Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Despite the grumblings of a few about the sheer number of titles that are based in the period, World War II remains as one of the most expansive and inspiring sources from which to create games from. Yet the current offerings we have been presented with so far haven’t done justice to the real events that took place over 60 years ago. Medal of Honor gave us a rollercoaster ride through a Hollywood version of war, while Call of Duty did the same, but more effectively. We haven’t seen the equivalent of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers in a game yet, something that would show emotion and the real face of warfare. That’s what Brothers in Arms sets out to change.
Following the story of a squad of 101st Airbourne paratroopers, Road to Hill 30 puts you in the shoes of Sergeant Matt Baker as he and his fellow soldiers fight through Normandy during the first eight days of the invasion. It becomes immediately apparent though, that this is no ordinary game of the period. Brothers in Arms sets out to be as authentic as possible, starting with the story that it tells over its twenty chapters. Based on the journey of a real squad and the eyewitness accounts of the veterans who made it, the game focuses on this tiny section of the war and aims to be as accurate as it can be.
Gearbox, the developer, took the time to go to France and record the exact layout and look of the scenery, to trace the steps of the soldiers who fought there. They’ve interviewed the veterans, shot the actual weapons, hired military advisors and based the game’s levels on period aerial photography. This attention to detail marks it out from other games and sets a historical tone which seeks to take you back in time rather than place you on a film set.
The heightened sense of realism follows through directly to the gameplay mechanics. Instead of being a one man army, Brothers in Arms gives you the opportunity to command a squad of six men, split down into two teams of three. Without your fellow soldiers, you cannot complete Road to Hill 30‘s missions and without you, they remain devoid of leadership. This is a tactical game which demands teamwork, just as real combat does.
The game’s tactics revolve around the same ones that soldiers used at the time: fire and manoeuvre. Three men act as a suppression squad and the other three work as an assault squad. Essentially, when an enemy is encountered, the former team pins down them down while the latter flanks them and finishes them off. It’s this simple principle of combat which dictates all of the engagements in Brothers in Arms, making you stop and think before you act.
As many of you will know, tactical games tend to be overly complicated in their execution and never let you get on with what you’re actually trying to accomplish. Brothers in Arms shows a step forward in squad mechanics though, making it ridiculously easy to move your troops around. To command one of your teams, you pull down the left trigger and a halo appears on the ground before you. When placed over the terrain, the circle will send your soldiers to that position and when placed over enemy forces it orders your team to suppress them. You move this visual cue around by simply looking and then release the trigger to issue your instruction. This, combined with the white button which swaps between the two teams, gives you the power of command at your fingertips without the usual complexities.
Orders are all well and good, but unless those following them can carry them effectively, then there’s no point in issuing them. Fortunately, Road to Hill 30 features some advanced A.I. which makes your squad a formidable fighting force in their own right. When they see an enemy, you don’t have to tell them to open fire, take cover or change their stance; they’ll do it automatically. The same goes for positioning themselves when you send them somewhere and moving in the open; they always act intelligently and work like real soldiers would.
Brothers in Arms doesn’t let the innovation stop there though. Commanding troops on the ground is difficult enough when you don’t know the lie of the land and it proves even more demanding when you don’t have a map. This is where the game’s situational awareness viewpoint comes into play. A press of the ‘back’ button pauses the game as swoops the camera back and above the battlefield. From here, you can view all visible units and pan around them, allowing you to assess the battlefield before making your move. It lets you step out of the intense gunfire and take stock of what is going on around you, which turns out to be invaluable during the game. Although it may appear to detract from the realism, Gearbox’s reasoning behind this – and rightly so – is that the soldiers at the time had memorised the battlefields whereas the player will never have time to do so. The situational awareness view is another example of how the developer has taken a problem and come up with a intuitive solution that fits right into the gameplay.
Going from being a single warrior to a squad commander is a huge leap in terms of responsibilities, and so Brothers in Arms ensures that you’re eased into the role step by step. You begin Road to Hill 30 alone and then progress over its course to command more and more soldiers until you’re looking after all six about half way through the game. Along the way, you’ll also be given a tank as one of your teams, which is ordered around just like a team of soldiers would be. The learning curve is carefully crafted to make sure that you’re not just thrown in at the deep and this makes the whole experience more enjoyable.
Where Brothers in Arms delivers its killer blow though, is in its recreation of an authentic battlefield atmosphere. Both brilliant and indescribable in equal measures, it brings everything together under an aura of emotion and adrenaline. When the shooting starts, soldiers shout out all around you as the bullets fly past, swearing as they fight for their lives. There’s a real sense of urgency and at times, sheer terror. Your squad aren’t a bunch of clones and have personalities which develop over the game’s course, so you actually care when one of them gets hit. Very few games come even close to capturing the mood and intensity of combat to the degree that Gearbox have.
Visually, Road to Hill 30 may come as a pleasant surprise to many of you, it certainly was for me. The game’s French countryside is a beautiful landscape, packed with foliage and eerily abandoned towns. The levels merge into their inaccessible surroundings seamlessly, giving the battlefields a real sense of place. Each soldier is also distinctive and realistically modelled, with their eyes even following your figure as you move around. Animations are fluid and realistic, the textures detailed and although the frame rate occasionally drops, it never affects the gameplay. You get the feeling that Brothers in Arms is really pushing the Xbox at times, just seeing exactly how far it can go.
When it comes to audio, Road to Hill 30 is simply second to none. It plays an absolutely crucial role in the game, helping to create the atmosphere that Brothers in Arms thrives in. The musical score, which is only to be found in the menus and loading screens, is perfectly suited to the era, while the sound effects are just as commendably authentic as everything else.
Although not the main focus of the game, multiplayer is included and is another area of innovation. Instead of your usual deathmatch variants, Brothers in Arms takes the tactical gameplay and transports it right into both offline and online modes. Up to four players can take part, each commanding their own squad of A.I. characters. It may seem a little odd to begin with, but considering what Road to Hill 30 is all about, it fits in perfectly. What it does lack is a co-operative mode though, as this would have been frankly awesome. That said, the lifespan does hold its own, boosted by four difficulty levels (one scarily named ‘authentic’) and a host of unlockable extras.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is exactly what the genre needed. Its authentic and emotional portrayal of war makes it a unique experience that stands out amongst the huge crowd of shooters. The gameplay has been honed to near-perfection, showing that a tactical approach doesn’t necessarily lead to more complexity. Everything about it has been crafted with thought and the source material in mind, creating what is without a doubt the best World War II game ever made.