Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: October 26, 2005
It occurs to me that pretty much all video games based on real-life conflicts take one of two different stances. Games such as Medal of Honor depict a lone super soldier (perhaps with a few token squadmates) valiantly muscling their way through impossible odds to defend truth, justice and democracy. There's usually a lot of flag-waving and patriotism scattered about, sometimes leading to a bizarre conclusion where your character beats the hell out of terrorist/madman Osama Bin Laden. (Thanks, Fugitive Hunter.)
On the other side of the coin are games that embrace the old adage, "War is hell." Friends can die at any moment, the enemy is everywhere, and all a soldier has is the guy next to him. Leading the charge for this approach, aside from every Vietnam game ever made, are gritty, downbeat World War II testaments like Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms.
You may be surprised to learn that real-life wars are not won through the efforts of a single man, as many video games may lead you to believe. Tightly regimented, disciplined units working as one are most successful in the art of war; loners usually don't last long. Early 2005 introduced the gaming public to an excellent example of this level of teamwork in action, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.
Like its predecessor (which was released a scant seven months earlier), Earned in Blood forces us to be team players. Step into the shoes of Sgt. Joe "Red" Hartsock, a newly promoted grunt serving in the United States Army during World War II. The D-Day invasion of Normandy, horrifically portrayed in the film "Saving Private Ryan," was just the tip of the iceberg for Hartsock and his fellow soldiers; the Nazis still control most of France, and they aren't going to oust themselves.
Brothers in Arms stands out among the dearth of FPSes largely on the strength of its innovative squad dynamics. Hartsock can give orders to his men through a surprisingly effective "command ring" that changes based upon context, much like the one in the tactical strategy classic Full Spectrum Warrior. Want your boys to take up a defensive position? Need some covering fire? The L1 button, in conjunction with other button combinations, is all you need. Your comrades will also spread out and stick to your six when prompted by the D-pad, which cuts down on the usual NPC tendencies to run in circles and act like knuckleheads.
Skirmishes unfold realistically; when Red and company sight Germans, your soldiers take cover, ducking behind walls, rocks, and other obstacles. Early on, victory is as simple as calling for suppressing fire (which pins down the enemy), moving around to the side of the Germans' position, and assaulting the exposed flank. Later on when confronted by several enemy squads (who are noticeably smarter than the original game), it's necessary to utilize a bird's-eye view of the battlefield (presented like a real-time strategy game) to plan your next move. A run-n-gunner this ain't; strategy and tactical creativity are as essential as a rifle in Brothers in Arms. Less patient gamers may not have the attention span necessary to progress, especially when they realize that there are no health power-ups. At all. In the entire game.
Thankfully, realism only goes so far in Brothers in Arms; if a squad member bites it during a mission (meaning your success was "earned in blood"), you're given the option to resurrect him after completing the stage. Your buddies also have limitless ammo, meaning suppressive fire can continue indefinitely, though they still have to swap clips. Hartsock can even ask his men for spare bullets with a button press, eliminating the need to conserve ammunition.
Earned in Blood is set up as a flashback, an interview with a superior of Hartsock's. During cut scenes, we learn what makes Red tick, as well as his friendship with Matt Baker, the hero of Road to Hill 30. The two stories' interlocking nature is appropriate, considering that Earned in Blood and its prequel are almost the same damn game; graphics, sounds, action, all are recycled from the original.
Owners of both PS2 and Xbox should shun the Sony system's version of Earned in Blood and stick to the Xbox. The Playstation really shows its age, struggling to handle everything happening at once; in a massive firefight the last thing I needed was the severe slowdown that crippled the screen. The cut scenes are well-presented, but the character models are somewhat stilted and damage the authenticity the game strives for. The environments are drab and filled with uninteresting textures, and soldiers all tend to look the same, both American and German. Just wait until you put a bullet into what you thought was an enemy's head, only to discover it was one of your boys. Graphically, Earned in Blood is unimpressive almost to the point of ugliness, even on the Xbox.
Sonically, Brothers in Arms is decent, but nothing to write home about. Generic music loops in the menu screens, while gunshots and explosions ring true on the battlefield. Earned in Blood does feature some impressive voice acting, which helps to flesh out the somewhat clichéd characters. Nazi soldiers shout at you in German, and your men speak like real soldiers would, their dialogue peppered with obscenities. (In a war zone, most people tend to forget decorum and say what they really mean.) Red's actor does a good job of getting across the personality of his character, a man less at war with the Axis Powers than with fate.
My online experience with Earned in Blood was not favorable. While it's great to play against human beings with human intelligence, the amount of lag was simply inexcusable. It took quite a while to match me up with another player, which could have been due to the lack of available opponents. However, the interminably long loading screen had nothing to do with my adversaries or me.
A better name for Earned in Blood would be Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 Part 2. There's really nothing here that wasn't previously explored in the original game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Fans of the previous offering will enjoy another dose of the most innovative first person shooting around, but, just like its soldiers, Earned in Blood doesn't stand alone well.
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