Playing Brother in Arms: Road to Hill 30 provided me with my most painful gaming memory. In part it was probably due to the poor conversion to the PS2. Sony’s ageing machine chugged along, struggling to cope with a game maybe beyond its capabilities. For Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, the sequel, I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. This time I opted instead for the Xbox version, and, at the very least, on a technical perspective, my choice has been vindicated. But that still can’t hide the fact that under the somewhat sturdier presentation, this is still an average game filled with flaws — ruining a concept that promises so much.
As a tactical FPS, EiB still remains one of the most satisfyingly strategic squad-based games available. The troop organisation and objectives are both richly rewarding, and add a genuinely authentic feel to the game. Surviving an onslaught from German Conscripts and being responsible for safely navigating your men to positions where they can suppress your foes while another team carries out the execution is still one of the most thrilling set pieces that this WWII FPS has contributed to the genre thus far.
What EiB does so well is that it makes you actually feel like a WWII soldier, something that very few games have accomplished. When pinned against a wall under heavy suppressing fire, you’ll find yourself ducking and dodging their bullets and praying that your assault team can get a few shots in to give you some breathing room. Running across a battlefield to reach an advantage point is extremely risky, yet you know it’s something that Sgt. Joe ‘Red’ Hartsock (your avatar) simply must do. You soon realize that if you want to survive all 13 levels — that if you and your men are to survive all 13 levels, that is — you must make smart decisions time and time again. There’s a thin, bloody line between success and failure; one wrong move will mean the difference between seeing your girl one more time, and your mother receiving a letter from FDR.
The sense of impending doom and fear that EiB creates is, on its own merits, an amazing achievement. The action is broken up into pockets of resistance; fire fights are interspersed by quiet, almost tranquil moments of peace — luring you in to a false sense of security. But it’s in these moments that EiB allows you to take stock of your surroundings and then the harrowing realization of war becomes all too apparent.
The meticulously recreated war torn cities — littered with charred vehicles, dead soldiers, and destroyed buildings — make you realize that, at one point, people walked these streets and called these places home. But now they’re blood-drenched battlefields. The attention to detail, the painstakingly realistic settings prove that Gearbox knows WWII and cares about the men who served and died there, and drives home the point that you are not an army of one but a small cog in the huge wheel that is the war machine. The action sequences are predictable — you know they’re coming (and usually when and where, too), but that still doesn’t mean you’re prepared for what lurks around the corner. If the game was to be reviewed on its atmosphere, realism, survival tactics, and attention to detail alone then there aren’t accolades high enough.
Unfortunately, however, many of the schoolboy errors seen in its predecessor are still worryingly present. The pace, though somewhat faster, is still far too pedestrian. While movements remain sluggish, the biggest handicap remains the barebones combat: often you’ll find that the erratic guns are your downfall. Though the cursor is clearly aimed at the Panzergrenadiers, the wobbly and fidgety aiming means that you’ll consistently waste entire clips of ammo before actually hitting your foes. Sometimes you can’t even manage that.
Despite the huge levels, your actual route is quite linear. Disappointing when you consider the opportunity for flanking and the need for open-ended gameplay that the combat mechanics scream out for. The game forces you down paths, cutting off any freedom to experiment. Meaning even if you’ve found a superior way to flank the German elite, the level design blocks you off. It feels cheap and somewhat ruins the atmosphere when your brave and fearless leader finds that he can’t climb over a two foot fence.
Where any squad-based shooter will fail or succeed though is the A.I. Here EiB mocks you, showing what could have been. At times your allies prove why they are the best of the 101ST airborne. Watching them destroy whole teams of German Fallschirmjagers is a sight that one can watch and admire all day. Not having to fire a single bullet but knowing that your enemies are dead as a result of your tactical wisdom is immensely fulfilling. But you’ll then be left scratching your head when you see your troops expose themselves to enemy fire when a safe location is mere feet away. Other instances include when a single German Infantry soldier managed to gun down two of my fire team when they decided to stop shooting and reveal their location. The fact that these soldiers are also nearly dependent on your guidance is also laughably shambolic. Situations will arise when they should use their own initiative, but instead wait around to be shot to death. This means continuous restarts at the still awkwardly placed checkpoints. The A.I. can be so frustratingly inconsistent that I would find myself abandoning my teams altogether and going Rambo against some of the fiercest resistance that the Germans had to offer.
One of the most intriguing aspects — intriguing in that it’s missing, I mean — is the paper-thin bond you share with your troops. You embraced the original teams from Hill 30 and felt moved by their struggle; in EiB, not so much. The fictional characters who act out this true story aren’t as endearing as their predecessors. Baker (from the former) cemented a far stronger relationship between gamer, control pad, and avatar. Playing as Red doesn’t recreate that same sense of actually giving a damn about your men’s fight for survival — there is no real emotion and the whole story is rather uninspiring.
Those expecting all of the deadwood to be pruned will be disappointed to know that EiB is essentially nothing more than a Road to Hill 30 expansion pack. Though it feels less like a History Channel documentary and more like a game, it still falls short of its lofty ambitions.