Just like smoking crack, it looks like once is never enough, as Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood drops us back into one of the most perilous conflicts of WWII, just seven months after Gearbox’s stunning Road to Hill 30. This time around, though, we’re thrust into the grimy boots of Sgt. Joe ‘Red’ Hartsock as he retells his story from the death-defying D-Day drop, to the events of Hill 30 and beyond.
For the uninitiated, Brothers In Arms is a tactical, squad based, first person shooter that began its franchise earlier this year, much to the delight and critical acclaim of the gaming world. Integral to the series’ success is Gearbox’s utter dedication to realism, as the team painstakingly and accurately recreate both the locales and the events of the French campaign. Adding immensely to the sense of realism are the genuine ‘Find, Fix, Flank and Finish’ tactics that BIA makes use of by allowing you to issue ‘move’, ‘suppress’ and ‘assault’ commands to up to two units of men (or a tank) via a brilliantly simplistic, movable command icon. Excellent squad AI and other strategic nuances, like the birds-eye ‘situational awareness’ view, allow for the most fluid and intuitive squad control system ever seen in an FPS game.
Naturally, like any sequel EIB strives to improve upon this original formula, and by far the biggest change you’ll see is in your opposition's artificial intelligence. Proving tenacious and sometimes downright cunning, the kraut army will not only uproot and reposition its forces in an attempt to avoid being flanked, but will even go on the offensive and try to flank you! This newfound dynamism will likely prove to be the greatest challenge you will face in EIB, as you are now forced to not only ‘fix’ and ‘flank’ your opponents, but also to predict where the wily Germans will try to take cover next. This basic battle of wits creates some brilliantly cerebral scenarios; there’s nothing more exhilarating than watching a carefully conceived assault coerce a group of unwitting Panzergrenadiers to take cover under your waiting crosshair. I doubt war is meant to be this fun.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood plays home to 13 levels that have been fairly well thought out, and are surprisingly diverse considering the restrictions of a WWII shooter. Unfortunately, it would appear that many of the levels could have benefited from a bit more play testing, and there were simply too many occasions where my squad behaved in a decidedly irrational manner when asked to take cover in a tight location. Instead of merely queuing up behind the realistically ample cover and staying concealed, they decided to run back and forth from one impractical position to the next as though diligently working on a pedometer record. Another issue that plagued EIB in its later levels was its frame rate. Gearbox had clearly meant EIB to be a bigger and more chaotic game, and they certainly did achieve much of that goal, however they did so at a great cost. Towards the end of the game the frame rate dropped so noticeably in certain areas that I was forced to near completely avoid combat until I could manage to frame up fewer of the polygon thieves at once! There’s nothing quite like an epileptic frame rate to remind you that you are simply playing a ‘WWII simulation’.
Another slightly more marginal blemish on EIB’s good name is that it uses the exact same engine as its predecessor. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the game’s visual facets, it does nonetheless mean that veterans of Hill 30 will find their realistically drab surroundings all too familiar, and will be left feeling as though they’ve already played this game once before. That aside, EIB has kept the same superb sound effects that were a defining feature of the first Brothers in Arms, and have once again appropriately left the game near completely devoid of music. Unfortunately, the voice work from both your troops and the enemy can become a touch repetitive, and in comparison to the leading man of Hill 30, Hartsock’s deliveries seemed forced. These, however, are all minor problems in what is certainly an above average presentation.
Asides from the brand new campaign, EIB has also expanded on Hill 30’s truly innovative multiplayer facet. Once again affording us the tactical delight of being able to command our squad in split-screen, system link or online modes, EIB has added even more maps to its portfolio, bringing the final tally up to 20. In an inspiringly generous move, Gearbox have also added a new skirmish mode to the mix. Allowing co-operative play through all of its ten maps and 3 different modes of play, this new skirmish mode adds a surprising level of re-playability when tackled with a friend; simply put, working as a team in a team based game is almost as much fun as breaking a ten year celibacy vow.
Borrowing much of its content from Hill 30, Earned in Blood is a fantastic but very familiar game. Lacking the same powerful emotional content as its predecessor, EIB is going to have a difficult time defining itself as a separate game, and in all likelihood will achieve only moderate commercial success. But don’t be fooled, this is a great game, and veterans of the original as well as new recruits would do well to try their hand at Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood.