Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
The Developers of Brothers In Arms have a tricky task on their hands. Their stated aim is to unify realism and fun in one explosive package, bringing the hardcore edge of say, Op Flashpoint together with the fun of Call Of Duty. It's quite an ambition, but having recently played the latest build of this impressive-looking WWII shooter, it's looking like they could well be on track.
Playing as Sgt Matt Baker, you get to relive the battles fought by the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment during the D-Day landings. Every battle is a historically true battle. We've walked all the battlefields, been to the archives and talked to the veterans to make sure the game is as realistic f as possible, explains Colonel John Antal (ret), Gearbox's military adviser on BIA.
To make the game fun and realistic we've spent time training our team. I trained them in what it's like to be a soldier and took them on field training exercises which simulated real battles. They even got to fire all of the authentic weapons. Most WWII games are created by people who've never fired a WWII weapon or had real military training, but our team has. which is why the game will feel so authentic, explains John.
In order to add an even greater sense of immersion. Gearbox is furnishing each squad member with a personality to ensure that you care about every man in your squad. We think the story is very emotional. Most WWII games are about you. Here, you lead a human-like squad of men who you'll actually care about." claims John. Making the game intuitive and easy to play is another area that Gearbox has been focussing on. The game's context-sensitive command system is perhaps the most efficient we've ever seen, allowing you to issue your troopers with on-the-fly commands both quickly and easily.
You'll also be able to pause the action and zoom out in order to assess the battlefield and decide on your next move. When we played the game we found that your men don't only follow your orders like real soldiers, but act like human beings too. seeking out cover and shouting out their feelings in the midst of a firefight. What's more, you'll even get to command (though not drive) tanks and in certain missions, receive air support too.
Back To Front
During BIA's eight-day campaign, you'll be sent on a variety of missions such as capturing the strategically essential French town of Carentan and leaping from a plane in order to flank the enemy, only to find yourself isolated and weaponless in the wilderness.
However, as John explains, the game won't start on day one of the campaign. You'll start on D-Day seven, where you'll find yourself under attack by well-trained German forces with lots of tanks. Then you'll pass out and have flashbacks to the eight days beforehand until you come back to this point."
Brothers In Arms is certainly looking impressive both in terms of realism and gameplay. And with its easy-to-use command system and some impressively lifelike Al. it's got a good crack at being the best WWII shooter yet.
Where The hell would the entertainment industry be without World War II? You only had to sit through the Christmas TV schedules to be bombarded by it. The Guns Of Navarone, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Heroes Of Telemark - each of them eking out a couple of hours of action from some area of the conflict. As for games, you literally can't move for WWII titles. Try it. Go on.
Here's one now: Brothers In Arms, now encumbered by the entirely superfluous subtitle, Road To Hill 30. Why bother? To disassociate it from the Dire Straits album of the same name? To make the free bobble hat look more/less risible?
Who knows? What we do know is that Hill 30 is in Normandy, France, and you need to get your allied arse there quicksmart. You are Sgt Matt Baker, and your elite squad of 101st Airborne Division is scattered all over the French countryside. And when we say French countryside, we don't mean some fat bloke in Texas having a guess at what the French countryside looks like. These mothers have been there, bought the T-shirt, intimidated the locals, snapped every blade of grass and studied every map and historical document available.
Of course, everyone says that, but we actually believe this lot. We believe it because we were flown to a bitterly cold Montreal, taken to Ubisoft's HQ at some ungodly hour and sat through a presentation only marginally less in-depth than that faced by the D-Day troops. However, while stabbing ourselves with a biro in order to stave off jetlag, we did glean some info, including: It's really early in the morning. I'm from Dallas, I don't get up this early. I'm a games developer."
This from Gearbox president, Randy Pitchford, who - in tribute to absent military advisor colonel John Antal (retired) - began the presentation with the battle cry: Everyone fights! Nobody quits! Always attack! Hoo-ah!"
Things could only get better from there, and Pitchford gives a convincing argument as to the game's authenticity, producing a seemingly unending series of photos, historical blueprints, aerial reconnaissance imagery, the lot. There was even somewhat tasteless mobile phone footage of a bewildered WWII veteran saying how realistic the game was and how disturbing he found it.
Hi, I'm Randy
By now wholly convinced of the game's anal approach to authenticity, we collar Randy Pitchford and ask him not how, but why? Surely a hedge is a hedge is a hedge. Was authenticity the initial focus?
