World War II isn’t something that should be glamorised. It was hard and brutal and most of the recent games, films and TV dramatisations on the subject have attempted to convey that while weaving in a story that involves groups of men finding their true selves, but losing friends in the process, all set somewhere in rural France. Wolfenstein preferred strange castles and creatures of the night but for the most part developers like France, fields, love and gritty cinema influences.
With only a cursory glance, that’s all Brothers in Arms is about too. You feel TERROR as you creep down a dirt track only to come face to face with a machine gun emplacement. You’ll grow to LOVE those crazy guys in your squad (look, that guy’s got glasses and reads poetry – don’t let the geeky one die!) and, it would appear that Gearbox want you to experience the INTENSE RAGE that can only come about when a fully trained paratrooper comes face to face with a gate low enough to trip over, only to refuse to climb it for fear that it might deviate him from the game’s story-driven, intended path. Just like Medal of Honour!
Except it’s not. You see there’s another side to this game. Strip away the Nazis and the fields and the guns and, well hell, most of the obvious bits of the game and what you’ve got is a puzzler. Get your squad to cover you while you shoot these guys, then move your men here, then move the tank over there, then…oh no, you can’t go that way so its back over there to take out that artillery – there may be a bunch of FPS elements stuck in there, but at its heart, Brothers in Arms is about strategy and puzzles as much as it’s about immersion. It doesn’t ever pretend to be anything else I hasten to add, but those of you who want a quick run and gun game had best go back to Wolfenstein and those of you who want rubbish had better go back to Medal of Honour because Brothers in Arms is all about the mind over the mindless.
Missions are made up of a series of simple instructions and enemy encounters, each of which need to be negotiated by skilful use of your squads and the character you control. Using a simple waypoint and target system you can direct members of one of your two squads to move to cover and provide suppressing fire while you order the other one round the side of the enemy to…well…shoot them in the back. What your character does here is entirely up to you. You might want to help one of the squads, you might want to hang back in case you need to order a retreat or you might want to run off and do something else entirely – the game copes well with any of these.
To aid you with all this thinking, Gearbox have included a kind of freeze-frame, three-quarters view of your area called the Situation Awareness Mode, which allows you to zoom in on ally or enemy positions and their surrounding areas. Either by design or debacle, you aren’t able to move the camera exactly where you want it in this mode, though, leading to some frustration as you realise that what you thought was a nice route round the back of a gun emplacement is in actual fact a load of scenery fluff and is entirely inaccessible. It’s arguable that this is intentional as there should be some element of twitch “Oh-balls-I-can’t-get-there-and-now-they’re-shooting-me-run-away” work involved, but it seems contrary to the underlying puzzle and planning elements of the game, and in my experience it just means that you have to do some areas more than once (or more than ten times) before you get it exactly right.
The same ‘intentional or not’ debate could also be applied to the accuracy of the weapons; by accuracy I don’t mean whether they look right or not as they have obviously been a labour of love for someone in the Gearbox team. I mean the actual, physical, put the bullet in the back of his head accuracy, which is way off. It’s obviously like that to make sure you don’t go bunny-hopping around the battlefield with your weapon on full-auto, gunning down people as you please but it certainly frustrates when you can see a German arse poking out of the bushes and you are simply incapable of hitting it. However, in the grand scheme of things not being able to shoot German arses is a fairly minor point so I’ll let it slide.
And I’ll let it slide because all told, Brothers in Arms is a pretty good game. Graphically it does a job and at times looks superb, the sound effects and use of Dolby are superb examples for anyone looking to make a first-person shooter and despite what I might have implied earlier, it does a good job of immersing you in the game – and this isn’t something to be sniffed at. The game also throws in multiplayer and Live games which are enjoyable enough – and will cater for your tastes if you’re more of a twitch gamer – however it’s fair to say that they aren’t going to hold your interest for long with the fairly basic game dynamics involved. In the end, though, whether or not you buy this is going to boil down to whether or not you like FPS basics and squad based thinking. If you do, go and pick up a copy of Brothers in Arms because it does these two things pretty damn well.