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PC Review - 'Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30'

by Thomas Leaf on April 7, 2005 @ 12:14 a.m. PDT

Set during the famous airdrop before the invasion at Normandy, Sgt. Matt Baker and his squad of 101st Airborne paratroopers were scattered over the French countryside. As the story unfolds, the player (Baker) must choose between the success of his mission and the lives of his men – his brothers in arms.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Gearbox
Release Date: March 1, 2005

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No Atheists in this Foxhole…

I have been long in waiting for BIA on PC. Seeing it for X-Box first broke my heart as another sure sign of the PC’s decline as the premiere platform. Platform politics aside, I am also the unofficial warmonger at Worthplaying and any and all wargames that come out, either tactical, strategic or shooter based are games that I want to play. That being said, Brothers in Arms ignited something within me that I don’t remember feeling since first getting hooked on gaming with Wing Commander all the way back in the day on my lowly little 286/SX. That game, for some reason, ignited a connection and sense of high emotion the likes of which I didn’t know were possible. Since then there have been a handful of games that have done that to me. Brothers in Arms is the most recent game to achieve that feat.

Brothers in Arms was put together by the boys at Gearbox, who got their start with the Opposing Force add-on for Half Life. Since Gearbox has more than proved themselves to being a competent design house. Looking back, BIA makes perfect sense when it comes to Gearbox’s origins. Opposing Force suited you up as a HL Marine and you got to experience the squad behavior and tactics that had some many gamers freaked out. Actually being pinned down and flanked by AI controlled soldiers? The thought was mind blowing. BIA is in many ways an extension of Opposing Force’s design goal: create a realistic environment for small units to employ maneuver/fire tactics. As an entire composition, BIA does much more than this. BIA also provides an exhaustively researched background that would rival any Broadway Dramaturge, a storyline that is both riveting and human and a graphics engine that delivers the most visceral combat experience possible as of now on a computer. EA, 2015 and anyone else who hopes to create a tactical wargame that pretends to be realistic ought to sit up and take notice because as of now, no one’s done it as well as Gearbox and BIA.

BIA is all about the journey of a rifle squad led by Sergeant Matt Baker. It must be noted that Baker was a real man as were his squad mates and Baker’s squad battles were recreated based on after action reports and the maps were built from aerial photography (aerial photography from 1944, not 2004). When I first looked at BIA’s list of features and specs, I sighed and said to myself, “Great, another shooter about D-Day.” Any preconceived notions of BIA went down in flames after playing through the initial chapters. The characterization of the NPC’s is as good as if not better than Half Life 2. Every character has a distinct voice, diction, mannerisms and features which make them sympathetic entities. If you have any sort of soul then you will care about these guys. You’ve got Hartsock the hick, Leggett the radio man, Allen the wiseass, Mac the professional sergeant. All of these guys might seem like cardboard cut-outs from any old World War Two movie, but these guys take on a life of their own in well scripted and directed cut scenes that are effective at not only briefing you but lending some human heart to these troopers.

In terms of BIA’s sound and graphics, well take every wiz-bang eye-popping trick and you’ve got it. Motion blur, colored lighting, specular lighting, anisotropic filtering, rag-doll physics, realistic ballistics, surround sound, sound dampening and the list goes on and on. I can’t play BIA for more than one hour at a time because the experience is so vibrant and intense that I need to rest. BIA runs well on most hardware set-ups but this is a game worth investing in a new graphics card if you’ve thought about upgrading. Also be warned: as far as I know the game has been pressed in DVD format rather than CD. I’m sure you can grab CD format, but I’ve only seen it in DVD so make sure you check the box.

The modeling, texture mapping and animation for BIA is fantastic. Uniforms look dirty and the wood grain on the rifle stocks looks realistic. The way men move across open terrain and take up available cover is not only functional but also looks great. One of the most impressive feats about BIA’s graphics is the scale. The maps aren’t huge but everything in BIA is to the right scale. Stand next to a tank and you’ll find the tank proportioned correctly which make a difference in actual gameplay. I remember coming across a STUG III (STUrm Geshutz) which is a flat little tank with no turret hiding behind a wall low enough to obscure it totally but still give the illusion of no tank being there. The M5 Stuart I was working with is a much higher chassis with its boxy little turret which means I have to position my Stuart behind higher walls for adequate cover and concealment or else anti-tank gunners and infantry will have at it with my armor.

