When Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 was released earlier this year, it was lauded for its nearly seamless integration between first-person-shooter control and squad command mechanics. While clearly not as twitchy as most shooters, Brothers in Arms focused on the tactical aspect of small-squad infantry combat in World War II and packaged it with a cinema-quality presentation reminiscent of HBO's Band of Brothers. Fewer than seven months later, Gearbox has churned out a sequel. And as you'd expect from a sequel turned around so quickly, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood definitely offers a rather similar experience to its predecessor. This is not a good thing, in the case of the PlayStation 2 version, as the shortcomings of the PS2 port of the last game seem to be present in the sequel as well. The novelty of the game's tactical style has also worn off a bit.
Earned in Blood feels less like a sequel and more like a story continuation.
For those who aren't familiar with the first game, Earned in Blood puts you in the shoes of an American corporal in World War II named Joe "Red" Hartsock. Hartsock was one of the thousands of US Airborne troopers who dropped in behind enemy lines the night before the Normandy landing in France. The story and the campaign are based on the real-life stories of Hartsock and his mates as they fought across the French countryside in those critical first two weeks after the invasion. For those of you who did play Road to Hill 30, Hartsock's name might ring a bell, and that's because he was a character in the first game. The storyline in Earned in Blood overlaps that of Road to Hill 30, so you'll get to see Hartsock's point of view, as well as his experiences during the same time frame. As you'd imagine, much of the game is played from a flashback perspective as Hartsock is debriefed on his experiences by a superior officer. The in-engine cutscenes used to advance the story before and after missions are as heartfelt and impactful as they were in the first game, with the voice actor depicting Hartsock doing a fantastic job of conveying the emotion you'd expect from a war-weary soldier.
The interface of Earned in Blood is pretty much the same as it was in Road to Hill 30. You play as Hartsock from a first-person perspective and have the ability to walk, kneel, fire, aim down the iron sight of your gun, and throw grenades. You'll also have up to two different fireteams, or one fireteam and a tank, at your command. You can direct each team to follow you, move to an area, open fire on enemies, or charge enemies in an all-out assault. In general, your teammates are intelligent about contextually evaluating their surroundings and finding the proper cover in a given situation. If you direct them near a low wall or log, for example, they'll take up cover behind it. Move them to the side of a building with windows and they'll sidle up between the openings and peer through the windows so they don't leave themselves vulnerable. Once in a while they'll do something stupid, like take themselves out of cover or set up in a bad place. Usually this happens if you plant yourself in the spot you told them to move to. The teammate artificial intelligence in the PlayStation 2 version isn't quite as good as it is in the Xbox and PC versions, because here they'll leave themselves vulnerable more often.
The enemy AI in this version of the game leaves something to be desired.
The primary gameplay conceit in Earned in Blood, as in the first game, is to "find, fix, flank, and finish" the enemy. The enemy soldiers you encounter also move in small fireteams. But unlike most other shooters, the enemies in Earned in Blood can be suppressed by firing at their position. Their level of suppression is measured by a red-and-white circle above the enemy position, but these indicators can be shut off for a more realistic experience. Enemies that are suppressed won't fire back as often, and when they do, they're less accurate. The general idea is that you or one of your teams first engages the enemy with a hail of suppressing fire. Then you direct your other squad element (or yourself) around to the side, where you can get a clean shot at the suppressed enemy and can possibly kill him. That's the idea, anyway. One of the huge shortcomings of the PlayStation 2 version of Road to Hill 30 was that the effect of cover for enemies wasn't very pronounced at all. It was very possible to snipe and take down enemies as they came out from behind cover to fire. The same problem still exists in Earned in Blood, and it takes away greatly from what's supposed to be a tactical game at a slow, measured pace. Instead, you'll find that you can play the game much like a regular shooter and just plink away at enemies. But since Earned in Blood's interface and aiming mechanisms don't lend themselves well to a faster sort of shooter, the result is a game that doesn't feel properly balanced.
The AI of the enemy soldiers in the PS2 version of Earned in Blood also leaves something to be desired, especially when measured against the way they play in the Xbox and PC versions, which features an improved AI over the previous game in the series. The enemies in the PS2 version seem to have less regard for their own well-being, as they don't retreat very intelligently from flanking maneuvers and sometimes run right out into the open to get cut down. They also seem to have no qualms about standing up over very low barriers to fire, which leaves them open to get shot, a behavior that is especially dangerous in the PS2 version, as it doesn't take cover into account as much. Also, enemies don't fire very accurately at you. All of this adds up to a game that often feels a lot easier than the PC and Xbox versions, and one that you don't necessarily have to play in such a strategic, tactical manner at all times. You still can't run and gun (the slow nature of the game's movement and aiming interface prevents this), but the bottom line is that something has been lost in translation.