Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood

a game by Gearbox Software
Platforms: Wii, XBox, PC, Playstation 2
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See also: Brothers in Arms, First Person Shooter
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood

Played out in real-time between June 8 and 13,1944 (well, real-time without the boring bits), Brothers In Arms puts you in the army-issue boots of squad leader Sgt Matt Baker. You've been dropped behind enemy lines, separated from your scattered men, and are instrumental to the success of the Allied incursion into Normandy.

What first strikes you when you see Brothers In Arms is the astonishing detail in your fellow paratroopers - the way their eyeballs follow your movement, their sneers and snarls, the looks of fear and pain... Their faces are so life-like, it's honestly disconcerting the first time you see it. Your squad, who you gather together as the game progresses, are separated into two groups - one with heavy guns that can suppress German outfits, and the other with lighter armaments and grenades, who you can use to flank, sneak and outmanoeuvre the enemy.

Tres clever stuff this. If you were to come across a German machine-gun emplacement, for instance, it's your role to order your men, with one deft click of the mouse, to deliver some suppressive fire and pin them down while you and your light-footed squad members find a way to get a better shot. And you can take any route you want - this isn't a run-of-the-mill corridor blaster. You can choose any path for your tactical cleverness, whether it's through a field, around a farmhouse or leaping over the authentic Normandy ditches.

The Real Thing

And 'authentic' is the key word here. Every townhouse, out-house and henhouse has been lovingly recreated from veterans' memories, contemporary photos, aerial photography and developer visits to the battlefield. When you stand at Dead Man's Comer (so-called after the German officer who, in reality and in the game, was draped over a wrecked tank on a major Allied transport route) and gaze out over the burning town of Cotes D'Armor, then that's the exact same view soldiers would have seen back in 1944.

Death By Tank

Even historical events - such as a paratrooper getting tangled in a tree directly above a German mobile kitchen and being used as target practice - are directly recreated. Even the hand signals you frantically wave at your petrified troops are direct from the fields of WWII combat. There's no Call Of Duty-style Panzerfaust-lugging solo heroics either -you won't be destroying four tanks per level. Here, the metal beasts are as they truly were: killing machines that'll be a terrifying proposition to take down.

A storm is currently brewing in the realms of the squad-based shooter, with Close Combat: First to Fight, SWAT 4, Ghost Recon 2 and Conflict: Vietnam all vying for the top spot. But our money is currently on the untamed action of Brothers In Arms and the pedigree of Gearbox, who developed the supreme Half-Life expansion pack Opposing Force and, most recently. Halo on PC. Gearbox isn't talking about what it's got powering it yet either, but we do know of another engine that has similarly jawdropping facial animation...

Download Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood

Wii

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

XBox

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Playstation 2

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Game Reviews

"Everybody Fights. Nobody quits. Always attack. It's the kind of rallying cry that helped fortify the spirits of the brave men of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment minutes before they dropped into Normandy in a daring and massively successful bid to flank the German defenders during the D-Day landings.

Today however, the mantra is aimed at a bunch of pot-bellied, dishevelled journalists, and bellowed by John Antal, recently retired US colonel and military adviser on Gearbox's mouth-moistening WWII shooter Brothers In Arms.

For the past three and a half years, Gearbox has been feverishly researchin the role that the 502nd regiment played during the Allies' Normandy invasion in World War II. It's done this by regularly travelling to France on detailed research trips, studying air reconnaissance photographs from 1944 and speaking to countless WWII veterans about the war. Add to this Antal's 30 years of tactical and historical military experience and you've got all the ingredients to make a less epic, but hopefully much more focused and emotional WWII recreation.

So It Begins

And so we find ourselves in a Normandy chateaux on a blustery, rain-soaked night, psyched up by Antal and ready to experience the game after a gruelling day of shadowing the team's final few field research trips. And as we're about to find out, Gearbox's attention to detail has not only paid off like a winning rollover lottery ticket, it could, along with the likes of Half-Life 2, be about to herald a new era in FPS development.

