Brothers in Arms
Even today, with its supermarkets and motorways, France remains just as beautiful and expansive as it was when the men of the Allied Expiditionary Force touched down on its soil sixty years ago. Driving through Normandy on what is an uncharacteristically murky day, I can’t help but be taken in by the surroundings, much of which has been left almost untouched since the war. Even in these times where you can simply jump on a ferry and complete the same eight hour journey in relative comfort, the invasion and the battle that followed are still close to the heart of many here. You can see it in the scarred landscape, the abandoned fortifications, countless museums and cemeteries. Some may moan about the sheer number of titles covering the conflict, but it’s clear why this feat of such courage, daring and organisation is still positively inspiring for developers and gamers alike.
With the arrival of 3D graphics and the ever increasing quality of audio, games have been able to immerse us into the action even better than before. The first majorly successful title was Medal of Honor, capturing the Hollywood version of events and style superbly, which itself was recently bettered by Call of Duty, a more squad-based affair. These are all well and good, but they fail to create a true sense of what it was like to be there. You have no control over or responsibility for your fellow soldiers and you’re not directing the action. Tactical considerations and the freedom to lead and command are far removed from the current crop of shooters. However well executed, both games are really interactive recreations of Spielberg and Hank’s varoius masterpieces. Developers have never really had the time or money to produce their own retelling of that epic story, that is, until now.
Brothers in Arms is the tale of 3rd squad, 3rd platoon of the 502nd US airbourne division in Normandy over eight days that follow D-Day. It’s your job as Sergeant Baker to lead this squad towards Utah beach, completing strategic goals along the way. It doesn’t sound that special to begin with, but Brothers in Arms has three big trump cards to play; tactical freedom, some clever AI and unrelenting authenticity.
Your squad is split down into two groups; a fire team and an assault team, each comprising of three men. You, as their leader, can give each team four basic commands to get them moving and fighting where and when you need them. There’s no advanced route planning or character switching, just the basics, allowing you to participate in the action without being bogged down by the strategy elements.
The levels in which you fight are wide and open, giving you multiple angles of attack and room within which to move. This really sets the game apart from its rivals, increasing the potential lifespan and allowing the player to control the action.
The artificial intelligence of both your squad and their enemy is also looking like it’ll make a huge mark in the genre. Baker’s men will fight competently on their own, using period tactics to do so. They’ll take cover and engage the enemy, but what’s even more impressive is the human way in which they react under fire when their commerades take hits. They’ll scream for medics and react differently as the battle progresses, giving that all important illusion of being there, fighting for real.
The German opposition will use similar authentic tactics to repel your attacks, attempting to flank you and pin your men down. As you manouvre around them, they will react accordingly, moving to compensate. What really sets Brothers in Arms apart is their reactions when the going gets tough. Under fire, they’ll become pinned down and they’ll get scared and irrational when you flank them. The AI has to be good for the tactical element of the game to feel real and so far, it looks like the developers have got one up on their rivals already.
What Gearbox (the developer) have spent a lot of time and money on is historical accuracy and realism. The story is based on a true one and the locations where you fight are exactly those where the real battles took place. Gearbox have been to Normandy and have surveyed each site, taking plenty of reference material and eyewitness accounts. They’ve also employed military tacticians and historians to make sure that what you’ll play will be authentic.
The men of 3rd squad are fictional, but the higher ranking men are all accurately modelled from photos, with appropriate accents and uniforms. The sheer detail that Gearbox have put in is astounding and it shows. In a demonstration video, the player is casually examining his troops at rest and the soldiers’ eyes follow him around, with one trooper commenting, “Are you alright Sarge?” when he hovers around him for a little too long. It’s the little details like this that mark the excellent games apart and Gearbox appear to have taken time and care so far, making the final product even more tempting.
There won’t be any health bars, multiple lives or magical medical packs present in Brothers in Arms, with subtle visual cues indicating when it’s time to hit the dirt. Aiming using a Call of Duty style down-the-sights view is also encouraged, removing a reliance on unrealistic crosshairs on screen as well.
One feature that breaks from the authenticity mould is something called Situational Awareness View, which pauses the game and zooms out to show a 3D representation of the action. This allows you to see the bigger picture of the battle so that you can take stock and act from there. Gearbox’s justification for this is that the real soldiers had memorised the terrain, whereas the player will not have the same chance to do so. It was a feature that was introduced quite a way through development and one that has apparently improved the gameplay, so it seems that it’ll be a worthy sacrifice.
What else is there to say? The graphics are of a suitably high standard, with all the advanced physics, lighting, particle effects and so on as you’d expect. The audio is also shaping up well, which sound effects all taken from real locations and weapons. The game will appear on Xbox and PC in time for Christmas and although there hasn’t been much talk of multiplayer, I can’t see it being left out on either platform.
From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like Brothers in Arms is shaping up to be another quality Ubisoft game which may just top the genre. The graphics and audio are in place and feel like they’ll create a convincing atmosphere, while the game mechanic and AI look excellent even at this stage. The lifespan is the only concern I have, in that the game may end up on the shelf after a few weeks, but if Gearbox can tackle that challenge then we’ll be in for one hell of a game this Autumn.