Friday, October 10, 2008
The Brothers in Arms series (PC)
2005/2005/2008; Gearbox Softwar LLC
Road to Hill 30 ★★★
Earned in Blood ★★1/2
Hell's Highway ★★★1/2
The Brothers in Arms series has always aimed to be Band of Brothers to Call of Duty's (or Medal of Honor's) Saving Private Ryan. The series offers a more fleshed-out, intelligent experience where most WWII shooters go for a more visceral, arcade-centered one. Working on a less-robust engine with a smaller crew (Gearbox has always put out these games), Brothers in Arms was always destined to be overlooked amongst the more visually stellar games with familiar appeal. While Call of Duty overtook the Medal of Honor series in every respect, Brothers in Arms is a series that can live happily side-by-side everyone's favorite shooter series. This is due to it offering an entirely different brand of gameplay and storytelling that makes this all too familiar war routes seem renewed.
Instead of running and gunning from A to B, Brothers in Arms relies much more on strategy. We aren't just talking duck and cover strategy, but the ability to manage two squads (or, sometimes, 3 in Hell's Highway) that work under you and follow your orders. The game isn't exactly a FPS/RTS hybrid but if there was ever a game to drive a fan of one genre into the other it's this one. How the system works is that you, playing as Corporal Matt Baker (or "Red", in Earned in Blood), have an assault squad and a flanking squad. You position your flanking squad to provide covering fire, while you take your assault squad in for the kill. It can often be difficult to set up your troops, but like in real life you can't really tell your troops to go to places you can't see; the game does offer a "situational view" that gives you a layout of the battlefield. However, you can't give orders from the view, so its mainly there to plan ahead than to act within.
Upon release in Spring 2005, Road to Hill 30 only found a niche audience due to the over-saturation of WWII FPS's up till that point. The game follows Cpl Matt Baker and his battalion of the 101st Airborne (based on factual events), during the initial week of America's invasion of Normandy. The game offers an excellent pace, giving you a little more freedom and firepower with every new level--essentially, going from a private with a pistol to a corporal with a tank. The game has many great moments, but it feels very limited by the Unreal Engine from 98' (now a decade old!) It looks alright but the maps never feel as scoped out and intense as they could have. If you look at the details, it can completely take you out of the experience and make the game feel like a glorified Unreal Tournament mod. Despite its repetitive gameplay and lacking story, Road to Hill 30 was an excellent first entry and a overlooked shooter from 2005.
Like many, I was late to the BiA hype and decided to pick up the almost-immediate sequel, Earned in Blood, over the 5 months younger RtH30. Earned in Blood is by no means unplayable, but it very much takes the credit away from the original. Earned in Blood has the same gameplay and character of RtH30, but without the same quality pacing, technical polish, or writing. RtH30 had problems but your squad's pathfinding in EiB make the game, at times, broken. Your squad would run in front of cover instead of hiding behind it, which goes against how you are supposed to play the game. EiB retains enough of the fun of the first game and fleshes out Red's story (who you play as), but it adds very little while taking a lot away.
After being pushed back many times, Hell's Highway finally arrived last month. I played through the previous two BiA games last week, which wore me out rather than got me excited for this long-awaited sequel. It is speaking to the quality of the game then, when I say that it re-immersed me entirely. After playing under the limited Unreal Engine, the Unreal 3 Engine has enabled Hell's Highway to bring this series to life. The game finally has the intense, scenario-driven battlefield of Call of Duty and has a story that is by far the best of the series. The game has some of the best cutscene direction and writing you'll find in a videogame this year (MGS4 certainly surpasses it, but c'mon!) The game has streamlined many issues of the previous games while bringing it up to speed with next-gen games, including vehicle sections and a cover system. The game still feels a bit too repetitive, but it makes good on the promise the series made in 05'. Its ironic then that now that it has caught up to the speed of Call of Duty 2, it must compete with the even more intense Call of Duty 4.
Where the series shines is in offering, as goofy as it sounds, a first person puzzle shooter that doesn't get old as long as it is addictive and accessible. You overlook your battlefield and decisively position your troops in the only way that is right, while hoping to get a couple kills of your own. Hell's Highway does little to build upon this (adding a bazooka team is a lot of fun, though), but it massively improves the experience with finesse and an actually good story. BiA could still enlist the help of a couple Band of Brothers writers, but Hell's Highway tells a complex and compelling story of mystery, hopelessness, and betrayal. There are some truly memorable moments in this game, but the writers still don't know how to tie it together like a Band of Brothers episode does. The story strives to be as bold and different as the gameplay, offering some real Apocalypse Now! moments, but it is still having trouble finding its true voice. Even so, the series continues to find originality and heart in a genre that so many have declared dead and dull. Hopefully, consumers will see Gearbox is offering an entirely new experience here and one that will be referenced in future shooters; hell, maybe even Call of Duty 6.