Gearbox's president Randy Pitchford loads up the game's first mission. Thirteen men, faces contorted with fear stand nervously in a low-flying plane bucked by incessant enemy anti-aircraft fire. Each man's face tells a different story, displaying a subtly different emotion.

But Pitchford doesn't linger long on this opening mission, instead jumping to a later level set at Dead Man's Corner, a local junction in the small French town of Carentan that we'd visited only hours earlier. The recreation of the area was staggering, even down to the red-and-white window panes that framed each house's windows.

Controlling the game's main character, Sergeant Baker, Pitchford orders his team to move out, doubletiming up a steep slope towards a farm where German forces await, each paratrooper running with the lifelike movements of a soldier carrying a heavy kitbag.

Man Management

Unlike the epic, scripted battles of Call Of Duty: United Offensive, Brothers In Arms is all about controlling a small squad of troops in tactically intense battlefield situations through the use of an intuitive, context-sensitive command system. It's not long before we see it in action as Pitchford's squad comes under intense fire from German forces ensconced in a derelict farmhouse.

You'll always be in command of two squads: a fire team and an assault team. The first team suppresses the enemy, while the assault team moves in to kill the enemy, explains Pitchford as he orders his men to take cover. "With the right mouse button, I can issue orders with the context-sensitive command system. If I point to the ground, I can order my men to move to that position. If I point at the enemy, I order them to attack."

As the battle unfolds, Pitchford expertly executes his commands with single, right mouse button clicks. While his fire team autonomously searches out suitable cover, he leads his assault team round the back of the Nazis. But they've spotted his intent, and the Al controlled enemies desperately try to keep pace with Pitchford's team to avoid being flanked while ducking for cover and returning fire at his now dug-in fire team.

"Even the enemy are like real people - they don't want to die and so they won't just charge at you. They want to live, so they use fire and manoeuvre tactics against you," Pitchford explains. He then points to the red circles that've appeared above each enemy's head. "These circles are suppression monitors," he continues. "They tell you how suppressed every enemy soldier is, but if you want the game to be even more realistic, you can turn them off and not know."

Freeze Frame

Suddenly, the firefight stops, men freezing as though suspended in time. Pitchford introduces this as the Situational Awareness view, a feature that enables you to fly over the battlefield and assess the status of your and the enemy's men in an RTS-style. Zooming in, he reveals a breathtaking level of detail, including puffs of smoke, scorched stone, realistic muzzle flashes, splintering wood, cowering soldiers and a perfect recreation of the area we'd visited earlier in the day.

Watching Pitchford play Brothers In Arms is akin to sitting through a war movie. The realism, detail and eyeball-bursting effects, along with the screams, explosions, and surroundings induce a true sense of fear and panic, the kind that must have been felt by the thousands of men who took part in the liberation of France.

Adaptation

But what's caught our attention more than anything is the Al, which acts more like a fragile human terrified of death than a characterless Al drone. Unlike most other shooters which only have one or two levels of Al, Brothers In Arms has four, explains Pitchford.

Simulated Intelligence tells the enemy when and how to move, pick a target and shoot. Expert Systems Intelligence is where the environment speaks to the Al. So a certain location may say to the Al that it's a good place to use for cover, or to hide. Or it can tell them that there's a window they can climb through or a wall they can jump over or crouch behind to take cover.

Then we have Situational Al, which gives commands to the enemy, the same way that you can give commands to your troops. It notes what's going on in the battle and helps the Germans use fire and manoeuvre tactics. It works out where all of the Germans are, how many are still alive and then breaks them up into teams. So if you order your men to try and flank the enemy on the left, the Germans can react to that and try to move the same way to stop you. You can hear them yelling instructions at each other, because that's how the Nazi forces were trained - like a football team. The fourth Al system is the scripted event, but unlike most other FPSs, you won't see this very often."

Having seen Brothers In Arms at such close quarters and visited the real-life locations, it's clear that it's shaping up to be a top-notch shooter, vindicating Gearbox's years of painstaking research. The engine's ability to render realistic facial expressions and mannerisms brings a whole new real-world dimension, while the battles come closer to depicting the horror of WWII skirmishes than most other squad-based shooters we've seen. Roll on October.

We Really should have seen it coming. I mean, they did develop the most tactically astute WWII shooter on the market, so what did we expect? Randy Pitchford and his battle-worn regulars at Gearbox Software have just routed us. We thought we'd had the last word with our Brothers In Arms review a few issues back, but they just launched a blistering counteroffensive, sneaking around and jabbing a bigger, better follow-up into our hopelessly exposed flanks. Meanwhile, our attentions were focused elsewhere, scanning the horizon for the customary holiday expansion pack. But that would have been too predictable. Instead, Gearbox has struck back with a fully-fledged sequel called Earned In Blood, which not only promises a lavish array of new single and multiplayer missions, but directly counters each and every criticism we fired at the first game. Now we know how Jerry must have felt on that fateful day in June of '44...

The Big Push

Of course, it's great news really. We thoroughly enjoyed the first Brothers In Arms, and actually said in our review that we'd love to see a follow-up that tidies up some of the shortcomings of the first game. We just didn't expect it so damn soon. As Gearbox chief Randy Pitchford explains: We kinda lied because we didn't want to talk about Earned In Blood, but we've been working on it for a long time. In fact we've been working on it since before the first game shipped. We had to, because it's really a big game. It's a bigger game, it's a better game, and it's got some new features that have never been done before.

Exactly what those are we'll get to in due course, but for now let's stick to the broad picture. Earned In Blood picks up exactly where Road To Hill 30 left off. Having liberated Carentan and fought off the German counterattack, the 101st Airborne and the rest of the invasion force now have to push forward and pinch off the whole Cherbourg peninsula. This time, instead of Sgt Matt Baker (the unwilling hero of the first game), you take the role of Joe Red' Hartsock, formerly Baker's fire team leader but now a sergeant in his own right. When it came to making the new game, says Pitchford, we thought, what if we could be Hartsock? He's cool, he's gung-ho, he's got a lot of ambition, plus there's always been this tension between him and Baker. So let's become Hartsock, let's take this character to the next level and see this tension from a different perspective."

Street Fighter

Like the first game, Earned In Blood will be split into 20 chapters. The difference is, each chapter is about 50 per cent larger than before, with broader battlefields and many more combat encounters. The emphasis will be much more on urban warfare, leaving the classic Normandy hedgerows behind and taking the action to the streets.

It's all about liberating the towns, says Pitchford. It's street-to-street combat, house to house, town to town, with the bombed-out shells of buildings all around. It's a very different look and feel.

City fighting also comes with its own set of tactics. Gaining the high ground will be key, as will flushing enemies out of buildings with grenades and avoiding ambush in the narrow urban byways. It's a whole new game of dice.

By far the biggest transformation, however, is the nature of the enemy you'll be facing. Where the enemies of the first game were predictable, scripted and just begging to be outflanked, the opponents in Earned In Blood now have minds and manoeuvres of their own, and they know all your favourite moves.

In Road To Hill 30" says Pitchford, we took a lot of risks with squad combat, but we relied upon what we called situational Al for the enemies, where the designers had to set it all up. For Earned In Blood, we've got a dynamic system where the Germans react using their own logic. Now. the enemy actually manoeuvres on you, uses tactics against you, will hunt you down and kill you." Anyone who's played the first game will realise the importance of this. As good as the 'find, fix and flank' system was. the encounters in Road To Hill 30 were very one-sided, with the hapless Germans falling for the same schoolboy tactics every time. Giving them the same options as you, and the awareness to put them into effect means we should see a much more fluid, unpredictable battlefield.