The focus from the beginning was to make a game that puts you in a squad of soldiers, says Pitchford. Here's the difference: you see a movie about a squad of soldiers and it s always about the squad. You're just one of the guys. But when you play a game, you get dragged all over the world and you don't ever remember the names. I don't even remember my own character's name, let alone the names of anybody else. So we started with this idea of wanting to be in a squad of soldiers and as we figured out how to do that, we really got caught up in the history of it. Then we thought, well, this is an opportunity for us not only to tell a great story about soldiering, but also a chance to make sure people who're going to play this game are going to trust us implicitly that this is something that happened.
Pitchford asserts that when he met some of the actual veterans, he felt he had an obligation to make it right. Some of them didn't even want to talk to us because they complained about how other games had treated the subject matter and how they're almost offensive to them. Have you ever seen a movie that's about something you know a lot about, like journalism, and when you watch it, it's almost embarrassing and horrifying? That's how soldiers feel | when they play some of these ' games. So we wanted to make a game that could be enjoyed by gamers, but also one that a guy like the colonel could vouch for."
Ah yes, the legendary colonel John Antal (retired). Drafted onto the project in an advisory capacity, he's now a full-time member of the development team. We've met him, and he's genuinely terrifying.
Pitchford is a big fan though: This guy is something else. He's a good guy and I love him to death. This game would not be what it is without him. He has an office at Gearbox and every single day he's working with the team. For a man who once had 165,000 soldiers under him, working on a computer game is an interesting career move. However, he would appear to be ideally suited.
As Pitchford explains: That's the thing. When we first met him, he was a gamer. He played a lot of the RTS games because he liked the strategy and he kept saying, Some day, somebody's got to take the strategy element and put it in a squad level.' Like, that's what we're doing! It was a really easy sell. He'd been writing books and telling narratives, he'd been training tactics.
Yes Sir Mr Antal!
Antal has actually written a book called Combat Team, which is used to train officers about squad-level tactics. First, it gives you a fictional squad, teaches you something about tactics and then puts you in fictional situations and asks you to make a tactical decision. It's like an adventure book, says Pitchford.
Depending on your decision, you flip to a different part of the book. And it's great, it's like this guy's a game designer! It's paper, but he's thinking that way, and the army used his works to train soldiers. He's interested in tactical play, he loves solving tactical problems, so for him to have this infinite interactive environment - and he doesn't have to get shot at - he loves it. He's been a great resource.
The colonel, a high-profile military pundit, was also able to open a lot of doors for Gearbox in terms of access to actual weapons and so forth. His chief area is tactics though, and despite Brothers In Arms' notional similarity to other WWII FPS games, it's a highly tactical affair that follows hard and fast rules of combat. For instance, if an enemy is protected by cover, you can't simply unload your weapon at him in the hope of getting a lucky shot. What you can do is apply suppressing fire (indicated by a red meter above his head) and order your squad-mates to flank him and take him out.
Utilising your squad to the full will be a key skill, and having them react correctly is crucial to the game's success. According to Pitchford: Having the colonel as part of our team was a big part of how that worked out. You may have played a squad game before, but they don't really have any Al, the allies. You have a bunch of complicated commands, and whenever the command is given, that's the Al - the soldiers are just waiting for a command. In Brothers In Arms, the colonel helped us program the soldiers with the actual standard operating procedures in the battlefield, just subtle things. The soldiers are trained, they know what to do, so when they encounter an enemy, they know to find the appropriate cover and return fire, and that just works in the game. This is how it works in real life - it's a chain of command. We wanted to emulate that.
It's Only A Game
For all the unprecedented realism, surely there have to be some compromises to facilitate the gameplay? That's the hard part." agrees Pitchford. Sometimes, authenticity and realism are at odds with interactive entertainment. For instance, Baker never has to go to the bathroom, he never has to eat and nobody in the squad does either. And we cut out all the bit about field-stripping weapons. The weapon never jams, because it's just not fun. You don't understand why that happened and you don't have a good interface for dealing with it. You certainly don't have the same interface the soldiers had for dealing with it.
I've played games that've tried to simulate that stuff and there's 50,000 buttons, and it's just frustrating. So yeah, there are trade-offs, and they're hard trade-offs to make. But the trade-offs we make don't take away from that feeling of authenticity - they just make the game more fun to play.
We've played it, and it's certainly a unique approach. In many respects, the game has more in common with Full Spectrum Warrior than Medal Of Honor, and if you're hoping to charge in with all guns blazing, you're in for a rude awakening. We'll find out whether gamers actually want to use their brains as well as their guns with the exclusive review next month.
Forget All This Tactics Nonsense And Just Let Us Blow Stuff Up For Gawd's Sake...
Suppressing fire, flanking moves, chains of command... It's all very impressive, but how is the average game-playing chimp supposed to know what he's doing? We're not soldiers. We play games to fill the yawning voids in our lives and to take our minds off the futility of existence - not to execute high-level military procedures. To our minds, if you shoot someone in the face, their head comes off - they don't lurk behind a hedge with a meter hovering above them showing the amount of suppressing fire they're taking.
It would go against the entire ethos of the game and probably require a rewrite from the ground up, but how about a moron mode where you can simply steam in and stick it up Jerry? Or should we just stick to Call Of Duty?
Close Encounters Of The Film Kind
Brothers In Arms was on display at last year's E3 show in LA, attracting the attention of the usual unwashed obese masses sporting World Of Warcraft chic and eau de burger. Among the limited gene pool lurked a familiar face though - none other than be-capped film director Steven Spielberg. Spotting Gearbox president Randy Pitchford, he announced, I've played all your games, and spent the next 20 minutes interrogating him as to specifics of logic and gameplay. Finally, according to Randy: He complimented us on our graphics. And he made Jurassic Park...
"The Most authentic WWII shooter - ever!" How many times have we heard this now? It seems every war-themed game on the block wants to be the most realistic and faithful, each toting scads of credentials and testimonials to prove its point Clearly, they can't all be the most authenflb, but I think the confusion comes from the fact that they all have a different idea about exactly what 'authenticity' is. Obviously we're not talking actual, 100 per cent verisimilitude here, or everyone involved would be vomiting bile and scratching their eyes out in horror. Uniforms, events and environments: yes. Pain, mutilation and seeing your buddies' brains explode in your face: not so much. So really, what we're talking about is the faithful reproduction of some elements of a conflict, and the thing that separates games is which bits they decide are important and which can be glossed over.
It's The Real Thing
Take Call Of Duty. Here you have an extremely 'authentic' WWII shooter, which recreates better than any other game the intensity of war, the sturm und drang of full-scale, combined arms conflict. On the other hand, you can drive a tank and fire its cannon at the same time, which is about as authentic as a fast food chicken teriyaki burger.
Brothers In Arms, while similar at a glance, has very different ideas about authenticity. It can't match Call Of Duty for sheer spectacle - it doesn't even try - but it refuses to gloss over things that most other games ignore. Things like the real tactics of combat - the way the war was actually fought rather than the way it's depicted in films. The sense of brotherhood of soldiers fighting side by side. And the fact that you need at least three people to man a tank. These things are the lifeblood of Brothers In Arms, and if any of them are even vaguely important to you, you're going to love it.
For the most part however, Brothers In Arms plays very much like any other WWII shooter. You run around shooting Germans, ducking behind hedgerows, clearing villages, blowing up tanks and generally having a jolly good time of it. The setting too is familiar. The game kicks off on D-Day, as you and your homies in the 101 st Airborne prepare to land in German-occupied Normandy. Being paratroopers, you do of course arrive by 'chute, which fortunately negates any possibility of another Omaha Beach run. The rest of the game covers the crucial week following D-Day, as the Invasion forces desperately try to maintain their foothold on the French mainland and hold off the rallying Nazi horde.
Your squad is tasked with a series of vital support roles such as clearing fields for Allied glider landings, destroying tactically significant bridges and clearing villages of anti-tank gubbins. Which, according to historical records, is exactly what the 101 st Airborne, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment did do.
Here then is Exhibit A in Brothers In Arms' comprehensive claim to authenticity. Not only are all the missions based on historical data, but the environments, weapons, weather and even the moon cycles are reproduced with exacting precision. None of this has much bearing on gameplay, but it's tremendous news for spotters and war buffs. Of more interest to the common man is the default setting without a reticule, forcing you to aim down the sights if you want any degree of accuracy, and the-fact that there are no health packs (health is restored at the start of each mission) or quick-saves (checkpoints only, bub).
Keepin' It Real
However, while all this gives the game a nice gritty edge, the thing that really separates BIA from other WWII shooters is its focus on real combat tactics. Developer Gearbox was keen to avoid the 'one-man army' approach that afflicts so many other games, and so places you in command of a squad of US troops, dubbed 'Baker's Dozen' after your alter-ego Matt Baker. Actually, you're just a grunt at first, taking orders from your platoon leader, but soon enough you have three men under your control, then three men and a tank, then eventually two teams of three. And while lone wolf heroics will get you through the first few missions intact, you soon find that these human resources are the key to your survival.
Luckily, it's dead simple. When it comes to squad-level infantry manoeuvres, tactics have changed little in the last 2,000 years (so we're told), and they're almost insultingly basic. First, you find your enemy -preferably before he finds you. Next, you 'fix' your enemy by laying down suppressing fire and preventing his escape. Third, you flank your enemy by sending part of your force around the side to a more advantageous position, and then you finish him off by firing on his now hopelessly exposed hindquarters.
Until recently, war shooters mostly concentrated on the I first and fourth aspects of this formula, skipping the tricky middle bits in favour of a corridor approach to combat. Games such as Call Of Duty expanded this vision to take in some fixing', giving enemies an awareness of their own vulnerability and thus enabling them to be suppressed. Brothers In Arms completes the picture, and it does so with a device called Situational Awareness. It works a bit like this. As soon as you spot an enemy you press a key, pausing the action and sending the camera swooping to a third-person vantage above the battlefield. This view, while not strictly realistic, represents all the information available to you as squad leader. It's like a 3D map, showing the locations of all your troops, any tactical objectives, and most importantly, the location of enemy units visible to you or your men. From here, you can jump around to focus on points of interest and zoom, tilt or pan for a better view.
Now, if you're an FPS diehard, I can see you might be fidgeting nervously, so I'll set your mind at rest. You don't use the third-person view to give orders. This is not an RTS - there are no waypoints, no clicking and dragging, no command rose. You're basically just having a look around in this mode, scouting for channels and pathways to use in flanking manoeuvres. Got it?
The actual squad commands are given in the heat of battle and they number four in total. Yes, just four. To activate squad commands, you simply press the right mouse button, which brings up an arrow indicator. Drop the arrow on the terrain to make your boys go there, drop it over an enemy to make them shoot on that location, and hold right mouse and press left to make them assault a position. Your squads always act as a discrete unit, so there's no need for individual management; and if you want to just set them all to 'follow', you can do that too. Take it from me, a devout opponent of clunky tactical games like Rainbow Sixt it could not be any easier.
Despite its simplicity however, the system is remarkably powerful. Your squad is blessed with extremely robust Al, enabling them to look after themselves in most situations and always seek the best cover no matter where you stick them. If they can't see their designated target, they shuffle around until they can - and if you ask the impossible they tell you where to go. Admittedly, they're not 100 per cent trustworthy, and you often find yourself doing the most dangerous tasks, but hey - that's what being in charge is all about. (Don't be stupid... - Ed)
Hard As Nails
With this level of Al in place you can perform some pretty tidy manoeuvres. The most basic is to set a fire-team up somewhere where they can lay down cover-fire, then head off on your own to do the flanking. Fortunately, you always know when the enemy is cowenng like a frightened kitten, as they all have a suppression indicator above their heads (though you can disable this if you're really hard).
Once you get a second team under your command - be it a tank or an assault team bristling with grenades and SMGs -the tactics really start to get interesting. Pincer movements, suppress-and-snipe, mad rushes - all these and more become valid ploys, and the satisfaction of success that much greater.
All things considered, it's an excellent system. Poring over the tactical overhead view, the game often feels more like Combat Mission than Call Of Duty, but the balance is always up to you. As the game progresses, you quickly learn which tactic is going to work best in what situation and begin to dish out orders with more speed and confidence. By the game's halfway point, you really feel like you belong in charge of these sorry fellows.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't entirely share this confidence. In fact, it seems almost to flinch from giving you too much responsibility, keeping the tactical palette tantalisingly basic throughout. With a limit of two squads or tanks under your command, things eventually become repetitive, and it's exasperating that you're not trusted enough to go further. Similarly, BIA takes far too long to ease you into the action at the outset, and doesn't really give you full rein until the sixth or seventh mission.
Ultimately. Brothers In Arms fails to take full advantage of its own, excellently conceived formula. As a player who prefers shooters, I find it a bit bizarre to be sitting here and demanding more tactical sophistication, but with a system this intuitive I just can't help myself.
Of course, there's still plenty of joy to be found I here, and much of it is down to the excellent level design. The layouts are overtly simple at first, with undefended pathways that scream flank here, idiot!', but they soon warm up nicely, and some of the later, bullet-riddled levels require a good deal of forward planning.
