Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: October 6, 2005
Ruck Up Troop, You’re in the Airborne Now
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 has one of the longest names is gaming history, but that was fine by me because it was Game of Year pick for 2004-2005. Brought to us by the good folks at Gearbox Software, BIA brought a sense of authenticity, narrative style and grittiness that made Call of Duty and Medal of Honor look like arcade games. The squad control was sublime and the missions taut, despite a linear design. Perhaps Call of Duty had a more exhilarating multiplayer game, but BIA was all about maneuver and fire tactics, true to how the American armed forces operate.
Earned in Blood picks up right where BIA left off, with Sergeant Matt Baker being promoted to platoon leader however the perspective changes to newly minted Sergeant "Red" Hartsock, Baker’s trusty fire support section leader. As opposed to going on to a new campaign or continuing where Baker’s story left off, EIB goes back and tells Red’s story and how he assumes a leadership role over men he used to be peers with, hence the name Earned in Blood, an apt title since command is earned, not given.
EIB builds off of the same gameplay design concepts. You are a squad leader in a World War II Parachute Infantry platoon duking it out with German forces behind the beachheads of Normandy. The game only takes place over the course of a few days, but it is an eventful few days. Paratroopers, by the nature of their mission, fight in small teams cut off from friendly forces, which explains the old Airborne saying, "They’ve got us surrounded, right where we want them." Because of this, Paratroopers have to make sure their tactics are sound, employed without hesitation, and under the best sort of leadership. Paratroopers survive through their aggressive tactics, and EIB exemplifies this mindset perfectly. Through holding down the right mouse button, you order your two sections into position, where one can lay down suppressing fire and the other can flank and fire or assault, depending on the terrain.
The commands are so simple that it’s stupid. Thanks to context-sensitive scripting, your cursor changes from a maneuver icon to a fire icon if you move the cursor over enemy positions. Hold the cursor in place, and you’ll issue a suppressing fire command. A little circle over the Germans’ heads will go from red to grey; when grey, the Germans are suppressed, and you can move safely to a new position. You can turn off the icons for a more realistic view, and your troopers will call out to let you know that they’re moving, firing, or assaulting if the Germans are suppressed and exposed. I recommend playing with the icons off (especially if you’ve played BIA), as it makes things a whole lot more frantic and realistic. It all seems simple, doesn’t it? Well, the nature of small unit tactics is pretty much centered on two elements, maneuvering and firing, and EIB captures these elements just as they are in actual combat.
What’s different between EIB and BIA? To start off, EIB is bigger. Each area is a larger map that has several cuts, paths, openings and plenty of cover that you can use creatively to get a good flanking fire. BIA was built around area maps that were large, although each map was limited in how you could successfully approach it. Such is not the case with EIB. If you do not make use of the space, you’ll find yourself hurting fast. While a simple and logical step for EIB to take, it makes a huge difference in the game, especially in skirmish and multiplayer modes.
Every shooter makes the claim that they’ve improved enemy AI over prior games and that enemy soldiers will "seek cover" or "flank" or "call for reinforcements." Personally, I don’t see it. Medal of Honor spawns new enemy soldiers to replace casualties, and if you can lay the crosshairs on your enemy, you can kill them. Call of Duty made use of invisible trigger lines, and enemy soldiers would keep coming unless you killed a specific target, again triggering another event.
EIB is different. Enemy soldiers are spread across the map and equipped with vision cones and audio cues to activate them. Furthermore, enemy soldiers will actively displace and find a new position very quickly and efficiently if they’ve been compromised. Nearby enemies will also seek to flank you if you remain static too long and they are not under fire. Enemy soldiers will also bug out if they are overwhelmed, which usually means bullets in the back. What this all means is that EIB exhibits enemy AI that much more fluid, proactive and aggressive than what gamers are accustomed to, and that is a good thing.