To demonstrate this, Pitchford loads up a typical-looking encounter from the new game, with two German squads facing Pitchford's boys across a lowwalled, squarish patch of turf. Watch this. I'm going to make a mistake on purpose. I'm going to tell both my units to fire on this group of enemies here, and totally ignore this group over here. And I'm going to try and flank them myself from this direction." So saying. Pitchford leaves his teams behind and hunches his way around the corner to his right. Spotting his ruse quickly, the ignored German unit reacts by moving to the left on the other side of the square. Look - they're manoeuvring. They're flanking me in the other direction. I'm going to get my Assault team out of there, and there you go. they flanked me - they just killed my entire fire team." Clearly pleased with himself, Randy turns the whole battlefield around 180 degrees, manoeuvring his one remaining team around the square way until the Germans are on the opposite side. See, totally dynamic.

The new Al smarts also call for a different approach to level design. Without the luxury of being able to pin the Nazis down to specific, dug-in positions, the levels have become more open and unimpeded. Choke points can now be approached from several different directions, meaning confrontations will play out very differently depending on the route you take. All things considered, you better hope they don't spot you first.

Go Team

Clearly, the single-player game has pushed ahead into some exciting new territory. The gameplay promises to be far more lively and unpredictable than the first outing, bringing the series that much closer to its famous claims of authenticity. As you'd expect, the multiplayer side is also getting a spitshine, but as well as enhancing the existing, competitive multiplayer mode with ten new missions and tweaked gameplay, Gearbox is developing that rarest of things, a two-player co-op mode.

The way it works is this: one player is Matt Baker, hero of Hill 30, and the other is Red Hartsock, new boy in town. Together they fight Nazis, each taking control of one squad of paratroopers. There's also another, completely separate set of German missions where you get to play the other side for a change.

As with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the co-op mode required its own set of custom missions to make it work, though in this case there's no homoerotic grappling involved. Says Randy: As far as I know we're the first WWII game ever to have a co-op feature, and that's really exciting, because this game is about brotherhood. It's all about soldiers fighting together.

Cunningly, the ten co-operative environments can each be played in a variety of ways to extend their longevity. The one we had a crack at was a bunkerstyle affair, in which you have to breach some enemy defences before blowing up an anti-aircraft battery. In the default mode, it's a straightforward objectivebased mission, but you can also play it as a defend-the-hill style game, a time trial or a variety of other skill-based challenges. As Pitchford says: It's different if you're attacking the bunker from if you're in the bunker."

While it's too early to pass judgement, the co-operative game seems a worthwhile addition to the series - our only complaint being that when you die, you have to sit around while your mate carries on. You either twiddle your thumbs until he dies, or you reset the mission. It's tough, huh?" says Pitchford. But we wanted that, we wanted a different kind of feeling in co-op. The other multiplayer mode is more about competition and fun - this is all about teamwork, and there's a certain tension that comes when there's no magic there. The idea, especially in the Tour Of Duty mode, is to see how many missions you can beat together without dying. If you can do 53 missions together, you're jammin'. And we're going to count that online so you can see who's gotten the farthest."

It seems like a reasonable idea. We would have preferred the option of playing through the single-player storyline in coop, but it's certainly not a bad compromise. It also proves Gearbox isn't just cashing in with a weak follow-up too soon after the original game. There's real substance here, a lot more than in Road To Hill 30, and it's looking more and more like that game was just a warm-up.

Shellshock

When You're Almost Blown Up, But Not Quite

One small but cool new tweak to the game is in the area of concussion effects you're near an explosion. Depending on how close you are and the size of the you'll now suffer a range of effects including blurred vision, ringing ears, loss of hearing and loss of co-ordination. In the most severe cases - say if a building explodes right under you - you'll actually be knocked off your feet and drop your weapon, forcing you to get up (after a brief incapacitation) and scramble around in the dust for your gun. Which can be most inconvenient when you're being shot at.

Gun Crazy

A Couple Of New Weapons Revealed, If That Sort Of Thing Turns You On

It's always tricky to bring new weapons into a WWII series, given that you can only work within the realms of reality, but Earned In Blood nonetheless manages to produce a few new toys to keep the gun nuts happy. On the German side you get the FG42, a versatile scoped rifle carried by the Fallschirmjager or German paratroopers. For the Yanks, you get the M3 grease gun', a compact, rapid-fire SMG you might remember from Call of Duty. The M3 is a tanker weapon, says Randy Pitchford, but as the war progressed the paratroopers got their hands on some of these things. Now that we're going beyond Hill 30 we can plausibly introduce these new weapons.

What, Already? But we only just finished the first one... Yes, that's right - it may seem like we've only just stepped off the ferry with the traditional armfuls of flickcombs, bangers, shurikens and exotic playing cards, but it's time to turn right around and go back to the fields of Normandy. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and heavily-armoured girls, bid welcome to Brothers In Arms 2 Or, more precisely, Brothers In Arms J-and-three-fifths! And a bit! But more of that later.

For those late to the battlefield, Earned In Blood follows its predecessor in its earnest portrayal of squad shootery. From a first-person perspective, it's down to you to deliver orders to two units of men (or sometimes one unit of men and a dinky little tank) through the magical medium of right-clicking. Gameplay revolves around ordering one fire-team to position themselves behind something solid and lay suppressing fire on the enemy, giving your assault team time to nip on over to another patch of cover to lay down further support or, indeed, to flank and find a line of sight that'll allow you to take down the bothersome Nazis. Guns are inaccurate and it's tactics that win the day, rather than headshots taken from a mile away. It's then the game's job to throw into the mix a cavalcade of unexpected tanks, heavily fortified gun emplacements and a seeming myriad of possible points of cover (far more than the previous offering), to ensure that you think on your feet or, indeed, face-down in a muddy ditch.

Backtrack

A little bit of scene setting is perhaps required before we get to the nitty gritty. Road To Hill 30 got an odd reception. The powers that be (like us) really quite enjoyed it. and a lot of you did as well. Some, however, didn't - and waved their angry sticks all through grumpy town in protest Brothers In Arms was a hard game to 'get', especially when the forced simplicity of earlier levels gave off very little of the fast-paced and tactical thinking needed later in the game. The first two or three hours were spent thinking, 'Meh. Not l Call Of Duty,' beyond which point thoughts b became. 'Ooh. Not really that comparable to Call Of Duty at all.' Road To Hill 30 was not a un-of-the-mill shooter it was a high-intensity tactical puzzle game with a sideline.

In heavy weapons. That said, in this 'reviewer's opinion, in the face of other accusations the band of armed brothers stood guilty as charged: a definite tang of Xbox cosiness, enemies who didn't like moving very much and bizarre invisible walls blocking your way should you dare to stray from the straight and narrow.

And so we come to Earned In Blood, a game that ratchets the format up in the necessary departments (though sadly not very much graphically) and rolls off the production presses with less rough edges and a cheeky gleam in its eye. It won't stop the nay-sayers from repeating their mantra of 'nay', especially since the good stuff (as in the first game) doesn't really start to shine until a third of the way through, but it certainly builds sufficiently on the foundations of Hill 30.

Red Menace

For one. storytelling and character interaction is far improved from the last jaunt Rather than continuing with the tale of Matt Baker, you're now beneath the ginger mop-top of 'Red' Hartsock, Baker squad-member and antagonist. Instead of going down the obvious route of picking up with Red's promotion at the close of Hill 30, events runs in parallel with the first game - covering the times in which Baker was tying his shoelaces and didn't notice that Red was off liberating churchyards and laying down flares for incoming gliders.

The story tells itself through the pouring of Red's deepest feelings upon a kindly military journalist, but it really is a little too earnest and deliberately tearjerking for this journalist's sensibilities. Both Brothers In Arms games have, for me, fallen between the two stools of high-intensity and cloying emotion: never really bridging the gap between characters getting blown up by tanks and shouting F***i" anc| the swirling violins of emotion that smother the cut-scenes. A lot of effort has clearly been put into characters, but a distance remains between yourself and your squad - simply because you think of them not as real people, but instead as the sort of stock characters replete with the same stock phrases that claw for audience sympathy in the works of Jerry Bruckheimer et al. Harsh words perhaps, and words that I suspect are more apt for this side of the Atlantic than the other, but it's true, despite the clear improvements in the plot and storytelling that lie elsewhere.

Contrary to expectation, the game doesn't play itself out entirely around the wrecked boulangeries of gallic towns. There's still an awful lot of fields and farmhouses to navigate - which is a shame, since the best levels are without a shadow of a doubt those that take place around railways, warehouses and the back-garden washing lines of civic properties.

This is perhaps because, despite all the tomfoolery associated with the game and authenticity, wrecked towns are a lot easier to identify with for us armchair commandos than fields with odd hedge formations. The zones of action, meanwhile, are certainly wider than before and give off a reduced tang of linearity - you still can't climb over some clearly scalable gates and hedges, but a ton of extra points of cover give you far more choice in terms of the way you plough.

Ver, Ver Clever

The ante has also been slightly upped in the opposition. The Reich are a bit brainier and move around the shop in response to whatever tricks you're trying to pull. Now this doesn't mean that they regularly jump out around corners or hunt you down - that would destroy the rubric of the game. But if you leave your team suppressing a group of Nazis on one side of a warehouse and get 'spotted creeping around to the other side in anattempt at flanking, then they'll split up and some will race across to the side in an .attempt to cut you off at the pass. They'll also flank you from time to time, often being funnelled down towards you by the level design, or pile towards you if you've worked your way behind them and are looking dangerous. In short, the Al action of Earned In Blood certainly exceeds that of its i predecessor - even if your buddies still occasionally prefer to dash through enemy fire, or sometimes stand in it, rather than taking the safer, scenic route.

As before, the game ensures that you perpetually feel that death is only ever an inch away. Death in Earned In Blood is frequent - extremely frequent. It can often become frustrating, but there really is no I feeling quite like having your fire-team bullet-ridden and your assault team wporised by a distant tank and being forced into becoming a lone-wolf, one-man-army. It hardly ever works, but when it does - and you finally reach that crate of Panzerfausts with a shred of health left and take out that final rumbling tank -you really get the feeling of elation and heroism that Gearbox has been so intent on capturing. Earned In Blood is a game for people who liked to be seriously challenged; there's a lot of slamming of keyboards involved, but the satisfaction of a well-executed manoeuvre is second to none.

Quoi De Neuf?

The issue remains, however, that this is being touted as a sequel. And it doesn't feel like a sequel - it feels like a really good expansion pack. It's because we're fighting in the same sorts of places as before; it's because it all seems pretty similar graphicswise; it's because it feels like we only completed this game the other day; and it's because all the advances Gearbox has made are tweaks rather than revolutions. Remarks such as, 'The developer has also fixed mouse-look in the handy top-down Situational Awareness mode!' shouldn't really be the preserve of a review of a true sequel. What saves it, however, is a veritable treasure trove of additional features - the discovery of which is much akin to the first time you feverishly flip through disc two in the collectors' edition of your favourite DVD. Whoever came up with the skirmish modes (see 'Brothers That Play Together', above) should be given one of the much-coveted Brothers In Arms medals. And while we're at the medal-giving ceremony, the sound guy who came up with the idea of recording drizzle splattering against gun metal should also be similarly celebrated.

Pleasing the fans then, but not likely to win a barrelful of new ones, Earned In Blood is content to plough the self-same furrow as its forbear - albeit a deeper and more 'furrow-ey' one. Buoyed by extra content, yet lacking a proper sense of real progression from the last outing, it nevertheless remains a well-designed foray that taps into parts of the gaming brain that habitually lie dormant. It still seems to think that bales of hay are bulletproof though, something that as a farmer's son I'd like to call into question.

For 30 Years, Colonel John Antal (retired) served in the US Army, which is why Gearbox Software hired him as its military adviser on a project that could well be the most spectacular and viscerally realistic WWII shooter to date, Brothers In Arms. During his recent visit to the UK, I caught up with Antal and subjected him to a torturous interrogation about the game (he didn't crack), before trembling mitts on it.

Brothers In Arms follows the exploits of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment during the D-Day landings, and since I last saw the game five months ago it's progressed significantly. The much-vaunted four-tier Al system (most shooters only have two) has been shored up, while the tactically intense firefights have been honed to even greater levels of realism. All of this detail and authenticity follows being privileged enough to get my years of painstaking research conducted by Antal and Gearbox. Every battle in the game is a true battle, he explains. The way we show the German and American forces and their tactics - they're all authentic. We believe that we're making the most authentic WWII shooter ever.

Thanks to Antal's expert input, Brothers In Arms is being stringently designed to conform to real-life battlefield tactics, whereby you and your squad must first find the enemy, then fix them with fire, flank them and finally, finish them. But does it actually work? Antal urged me to find out for myself by doubletiming me to a nearby PC for some quality hands-on action.

The first thing that struck me was just how real the world looked and felt. The attention to detail is already phenomenal, and we're convinced the game is using either the Source engine, or a heavily modified version of Halo's PC incarnation - something that at the time of writing Gearbox was not willing to confirm or deny. Whatever the technology though, it generates eerily lifelike models, and it was almost impossible not to feel immersed up to the eyeballs in this war-torn world.

Hey! I Was Just Looking

It wasn't long before my picturesque tour was cut short by an entrenched group of machine gun-packing Germans. Bullets hissed past my ears, a hunk of lead biting into one of my men and toppling him in a torrent of blood. German and American shouts melded with the snapping of bullets, the enemy bellowing orders while my men cried out in fear at being left so exposed by their leader (me).

I had to act fast. Using my extensive military training (a couple of sessions down the local Lazer Quest). I ordered my remaining two men to take cover with the intuitive, context-sensitive command interface. Placing the cursor on the Germans I ordered my squad to lay down suppressing fire and watched as helmeted enemy heads ducked for dear life, Suppression Meters (which appear above each enemy's head and inform you how much of a threat foes pose) betraying their vulnerability.

Using the Situational Awareness feature that allows you to pause and zoom out of the action to assess the battlefield, I spotted a route that would allow me to flank the enemy. Jumping back to realtime, I left the squad and dived down a side alley, dispensing two more lurking Jerries as I weaved my way through the rustic town and emerged right behind the enemy, which was still distracted by my squad's barrage of bullets.

I'll Take You All On

Switching from rifle to a sub-machine gun (your character can only carry two weapons at any one time), I homed in with the gun's sights - to keep the game authentic, your weapons have no crosshairs - then popped out the enemy's brains with precision shots. I sat back, breathless. Antal simply smiled knowingly. The Al is very intelligent. It talks to you and the game is dynamic, not scripted. You tell your soldiers a direction to move in, and they act as trained soldiers, explained John. It was hard to argue with the man given what I'd just been through.Your troops will talk to you about their feelings and tell you when they can't do something, he continued. They'll always obey your orders relatively. They're trained soldiers and want to do what you tell them to, but they're also human beings.

But time was running short, so John teleported me to a level that would show off the game's painstakingly recreated vehicles, or as was the case here, a bloody great tank.

The tanks are tremendous," exclaimed Antal as I climbed onto the back of the hulking metal beast and took control of its mounted machine gun. In other games, tanks stand still and shoot their machine guns till you take them out. In BIA, tanks act realistically. You can't just take one out with a grenade - you have to flank it and use proper anti-tank weapons. The tank crew will also act intelligently when it sees the enemy. We've even made sure that the turret can't turn when you're manning the machine gun, otherwise it would knock you off." The proof was right in front of me.

Nazis spilled out of the surrounding forests, taking cover in ditches in futile attempts to escape the tank's devastating turret blasts and the bullets from my incessantly chattering machine gun. Issuing the tank with orders was just as quick and easy as ordering my squad, and having made the most of the combined arms available to me here (tank at the front, men taking cover at the rear), the surrounding area was soon a sea of dead jack-booted bodies.

Brothers In Arms is certainly shaping up to be every bit as good as Gearbox claims. There are still some rough edges to be ironed out, but all of the evidence appears to be pointing towards a game that could well merge hardcore realism with tun, intuitive gameplay in one exquisite historically accurate FPS package. And if Gearbox pulls it off, then Brothers In Arms could be one of the best shooters of 2005.

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