If Ghost Recon, Full Spectrum Warrior and HBO's Band of Brothers had a menage-a-trois, their love child might look a little something like Gearbox's Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30. A breathe of fresh air to the World War II shooter genre, Brothers in Arms puts you in the combat boots of Sgt. Matt Baker, a fictional member of the 101st Airborne Division. While flying over Normandy during the D-Day invasion, your plane is struck by antiaircraft fire. Dropped and scattered behind enemy lines, you'll have to reunite with your company and lead them on an eight-day campaign to Hill 30.
Based on a true story, Brothers in Arms is a squad-based shooter with a strong emphasis on tactics, flanking in particular. In fact, the game comes with a fold out map that marks all the critical junctures of the campaign on one side, and on the other outlines how "You CAN flank that enemy!" by utilizing the four F's: Find Him, Fix Him (with fire), Flank Him and Finish Him. It's the reality of World War II ground combat. Without the advantage of high-tech weaponry, you'll have to carefully move from cover to cover and when you do encounter the enemy, you'll have to use suppressive fire and assault them in a coordinated manner. It's a tactic you'll use on a regular basis throughout the game, that is until you run up against a tank, at which point the four F's are quickly replaced by the one R: Run Like Hell.
So how does flanking work? Each enemy soldier or team of soldiers you encounter will have a circular suppression indicator over their position. When the indicator is red, the enemy is prepared to engage you in combat. If you order your squad to suppress the enemy with fire, the indicator will turn gray, noting that the enemy team has been completely suppressed. Their rate of fire will decrease and for a short period of time, you'll gain the opportunity to direct your team around the side to their flank for the kill. Aiding in this procedure is a Situational Awareness View where, at the press of a button, you'll be able to pause the action and, from an overhead perspective, gather information with regards to the location of the enemies you've spotted. You can then rotate the camera to examine the best means to eliminate the opposition.
Flanking is the essence of Brothers in Arms. You'll begin the 20-mission campaign by meeting up with Plt. Sgt. Hassay for what is essentially a training level. Then you and Cpl. Hartsock will get together for a little tag-team action before you finally get to command an entire squad, and eventually two squads: a fire team and an assault team. Sometimes you'll have a tank alongside you to command, while other times you'll have to take out an enemy tank. In one mission, you'll be tasked to knock down poles in a field so allied gliders carrying supplies can land. In another, you'll be ordered to clear out a small village and repel a German counterattack. So even though Brothers in Arms is somewhat of a one-trick pony with its emphasis on flanking, the variety of scenarios you'll come across and the level of intensity generated should keep the experience fresh.
The squad AI is admirable in Brothers in Arms. If you tell your fire team to take cover behind an overturned carriage, they'll do just that. If you tell your assault team to fall in as you move in on a suppressed enemy, they'll do just that. Rarely does your squad miss a beat. The only time they do something stupid is when you tell them to do something stupid. Additionally, each of your squadmates has a distinct personality that’s brought to life not only in the cutscenes but also on the battlefield. They constantly communicate, showing fear when things turn ugly in combat and making cracks when the mood is right. Brothers in Arms aims to create an emotional connection between you and each of the soldiers but therein lies my first gripe with the game. Pvt. Allen was lost defending a church from the Germans yet he miraculously came back to life and re-joined my squad at the beginning of the next mission. How am I supposed to form a bond with my men if their survival is a non-issue?
Visually, the European theater is brought to life beautifully. Your fellow soldiers are well animated (though Plt. Sgt. Hassay sways back and forth like he's had a few too many drinks), the environments are nicely crafted and the weapon effects are realistic. There are a few instances where the frame rate drops considerably, as well as the odd graphical glitch, but overall it’s an impressive presentation. Aurally, Brothers in Arms is outstanding. The game has a real authentic feel to it, right down the obscenity-laden dialogue. Positional audio is used to great effect (even during the cutscnes), the sounds of the weapons are spot-on, and the music features a vintage military theme that'll have you saluting your screen.
Gearbox decided to forego the usual deathmatch modes and instead created a multiplayer component in which up to four players (two on the allied side, two on the German side) can battle each other over ten objective-based maps. Much like the solo mode, each player will control an entire squad and tactics will again play a key role in the success or failure of a mission. If you’re killed in combat, you can step into the boots of your fellow squadmates or call upon a limited number of reinforcements. This multiplayer mode certainly adds replay value to the game but what about a co-op mode for the main campaign? A missed opportunity.
In the end, crisp visuals, superb sound and an engrossing solo campaign all help Brothers in Arms stand out from an overcrowded crop of World War II shooters. There's no place for Rambo types here, this is a thinking person's game where patience and tactics are rewarded. You'll gain a newfound respect for what the brave souls of the 101st Airborne Division had to endure during the invasion of Normandy. If it fits your style, it's an experience that shouldn't be missed.