Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is an epic game that attempts to take a different route through World War II. For a start it's based on a true story, the story of Sgt. Matt Baker a real life member of the 101st Airborne Division. So the week long story that begins the night before D-Day runs over 17 chapters of gameplay and the missions are indeed close to those that Baker and his Platoon would have done.
BIA is not a standard FPS by a long shot, sure it's a FPS set in WWII and it has many similarities with other WWII shooters, but it's set firmly apart by the slower pace of the story and the less emphasis on 'run and gun' action that are staples of other shooters in this genre. You are given a squad that you can control with a simple 'point and go' interface and this can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The squad plays an important role in BIA and they're not just a bunch of mindless and faceless NPCs either, these are people that you're trying to bring home safe and sound. Later on in the game you'll find yourself in command of larger squads, fireteams and even tanks.
Thankfully, the developers included a situational awareness mode. The mode puts the game in pause and zooms out to an overhead view; this view has some limited zoom and rotation and provides a crow's eye of the current area. New contacts are picked out and you can see enemies positions relative to your own and that of your squads.
The battles in BIA are chaotic and the enemy makes good use of cover, hiding behind objects in the game world and poking out to crack off a shot or two. You get an icon letting you know if they're suppressed or not, these status indicators were used to a great effect in Pandemic's: Full Spectrum Warrior and are nice to see here, providing another good tool to simulate your character's awareness training compared to the player.
Having these tools at your disposal means you can concentrate on a different play style, using proper tactics and flanking moves to get the better of the enemy forces. Will you get your squad to lay down cover fire and keep the enemy's head down, while you charge around with another squad or on your own to get behind them, or will you try and move yourself and your squad into a better position? These decisions are part of what makes the game so much more than the run of the mill WWII shooter.
I did notice that you can't order your squads to lob grenades and while the AI will occasionally throw them, it would have really been nice to have the option to place a pineapple with a quick command.
The missions are very well designed and have you assaulting small towns, clearing out debris from a field so that gliders can land safely and there's even a moment when you get to play a 'shooting range' style of mission while on defence with a sniper rifle.
Depending on the mission you'll be in command of different squads and people, doing various tasks and watching Baker's story unfold throughout.
To help you accomplish the task the command GUI is a ring affair that pops up when you hit the left trigger. Move it around the landscape and confirm your orders, it's as simple as that and off the AI will go in an attempt to follow through.
Finally a word of caution to the zealous FPS player, BIA has the crosshair set off by default so you'll be forced to aim using the weapon's iron-sight or scope, this means that while moving your shots won't be as accurate and only by kneeling or staying still will you actually get a decent chance to hit the enemy.
BIA story is told through some amazingly well directed cut-scenes (non skippable) that capture the spirit and grim nature of the war perfectly. The use of camera angles and the atmosphere in the game's in-engine footage is superb to the extent that you feel like you could be watching a movie, it's leaps and bounds above the Medal of Honor series in this respect and many others.
The enemy AI in BIA is extremely competent and will hunt you down, attempt to get into a better position and use cover where it's needed. They will also stay behind cover if suppressed and their firing accuracy and morale suffers while under a hail of bullets, they'll occasionally try and get a shot off but most of the time it will be wide and will miss.
Your squad AI is comparable to some of the AI seen in other squad based shooters and has a habit of sometimes, taking the wrong route to the enemy. In general however they will stack up behind cover and keep out of the line of fire, if they are forced to head through a line of fire into danger they'll return fire and move slowly from cover to cover.
BIA is a good looking game and it's firmly rooted in the gritty reality of the war, so everything has the dirty and used feel to it. All the textures might seem a little drab and uninviting but that's a conscious design decision on behalf of the makers of the game, not a fault with the colour palette. The little touches add to the realism such and heavy gunfire kicking up dirt into the camera and the odd spray of blood in game.
The cut-scenes can get quite graphic and have a good amount of gore in them sometimes, again however this is a war game and not a walk in the park, anyone that expects to see people bleed candy rather than blood needs to buy a different game.
A good use of spot special-fx and lighting throughout brings to life the dull overcast days and the muddy fields of battle, immersing you deeper than before as the ground throws up clods of dirt as grenades and tank shells go off, whizzing bullets pink from cover and there's not a single drop of a frame anywhere to be seen.
BIA features a good solid mission design and the various buildings and scenery look as though they've been plucked right out of the time period. There's been a lot of careful attention paid to the placement of in-game objects and you really get a feel for being in that time, looking for the right cover to hide behind and hoping that the bush you're kneeling by is sufficient to stop the prying eyes of the enemy.
