Ever since I can remember, Iâ€™ve been a World War II buff. Iâ€™ve always been fascinated with the struggles in Europe and the Pacific between the worldâ€™s super powers, and how ordinary young men and women saved the world from a darkness we canâ€™t imagine in modern society. Itâ€™s always proven to be fertile ground for storytellers in all mediums, and that is likely to continue for the rest of our lives and beyond. World War II was the last time there were two clear sides in a global conflict, one light and one dark, without any shades of grey in between. That makes for compelling tales of heroism and drama.
Iâ€™m a huge fan of the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers though less so of Stephen Spielbergâ€™s Saving Private Ryan. Where Band of Brothers seemed heartfelt and emotional, Saving Private Ryan whipped out clichÃ© after clichÃ© and wasnâ€™t very memorable, save the harrowing D-Day landing at the opening of the film. But Band of Brothers, both the mini-series and the book by Stephen Ambrose, magnificently captured how it must have felt to be in the last great war with soldiers barely old enough to go to college. It remains a sobering fact that so many soldiers in World War II were just in their teens, and the world will owe them an eternal debt. The stories of how those young men lived and died on the front lines lead developer Gearbox to craft Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 last year.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood immediately deserves respect for making the experience as cinematic as possible. There is not one situation in the entire game where white knuckle tension is absent, and it starts with a bang as the main character, Cpl. Joe “Red” Hartsock, relates his experiences to a superior officer. Right at the beginning, we see a flashback to Hartsockâ€™s parachute jump into Normandy the morning of June 6, 1944, and the combination of sound effects, excellent vocal work, and solid graphics make the sequence harrowing. From there, the player straps on Redâ€™s boots to fight the good fight, and leads his men across Europe in battle after battle against the German army.
Here is a confession that feels like someone pulling my teeth â€“ I was not impressed with the graphics in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood. Not at all. It seems that ever since Spielberg drained the color red out of the film stock for Saving Private Ryan that every WWII film since seems afraid to use a color palette of more than greens and browns. Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood follows suite and thereby shows a great authenticity during the ferocious battles, but it feels like watching a story instead of living one. Where I also felt there were problems was in both the environments and the rather stilted character models.
The environments themselves are supposedly recreated with exacting detail, but they do not factor into the combat situations beyond providing obstacles. Fences, houses, and bushes all have the same effect of providing flawless cover whether the enemy can see right through it or not. Now imagine if the player sent his two-man fire team to hide behind a wooden fence for cover, and a German tank fired at that same fence and destroyed it. The player would then find himself not only down two men, but that explosion might have ripped a hole in a near-by farmhouse that provides ample cover. The situation would change in a split second, and force a completely different set of tactics to be used. As it stands, the characters run, duck, shoot, and run some more through static environments that only spring to life courtesy of the exceptional sound design. The cut scenes are done in-game, and this is again something that is strengthened more by the sound than by the visuals. The graphics get the job done, but there remains nothing truly special about them.
There is also a massive stuttering issue that randomly occurs in the strangest situations. Itâ€™s as if the Xbox is loading content for the rest of the map, even though there is no load screen nor invisible trigger to send out waves of opponents. Iâ€™ve only seen this happen a few times, but it was noticeable enough to point out. The immediate suspect of too many things on screen at once was just as quickly discounted because the game would sometimes stutter regardless of whether anything more than two members of the squad were on screen.
The sound work throughout Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is top-notch to say the least. Everyone involved in this from Gearbox need to step forward and take a bow, because the voice work is electric, the authentic enemy chatter keeps the player on edge, and the explosions and gun fire accurately depict the weapons being fired. Itâ€™s heady stuff to order your squadmates into battle and have them shout back at you that they canâ€™t get a shot from the angle theyâ€™re at. The third mission was one among many that floored me in its use of sound effects because one sequence forces the player to charge across an open field while ducking behind widely spread out hay bales. You have to maneuver both your fire and assault teams across an open field while pinning down the enemy and hoping that the mortar fire exploding around you doesnâ€™t explode on top of you.
Exhilarating doesnâ€™t come close to describing this situation, and it’s just one of the earlier fights.
The musical score by David McGarry, provided by the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra, soars with several stirring pieces in the downtime between fights, and during the cut scenes. There is not a lot here, but the few pieces that are available offer a soothing calm to both body and soul. I honestly canâ€™t recall whether there was music during the raging battles, but their intensity was such that my focus was on not getting the soldiers killed. The game is told in flashback as Red describes in detail what happened to him on his way to meet up with his CO. The voice over wavers sometimes between the actor going through the motions and actually convincing me that I was listening to a battle-weary soldier. The other voice performances are terrific, especially when they switch from confident to panic in a split second, and it feels like youâ€™re completely on the front lines of World War II.