EIB also gets a well-deserved graphical upgrade. Models have a much higher poly count this time around, and up close, it shows. Textures are a higher resolution so you can see skin and facial expressions much better. BIA looked good, but it also used a hazy screen to blur out any rough edges. EIB doesn’t need such a screen. If there is one thing I didn’t like, it is that EIB is very dark. Even so, EIB looks a sight better, especially if you have a graphics card that can handle anisotropic filtering at higher resolutions.
Sound is a crucial aspect to games that requirement awareness. EIB’s sound is designed extraordinarily well. Everything has a purpose and also adds more and more atmosphere. BIA had some choice dialogue that lent a lot of character to your men; the jokes, the cajoling, and trash task all endeared them to the player. EIB expands on this idea by adding thousands of lines of dialogue outside of the cinematic segments. My favorites are still Allen and Garnett, who constantly talk trash to each other. In-game dialogue is crucial, as your soldiers will shout out their dispositions, which are meaningful; if you don’t adjust accordingly to what your men tell you, then you won’t be able to succeed. If you listen closely, you can make out what the Germans are saying, and if you speak German or observe what the Germans say during certain situations, then you can anticipate them better. If you have positional audio set up, then you’ll be able to easily locate the angle from which incoming fire is coming, which will save your life quite often.
EIB offers a new mode of gameplay called skirmish, where you lead a rifle squad across a huge map to either eliminate all opposition or reach a certain objective. You can play this mode cooperatively, which is a blast, and you can even play this mode from a German perspective. You can tailor your skirmish mode into a strict objective-based affair or you can do timed assaults. Skirmish maps can also be linked together into a mini-campaign.
Multiplayer is still the same, as you take up the role of leading an assault section or support section. It is fun to play against live opponents using real-life tactics and principles, but each game is limited to how many players are involved, and rather than playing as individuals, you are leading sections. Many of the same options for skirmish mode exist for multiplayer mode; in fact, they are nearly mirrors of each other, but skirmish mode is all about cooperative, rather than adversarial, play.
If there is one aspect of EIB that I am less than pleased with, it is the setting. How many times have we been to Normandy? It gets old after a while. I understand that Gearbox had an overabundance of source material for Brothers in Arms and already had so many tools in place that making EIB only took Gearbox only six months to develop. Even so, EIB feels much more like an expansion pack than a true sequel, and even though the game is a standalone product, I don’t feel it justifies the standalone price.
I loved BIA, and I love EIB, but both games are so similar. The gameplay is solid and well-honed and EIB is very polished, but it seems too much like a rehash of BIA. Why not North Africa? Why not apply the same gameplay mechanics of BIA to Guadalcanal or Anzio? For that matter, why not take the BIA model and apply it to the Iraqi War? We celebrate and mythologize World War II so much with so many games that I fear we forget that there are other conflicts to study and model as well. There hasn’t been a single tactical shooter game made for the Korean War. Gamers have fought World War II up and down, and I, for one, want something else for a change.
What my complaint comes down to is this: Earned in Blood is too safe. Where Brothers in Arms made a very risky jump in gameplay dynamics, EIB clings like a frightened child to what BIA did when I want to see EIB take the BIA model one or two steps further. The new enemy AI and behavior is great, the larger maps are awesome, and the narrative is just as gripping and touching as ever, but I still feel like I’m playing the same game again.
Imagine the possibilities if Gearbox stepped out of the safety net that is D-Day and killing Germans to something a little more risky, like a 10th Mountain Division squad fighting the Mujahadin in Afghanistan or even the Soviet Parachute Infantry fighting the Afghanis. How compelling would it be to see such an authentic treatment of a new war or theater from a different perspective? I think it would be a simple matter to take on and would bring tactical shooters to a whole new world, literally. In the end, if you loved Brothers in Arms, you’ll enjoy Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, and even if you missed BIA, go out and get EIB. Earned in Blood is an awesome game and earns a great deal of respect and admiration, but doesn’t quite earn what I wish it would.
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