BIA’s gameplay is truly where it excels. The command interface for BIA is so simple it’s ridiculous but the command scheme would only work if your squad AI was sufficient and streamlined enough to go with the flow. Simply hold down the right mouse button, direct a maneuver cursor behind some cover and your boys start bounding their way over to that spot. You don’t need to give the engagement order as your troopers know well enough to start shooting Germans as soon as they see them. You can modify their orders by telling them to lay down suppressing fire or to close assault. Ideally the way a firefight should resolve itself is as follows: Finding the enemy, fixing the enemy with fire and finishing him off from the flank. A lot of f’s in there right? Don’t do things the right way and you’ll be spouting off even more f’s. You’ll begin with no one but yourself to worry about until you get partnered up with another rifleman and then as you progress you’re given a fireteam to command. At this point you’ll be using your fireteam to fix the enemy while you do the assaulting until you get your own assault section. Your support team carried rifles and a Browning Automatic Rifle while your assault squad totes Thompsons and grenades. Either squad can fulfill either role, but your Assault squad will be much better at close assaulting an objective than your support boys. The tight squad AI in conjunction with the simple command scheme and visual cues makes things very manageable in what could otherwise prove to be a cumbersome affair. If you want to make things more realistic and challenging, you can turn off the visual cues having to do with the level of suppression the enemy is currently under. This way you have to gauge it on your own make the call as to whether or not the Germans have their heads down long enough for you to move. Spotting Germans this way is tougher since you don’t have the markers over them to identify them. You’d better have surround sound if you want to game your way through BIA in this manner.

On the multiplayer front, BIA is not as robust but still a fascinating experience. You can play a co-op battle with another person or an adversarial match with teams of two. Each player gets a squad to command and that is either a support or assault squad. You need to work together with your partner to provide cover and maneuver your way to the objective lest you get ripped apart by your opposition. Certainly this is different and in keeping with the game’s premise but perhaps a squadless CTF mode or more mission based modes would have been worth the effort.

In terms of its realism, BIA fires on all cylinders. From the look and feel of the game to its actual mechanics, BIA is a testament to the brutal nature of infantry combat. You’ll notice right away that firing from the hip is relatively useless in terms of killing your target. Click the middle mouse button and you’ll be given an accurate sight picture from whatever weapon you’re carrying (you can grab German weapons if need be) and you’ll have to compensate for your breathing and movement when you fire. The point being is that Gearbox doesn’t want you to be able to point, shoot and be assured of whatever was in your crosshair is now dead. War isn’t that simple. The recoil from your shot will sometimes even obscure your view of the target and you’ll wonder, “Did I get him?” It all adds to the desperation of the moment and creates an overall composition of intensity, fear and aggression the likes of which I have never seen in a game.

BIA is also very well written. Between chapters you’ll hear a short voice over from Matt concerning his circumstances. These words are heartfelt and touching. He comments about a lost friend, “I will never see him again.” Such a simple sentence with such gravitas and it’s a game! Another great line a pair of troopers looking over a dead soldier: “What a shitty deal.” The other replies: “In war, everyone gets a shitty deal.” A far cry from the maudlin noir antics of Max Payne or for that matter any of the romanticized moments in any of the Medal of Honor series. Through the course of playing this game I sincerely felt sorrow for the guys who died and the task of reducing an MG-42 nest became personal when it chopped one of my boys in half and the maneuvering went from being a game to being a grisly task “that had to be done”.

What impresses me the most about BIA more so than any other shooter about WW2 is that BIA treats WW2 much more in the same vane of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. I know you’ve heard that before and I relished the Omaha Beach sequence from Allied Assault, but even so in the back of my mind I always knew that this was just a game. Just a game. Brothers in Arms is more than just a game. It’s an experience. Whereas everything else had the sentiments and sensibilities of a comic-book, Brothers in Arms is a novel. I cannot recommend this game any higher. Were it not for a more robust multiplayer feature set and the inability to crawl or lean, then I would not be able to find any fault with Brothers in Arms. Even if you’re not into military themed games or if you feel that you’ve been D-Dayed out, get BIA, load it up and appreciate how meaningful this game can be.

Score: 9.5/10

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