It is, frankly, exactly as it should be.
There are a lot of different controls to Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, so letâ€™s get to it. The left thumbstick is, as usual, for movement (click down in order to crouch), and the right thumbstick is for turning and aiming (click down to zoom in). The X button is context sensitive but is primarily used for reloading weapons, bumming ammo from the squad members, and talking to people. Switch weapons with the Y button, throw grenades with the black button, call up the situational awareness map with the back button, hit the B button for melee attacks, and jump with the A button.
Coordinating the team is used with the left trigger, which pulls up a blue icon that can be maneuvered to a specific location with the right thumbstick. Once the blue icon is where you want it, let go and the squad will advance to that location. In order to suppress enemies, move the directional icon until itâ€™s on top of an enemy location, at which point it will change to a red targeting circle. Let go of the left trigger to order your men to suppress that position, or pull the right trigger to order the men to attack that position. Pushing left or right on the directional pad will switch between the assault and fire teams, hitting up will order them to fall out, and hitting down will order them to converge on your position.
I really did not like the controls for Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, I truly didnâ€™t. They not only felt clunky and cumbersome, but rapidly swinging around and shooting an approaching enemy just isnâ€™t possible. If a German soldier gets close enough to the player and starts shooting, all that the player can do is slowly swing around and try to get a clean shot. The primary way to shoot is by looking down the barrel for precision aiming, but there are times when the player simply has to either charge in or retreat. During those moments, there is no choice but to aim in the direction of the enemy and fire, but it seems like the shots were always going to the left. I honestly donâ€™t know whether this was intentional realism or not, but if the aim of US soldiers in WWII was truly comparable to that of Star Wars stormtroopers, then we might have found ourselves fluent in German.
The gameplay for Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is some of the most challenging Iâ€™ve played in a long time. The scenarios are mostly modeled after what actual soldiers faced in the hours and days following the invasion of Europe, and on the higher difficulty settings you get a sense of the challenges those young men faced. Gearbox included an over head map of each level so the player can stop and plan their attack accordingly, and while I might ordinarily dub this a cop-out for a game so focused on authenticity, the point is made in the tutorials that the Airborne studied maps extensively prior to the invasion. As such, they were familiar with the layout of the terrain they would soon invade, and thatâ€™s an explanation I can accept.
The playerâ€™s squad must overcome obstacles such as bottlenecks, farms that provide ample cover for the enemy, wide open fields, enemy vehicles, and so forth. The challenge comes in using the right amount of fire-team and assault-team combinations to route the enemy out of each position. On-the-fly decision making will quickly become part of the playerâ€™s sensibility, because the enemy is quick to exploit any weakness or delay on your part. For example, if the player pins down one German team, another German team might flank to your side and start shooting. Your attention is thus divided between the two, and having to pin both enemy squads down at the same time means sooner or later one of them will be able to shoot back. But it remains great fun to have the fire squad pin down a German position, then flank to the side and order the assault team to charge.
As the player progresses, the missions continue to expand in size. A simple retrieval mission might require the player to take out several different enemy positions along the way, and once at the target they might have to defend against a large-scale counter attack. It only gets bigger from there, and a lot of fun in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is getting familiar with the same squad members. This helps it feel like the player is but one part of a larger team, and when some of the squad are unavoidably killed in action, it hurts the player just as much.
I can see keeping Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood around for a long time to come due to the different difficulty settings and sheer excitement of completing a mission using different tactics. I was able to come roaring back on some missions where I died early on simply because of re-thinking the situation. With the situational awareness map, the player can try different positions to pin down and flank the enemy, and given the tendency for even the most straightforward missions to become long, complicated ordeals at the drop of a hat, the game is as challenging as it is exciting.
This is good stuff, through and through, and any WWII buff will get a huge thrill from Gearboxâ€™s latest. Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood will have players trying to earn their stripes again and again, because there are so many different scenarios to play through and the enemy tends to vary their tactics in response to the playerâ€™s moves. Iâ€™m now annoyed at myself for missing the first game, and have already put Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 on my Christmas list. Gearbox has a solid franchise here, and if they can boost the graphics and bring the environments into play more, then they could rival Call of Duty for best WWII series on the market.