We'll admit it. When we first heard about Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, a small voice inside our heads said cynically, "Just what the world needs...another World War II-based first-person shooter." Sure, it has some squad command mechanics, but it wasn't lost on us that those design aspects were rather similar to another military game, Full Spectrum Warrior. The big difference with Brothers in Arms is that it puts a gun in your hands and actually allows you to pull the trigger. And, oh, what a difference it makes! Brothers in Arms is paced more deliberately than other popular WWII shooters, such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. But the game more than makes up for any apparent absence of run-and-gun action with the raw intensity and realism of its battles combined with the added tactical considerations required in the challenging campaign. The online aspect is equally compelling, making for a complete and thoroughly impressive game experience.
Brothers in Arms offers a satisfying mix of tactical strategy and action thrills.
Brothers in Arms puts you in the role of Sgt. Matt Baker, a real-life member of the 101st Airborne Division. The game's 17-chapter campaign stretches over a week's time. You'll start out the night before D-Day, when you and the rest of the division parachute behind enemy lines into France, fighting your way into and capturing the town of Carentan. Each chapter and all the settings are based closely on actual missions carried out by Baker's platoon. As you beat each mission, you'll unlock extras, such as photographs and reconnaissance photos, which show you how closely the game's levels match what Baker's platoon fought through in the critical first days of the invasion.
The game's presentation is extremely cinematic, borrowing cues from popular World War II fare such as Band of Brothers. Every chapter begins with a simple screen and title in stark black letters, narrated somberly by Baker's character. You'll also watch some in-engine cutscenes before and after missions that not only summarize the previous mission in the context of the war, but also get you personally acquainted with the rest of your squadmates. These presentational aspects set the mood of the game well, but unfortunately can't be skipped. There is one thing that breaks the mood of the game, and that's when squadmates who die in the course of your gameplay all of a sudden appear fully healthy in the next mission. This is a minor gripe, though, and the game would be unduly difficult if you weren't allowed to lose any squadmates over the course of a mission.
The quiet, introspective thoughts that Baker and his squadmates share between missions is a stark contrast to the intense, chaotic battles you'll fight. The game's campaign offers an interesting mix of mission types. Some will have you assaulting small towns crawling with German infantry, machine gun nests, and snipers. You'll also explore hedgerows filled with hidden mortar teams and German 88mm guns, which are a menace to your tanks. Another chapter has you clearing obstacles off of heavily defended farms in order to make a path for gliders to land. You'll need to deal with enemy tanks on a couple of missions, and while you will often have access to a bazooka or your own armor under your command in these cases, it's much more thrilling and satisfying to sneak up behind the enemy tank, climb onto it, and drop a grenade into the hatch to take it out. You'll also be treated to shooting gallery-style missions later on, where you're defending a position while armed with a sniper rifle. The campaign should last most players about 10 to 12 hours on their first play-through. There's plenty of incentive to play on the higher difficulty settings, though, as this forces you to perform in a more disciplined fashion with sharper command decisions.
Depending on the mission, you'll command either one or two squad elements, each of which can consist of a few infantrymen or a tank. Infantry are either designated as an assault team or a fireteam. The former is usually armed with submachine guns and is better at charging and eliminating enemies, while the latter carry rifles and are better at establishing a base of fire on an enemy position for suppression. Like in Full Spectrum Warrior, you'll see icons over enemy positions to signify their condition. Fully suppressed enemies will not move or fire much, and when they do shoot, their accuracy is poor. Unsuppressed enemies are much more accurate with their shots and may actually move, either to get a better attack position, or to find more useful cover.
Tanks play a large role in the game, both as your allies and your enemies.
This design conceit gives you incentive to actually use established army doctrine to find, fix, flank, and finish the enemy. One or two of your elements hold an enemy down with a base of fire, while you can move yourself or use another element to flank around the side to take that enemy out. Players who are more hands-on will obviously want to take the finishing aspect into their own hands, while more strategic-minded players still have the option of sending in a squad element to do the dirty work. Either way is satisfying, and throughout the course of the campaign you'll find cause to use both methods. It's also worth noting that, unlike in Full Spectrum Warrior, enemies behind cover are not invincible to direct fire. If you're a good shot with a rifle, you can still pick off an enemy who pokes his head a little too far out from behind cover. That said, the game still offers you a big advantage to try to find an unobstructed line of fire.
To help you with the job of maneuvering, Brothers in Arms includes a mode called "situational awareness." It's basically a pause state that zooms out and gives you an overhead view of the map with limited rotation and zoom ability. From here you can examine your own position and the position of your squad elements relative to that of known enemy positions. This mode is extremely helpful, as it allows you to make more intelligent decisions about maneuvering and positioning. You can only see enemy contacts that you've already made, so you can't cheat to see what else might be lying in wait up ahead. However, it's still possible to use the situational awareness mode to confirm the number of enemies behind cover, so there is some advantage to always peeking at this screen every time you find a new contact.
The command interface in Brothers in Arms is fairly streamlined. By holding down the left trigger, you'll get a command ring, which you can then move around the landscape to command your selected squad element to move. The squad artificial intelligence is fairly clever. If they know they're moving into the line of fire, they'll fire at the enemy position while proceeding in a low and fast manner. They'll also stack up behind any nearby cover and automatically fire at any enemy that comes into sight. You can order them to intensify their fire on a position for suppression or call for an all-out charge. Your squad is smart enough, however, to refuse orders to directly charge a machine gun nest or enemy tank. While the streamlined command interface keeps things simple, it can be frustrating at times in the uncommon cases when your soldiers don't get behind cover properly or take a strange path to their target. You also don't have the ability to specifically call for a grenade toss, although they will throw grenades on their own from time to time.