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SummaryStrong tactical combat game with some glaring oddities
The GoodWhat with the torrent of WW2 themed shooters over the years, Brothers in Arms feels like a genuine breath of fresh air. It is in comparison to these that Brothers in Arms truly shines.
FINALLY rather than being a simple observer you can directly affect the movement of the battle. You play as a squad commander, and you do exactly that. You have six men or the occasional tank to command, split into two fire teams. Essentially the main goal of the game is to suppress, outmanoeuvre and outflank your enemy with these squads. In fact without them you are next to useless. This gives the game a genuine pace to it, as staying still and sniping will just lead to a slow eventual death. And most importantly it’s fun!
This momentum is augmented by a very well crafted presentation. While the Call of Duty games are full of bluster and noise, they always seem a tad over-the-top. Here gunshots still whiz overhead, but with just the right subtlety as to actually increase the tension. A bullet racing right by your ear causes a white blur effect and a slight jolt away, which both helps you know the direction of origin and gives a little kick of adrenaline. Getting actually hit causes a big blood splatter to cover your vision (again from the direct you got hit) and an exclamation from your character. Nearby explosions give you a fantastic scripted disorientation effect as your character stumbles around and gradually regains consciousness. You are not just listening and observing a cacophony of war, you’re FEELING it. You genuinely don’t want to die, and not just because there’s no quicksave (though obviously that helps).
The graphics are convincing without being outlandish. There is a utilitarian aspect to it, without reaching Killzone levels of monotone. People look like people and are convincingly grubby and frayed around the edges. As a side note it is comforting to see how dismemberment has matured in games. Whilst Soldier of Fortune and Quake revelled in it, you’ll see it only a few times in this game, and that makes it suitably shocking, in a “holy crap it blew his legs off!” kind of way.
Certainly the most compelling aspect of all of this is that the game is based on a true story, and not in the Braveheart sense. Each character is a real person, each location is based on actual documents and photographs. The situations you face are almost identical to those faced by the actual men you portray. This is all backed up with an unlockable catalogue of content showing the process the team went through to create the game, including photographs of the locations as they look now. That knowledge gives the game a lot of soul and conviction. You’re no longer just mowing down hoards of Nazi’s as you’ve done countless thousands of times before. You’re experiencing history in First person.
Also while the music is your usual orchestral score (why does WW2 always sound like this?) it is far from bombastic and adds to the mood, as well as a healthy degree of respect for what these guys achieved in the early 20th centaury
The BadI genuinely enjoyed this game, but it’s a shame that it comes a few steps short of greatness. While far from broken, it is marred by some pretty big flaws.
This is one of the more earnest depictions of WW2 in computer games. However there are occasions where it tips this balance a little too far into the dreaded world of schmaltz. Your narrator gives a little monologue before every mission, which criminally you are unable to skip, and in these he comes across as downcast to the point of the generic “war is hell” style depiction of Vietnam soldiers. In a real situation this would deeply affect squad moral, and any squad leader who says, “I never wanted to be squad leader” before almost EVERY mission would no doubt simply be replaced. This huffing and puffing contrasts sharply to his voice in-game, where he yells “ROLLLLLL!” and “KEEP FIRING GODDAMNIT!” even in unstressful situations.
The drama of the story comes across in several places with the inevitable scripted depictions of your squad mates dying, sometimes in horrific ways. Unfortunately these moments are critically undermined, Tomb Raider style, by the sheer fact that you’ve watched these guys die CONSTANTLY throughout the game. I may have completed two or three missions with my entire squad intact, and this is often after having them rejuvenated and resurrected (p.s. I loved the little “war is unfair but games don’t have to be” message it gives you before you do this). The sad thing is that we are dealing with real people here! A veteran playing the game may feel slightly queasy ordering himself into a suicidal charge, only to be resurrected for the next mission. The only solution to this of course would be to tightly script every action, which would completely remove the fundamental aspect of the game.
This aforementioned system of combat, whilst challenging and genuinely fun, taints the game with perhaps its most glaring miscalculation. Whilst the environments are indeed based on the real world locations, they have been specifically altered to suit the game-play mechanics. There are always ways to flank an enemy position, many seeming artificial. Every empty field is scattered with various hillocks and walls for you to fire and manoeuvre around. Even worse is that many of these foreign objects are literally repeated every level. You’ll soon become used to the bullet-proof crates (that old chestnut), barrels, straw bails (?!?) and bush/hill/mound/bump/hedgerow things (all of which have an IDENTICAL dip in them for you to shoot over) scattered carefully by the Germans to allow you to successfully assault them.
Which leads me to the A.I. It could well be argued that there isn’t any. Your adversaries (that always appear in groups of two or three) are triggered to run out to their designated area of cover and stay there until you dislodge them. No retreating or calling for reinforcements, despite said reinforcements often only being a field or building away. And crucially they never try to flank or even advance towards you. They are there for you to flank, rinse and repeat.
Whilst generally very solidly made there are a few further minor oddities in the game that don’t so adversely affect it.
The soldier animations are generally very naturalistic, but their idle stances seem unnaturally hyperactive. Nobody wobbles their arms and shoulders that much while standing still! The animation is also repeated, so a line of idle troops look like they’re standing on jelly or doing the Twist. The recoil affect of weapons on them is also slightly bizarre, sending them riling backwards with each shot only to return dead straight, which again looks ridiculous with three of them doing it in a line.
I’m not sure if everyone experiences this but while the game runs very smoothly on my computer, the load times for missions have become stupendously long. In a sense this is useful as it lets me catch up with my university reading. But owing to the relative vulnerability of your character you find yourself having to go all the way back to the previous checkpoint frequently. You now know all the enemy positions as well, ruining any spontaneity (especially if you have to recreate that daring charge around the machinegun post five times in a row). When you have to wait at least eight minutes for the goddamn level to load again you feel like going postal.
A note on weapons: perhaps it’s based on reality but all of them seem supremely inaccurate. Sometimes you can unload your Thompson on a perfect line of troops (yes soldiers seem to stand in lines a lot in the game, that’s discipline!) and not kill a single one. As you have a tendency to run out of ammunition, what with all the covering fire, you often have to rely on the German weapons, and the Mauser is a case in point. I have yet to kill anyone with this rifle! With the M1 you at least have semi-automatic fire, so you need to make every shot count with the Mauser. Even looking through the iron sights your wobbling hands make it impossible to hit anything. Which is odd as your character’s grip steadies almost totally with the Springfield sniper rifle.
While it’s an invaluable feature, the ability to blow up tanks by dropping a bomb through the hatch is clearly flawed. Each tank has a Death Star style weak spot that can be opened by hand by climbing on top of it. This is by far and away the most effective manner of disposing of tanks as the Panzerfaust is pitifully weak and has a bizarrely short trajectory. You often find yourself playing a game of cat and mouse with tanks, which turn just slightly slower than you can run around them, possibly saying, “why I ‘aughta” and shaking a fist.