One convenient advantage is that the terrain is ready-built for small-scale tactical challenges. Aside from the bits flattened by bombs, Normandy is defined by what's called bocage: a lightly wooded landscape of fields and narrow roads, criss-crossed with thick hedgerows that can't be breached by infantry - ideal for channelling movement and building tactical mazes. Elsewhere, you have towns riddled with alleys, barns and graveyards - all of which make for a terrain rich in tactical possibilities.
Unfortunately, while you're given freedom to explore these possibilities, the Hun most definitely is not. In contrast to the excellent friendly Al, the enemy Al is highly scripted and predictable. Enemies rarely have the freedom to move around a level as the battle dictates, either staying put or moving within very narrow boundaries. As such, they're never able to out-flank you, no matter how many times you show them how, and this makes it a very one-sided affair, tactically speaking.
Fortunately, Gearbox has at least a partial answer to this, as Brothers In Arms comes with a bold and beautiful multiplayer mode that incorporates many of the tactics of the singleplayer game. To whit, each player arrives with a squad of three Al units in tow, and games consist of either one-on-one or two-on-two matches. When you die you switch to the next member of your squad, after which you respawn a whole new squad back at base. Cleverly, you can still use Situational Awareness (though of course it doesn't pause the action), which means you can locate enemies visible to your squad, as well as to your teammate and his squad (in 2v2 games at least).
Each map offers a very different style of play, with a range of different objectives and parameters. In one instance, the Germans have to get a package to the other side of a village within an allotted time while the Americans prey on them with sniper rifles. In another, the Americans have to locate and evacuate a document case in a town choked by obscuring fog.
In many ways BIA's multiplayer game is similar to Enemy Territory - objectives are much the same, even identical in some cases. The big difference is the inclusion of Al squadmates, which casts a very different complexion on proceedings and makes for some uniquely enjoyable tactics. Controlling the map and maintaining superior visibility often takes precedence over blind aggression, while laying a successful ambush with your troops is particularly gratifying.
Sadly, the ten multiplayer maps are somewhat small and unexciting compared to the likes of ET. There are two or three superbly crafted examples, but some pretty mediocre efforts as well, and this is sure to hurt the game's reception online. Hopefully the innovative nature of the mode will be enough to carry it, as it definitely deserves a look-in. As always, we'll be doing a full multiplayer review in Online Zone when the servers go live.
Needless to say, the multiplayer is just a small part of the total Brothers In Arms package, and it's a package we think is highly deserving of praise. Gearbox's tactical shooter is not just great fun, it's a technically excellent and innovative piece of work that takes some bold design risks and slam-dunks pretty much every one. It may not have the flashy production values or grand scale of a Call Of Duty, but it establishes a tactical-action formula that trounces the opposition for functionality and ease of use, and the results are never short of compelling. As a first effort, Road To Hill 30 is pretty damn good - if Gearbox can just build on this, the next BIA will almost certainly be a classic.
Tanks Mean Business In Brothers Inarms
One thing Gearbox was adamant about when making Road To Hill 30 was that the tanks would be exceedingly dangerous. None of this one grenade and they blow nonsense - these tanks are the real deal. I actually got a little annoyed at the game a couple of times because the tanks kept killing me, despite the fact that I was hiding. Hiding, you understand. Protected. Behind some, er, wooden crates. OK... So maybe I wasn't as sheltered as I could have been, but those cartons would have protected me in any other WWII game. Not so Brother In Arms.
In this game, the only way to stop a tank is with another tank, or a lot of hits from an antitank weapon. Either that, or an extreme act of stupidity that involves sneaking round the back of the vehicle, popping open the hatch and dropping in a live grenade. Actually, this technique is quite easy once you've got the knack for it, which slightly detracts from the fear factor, but is also extremely cool. So I guess it's a fair trade.
Can I Get A Rewind?
Brothers Inarms Boasts Plenty Of Replayability
One of the nice things about BIA is the way its mission structure and difficulty levels work. Rather than the usual PC approach, the game adopts a more console-centric attitude. 'Hard' level, rather than being ridiculously tough, simply requires you to apply a bit more patience and tactical nous during the battles. What's more, you're positively encouraged to replay the game on the higher difficulties, as each completed mission unlocks new 'making-of' and background information for you to peruse at your leisure. There are positively reams of this stuff, of varying degrees of interest, but anyone with a competitive streak will want to see every last bit.
Luckily, the game merits a repeat viewing. The nature of the tactical exchanges means you often find yourself wanting to 'perfect' a specific sequence, so you won't mind in the slightest if you have to give it another blast for the sake of a crappy archive photo. Honest.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode