back behind cover quickly. It also is difficult to initially judge your throwing distance, which will only get better with practice; once you do, it feels right.
The weapons are actually not the focus of this shooter. Still, you'll have plenty of allied rifles such as the M1 Garand, the BAR, and the Thompson; enemy weapons (though not grenades) can be looted off bodies as well. Why can't grenades be picked up? Well, I believe it to be a choice of importance. In the multiplayer modes I can imagine people spam-tossing grenades all over the place. In the singleplayer, it seems Gearbox wanted gamers to rely on their firepower and not their high-explosives. It's one of those tradeoffs of realism for gameplay that I'm glad Gearbox made.
Speaking of tradeoffs, the realism takes a staggering halt when you realize a teammate has died in midst of the single-player campaign and suddenly comes back to life for the next mission. I suppose there would be some issues with keeping your entire squad alive throughout the entire single player game, but there is a hit to the immersion when this happens.
Graphically, Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30 does some great things with particle effects and character movements. The graphics are pretty, but not overwhelming to your synapses - at infrequent times, the framerate does stutter. The character models are believable and their facial expressions are quite good. When shot, blood spatters on the screen; if a bullet misses and hits the ground, some dirt might spit up into your eyes.
The multiplayer modes are inspired, tactical meshes where one side brings a message across the map and the other side tries to prevent this. There are also missions where one side is sent to destroy a target (using C4), or another where one side takes on the role of snipers and has to take out a bridge. They're damn fun missions involving a strategic planning of attacks. The multiplayer can be played split screen either offline or online, but I suggest playing online all the time (unless you're system linking). Playing split screen with one player on each side only allows for one of the two squads to be used - for some reason, playing the game online allows you to use both squads with just one person. This is just one of those little annoying hiccups that should have been fixed. For online players, this game is a dream.
Using split screen isn't always great either. When splitting the screen, pop-up text messages show up right over your crosshairs (enemies have found the messages¯ - that sort of thing), obscuring your vision momentarily and making it difficult to fire. This part should have been fixed, but it doesn't make the split-screen game unplayable, just slightly difficult.
One of the best aspects of Brothers in Arms is its achievement in sound. I mentioned before that your allies will yell to you for help and so on, but enemies will yell too, and bombs will sound frightening, planes scream overhead, machineguns rip through bodies, bullets will just missing you¦the sounds are all incredibly authentic and as perfect as they can be. I especially like listening to where the mortars are landing - you can actually tell if their close to you or not, scary. Gearbox also made a wise choice to not have battlefield music. It was a conscious choice to maintain the tense feel of war and the incredible urgency of finding cover as German infantry shoot in your direction. There is some music in the menus akin to Saving Private Ryan¯ and other war films of its ilk. This music is fine, but too much of it feels melodramatic.
While the game is realistic, it's still a game. After failing at one mission about 5 times, a screen popped up that said War isn't fair, but a game should be. Would you like to heal your squad?¯ Even in the midst of battle, Gearbox found a way to make me laugh and kept me thinking, It's just a game.¯ Evening out the battlefield in this way still keeps the game challenging. This screen alone kept me from chucking my controller at the screen. Thank you, Gearbox!
Brothers in Arms is one of the finest World War II games I have ever played, and it's one of the best games on the Xbox. Even with some problems like split-screen pop-ups and lapses in realism, the game rocks. If you have any inkling of love for the shooter genre, the strategy genre, or the war genre in general, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.