Central to any war game is the placement of the game's environment, so roads, trees and bushes have all been set up to recreate villages and towns, there doesn't seem a rock or stone out of place and nothing in the design impacts the willing suspension of disbelief.
Models and Animations
Along with the good solid graphics and design, the game features nice character models and virtually authentic weapons, the look and feel of the hardware Baker and his squad used has been captured down to the polished wood of the stock or the spot of dirt on the uniform. Vehicles, both allied and enemy are all suitably and competently modelled and have the right amount of detail, from nuts and bolts on tanks to the petrol tank on a jeep.
Some of the character models do look a bit lifeless around the facial area, especially the way they move their eyes...it brings to mind the Autons from Dr. Who the animated shop dummies and so forth, but not as bad, I would have however still liked to see a lot more character and detail in the facial area of the figures.
Overall the animations in BIA are top notch, the way the troops carry their weapons and move from cover to cover, firing and then moving again is very well done. The facial animations render the figures a little lifeless at times and this is an area that really needed to be looked at a lot more deeply, especially since we're supposed to identify with all these people and care for them as our Brothers in Arms.
Sound and Music
Weapons, vehicles and spot sounds in the game are pretty much top notch with a good degree of variance between how the various weapons and game objects sound. Tanks have a distinct terrifying rumble that you can hear immediately and the snap-click of the Springfield bolt-action is captured pretty much to perfection.
The music in BIA only appears in menus and not in game, this I feel is another choice made by the developers to keep the realism levels higher than normal. While stirring war-tunes and overtures do set the gamer's blood running and pumping, it's highly unlikely unless there's a TARDIS around that the soldiers would have had an MP3 player running in the background. So I really do think this is an excellent choice on behalf of the game's makers and really does add to the immersion, it's nicer to hear the spot effects and the various bullets thudding or ricocheting around without a soundtrack to get in the way.
There are lots of great performances in BIA that really do add depth to the enemies and the characters themselves, there's also a lot of swearing and this game pulls no punches in that department, people who are put off by cussing in games and yet will happily watch a documentary or mini-series on TV (and let their kids watch it) that contains foul language, should not complain about a game that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of World War II.
BIA multi aspect is firmly rooted in FPS traditions, those of games such as the original Quake based Team Fortress which sees one team on attack and the other on defence, throw in a liberal spreading of concepts from Counter Strike and Rainbow Six and you have yourself a winner, but there's also a tiny twist in BIA MP that really does set it into a league of its own.
Each player also gets to command a squad of men, bringing the same gameplay mechanics from the SP game into the MP and allowing for a situational awareness mode (with no pause) to make things interesting.
If your squad mate goes down you can take command of another and another until you're forced to respawn as the last element member dies. Then you're back in the game and so on, setting bombs or defusing them, attacking or defending objectives is what it's all about.
It's the added challenge of commanding and using a squad that makes the BIA MP a league above other games and across Xbox LIVE it's truly stunning, add to this a split-screen mode for those of you who don't have LIVE and the game attempts to provide for all tastes.
The final shot
You can unlock a lot of content with BIA which includes photographs and so on, extra goodies and the usual concept art. The SP game is fun, thrilling and the addition of the squad control transforms what could have been a generic WWII shooter into a thoroughly enjoyable game, complete with a reason to watch the story unfold as the cut-scenes are often darkly humorous and very dramatic.
The MP aspect of BIA will be a big hit with team players and the fact you can control a squad in MP adds even more to the dynamics of the gameplay, giving players a huge range of options compared to normal and boring deathmatch-style games, where MP is just an afterthought and not a fully developed addition.
I would have liked to see BIA feature a SP coop mode since these kinds of games are tailored towards it, any game that doesn't have coop built in starts to loose scores from me these days since I am sick of adversarial MP - it's a concept that's fun but looses the shine compared to teaming up with a buddy and taking on levels together.
Halo proved it and the new Splinter Cell game proves it even more with the addition of the coop MP. Let's hope that for a sequel the developers choose to pack the game or future non-sequel games with lots of MP goodness and appeal to the coop crowd!
BIA is a more-than worthy addition to the over-crowded WWII shooter genre in general and provides much more than just a run-and-gun game, it's a thrill-ride from start to finish that coupled with the different skill levels and realism-style gameplay won't appeal to the instant action crowd or immediately leap out and grab some gamers, but if you stick with it - you'll be rewarded.