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Caprice Bourret


Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30

Just when we were thinking there was nothing left to do with World War II shooters, along comes this. With tactical depth, a convincing plot, and realistic presentation, Brothers in Arms brings an eight-day stretch from the assault on Normandy in 1945 to dramatic life. It'll bring everything -- including the mud -- to your front room.

Brothers in Arms follows the fictional story of a paratrooper squad from the 101st Airborne Division, and centers on one sergeant, Matt Baker, in particular. The game opens with a dramatic sequence: Baker's plane, flying over the Normandy coast, is struck by antiaircraft fire and his squad is scattered. After reuniting Baker with his compatriots, a based-on-a-true-story of combat and heroism ensues.

Only this time, it actually does. Rather than a generic shooter with vaguely wooden-looking rifles, goose-stepping Germans twittering Teutonically, and the odd interlude, Brothers in Arms has the ring of truth about it. Like HBO's Band of Brothers, it portrays a troop of men who feel real in a convincing setting.

click to view screenshotOf course, that would be wasted effort if the game had the sort of awkward interface that's plagued many squad-based shooters. Thankfully, with a quick and easy control scheme that's explained in the opening missions, and a zoomed-back tactical view that's toes the line between informative and cheating, we have no complaints. Your squad members are smart, find appropriate cover, pick sensible targets when left undirected, and don't shoot you in the back of the head.

Clicking a thumbstick lifts your gun into firing position (firing without your weapon raised is useless in all but the most up-close encounters). Here, you can look down the barrel at the "iron sights" and take aim more carefully. Crosshairs are absent, so you'll have to rely on this view constantly -- it's the only way to hit anything, but slows your movement to walking pace. Run-and-gun tactics aren't likely to succeed.

So what's the alternative? Often, you're expected to cross fire corridors or advance on a machine gun nest. Brothers in Arms cleverly introduces the concept of suppressing fire -- you, or the soldiers under your command, can direct fire at an enemy unit in order to intimidate them. You don't need to hit them or even be firing directly at them, but if you do it enough, the enemy unit will reduce its rate of fire and accuracy for a while.

Here's a perfect opportunity for a little knees-bent advancing behavior. Use the tactical view to spot a good flanking route, and while the enemy is suppressed, you can sneak around them for a clear shot. This is important in both single and multiplayer; thanks to the AI troops' excellent use of cover, this maneuver is useful throughout the game.

Circular icons above the enemy units' heads depict their current state of suppression (you can turn these off, which we'd recommend for dedicated realism fans). It's possible -- although by no means easy -- to solely rely on the shouts of your squad members and observing enemy behavior. This removes almost all on-screen interface elements, leaving nothing to get between you and Brothers in Arms' outstanding sense of immersion.

click to view screenshotNormandy's a pretty place, even when there's a war on. It looks good in Brothers in Arms, too. Although it's not a flashy game, the soldiers are well animated, the backgrounds are convincing, and weapon effects are realistic. Spaced out over the course of eight days, the game's levels darken and lighten appropriately with the time of day; it's a small touch, but one that encourages connection with Sgt. Baker and his squad.

Sound also deserves a mention. In proper Saving Private Ryan tradition, Brothers in Arms is absolutely stunning. Positional audio is constantly used to great effect, weapon sounds are so convincing you'll find it hard not brace yourself from the recoil of an MG-42, and the sounds of larger weapons like anti-aircraft guns and mortars are perfect. This game will show off a capable sound system to its full potential.

For once, Brothers in Arms pulls no punches with its violence and language. Here's a World War II game that isn't afraid of its subject matter: Realistic, obscenity-strewn dialogue and blood-spattered corpses are everywhere. Somehow, this approach is less offensive than all the EA-sanitized shooters out there -- it's a cliche, but war is hell, and we do those who died in Normandy a disservice when we pretend otherwise.

Multiplayer is also a cut above your average World War II first-person shooter. Four players on Xbox Live (and two on split-screen) can battle each other over ten objective-based maps. You'll generally have a few good men under your command in this mode too, and just like Ghost Recon, you can step into the shoes of one of your fellow men after dying.

In the overcrowded world of Second World War shooters, Brothers in Arms stands out. It's not just its uncompromising realism or its emotive theme, it's the whole package -- great looks, fantastic sound, and a gameplay and plot structure that promotes bonding with the men under your command. Wrap that up with a slick control method and, for once, some tactical depth, and you're left with a very special recipe.



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