"Even though most of the game amounts to repeating the same "suppress then flank" tactic over and over, the elaborate environments make each situation feel unique. It really feels like you're being sneaky when you traipse through a creek or dart past the underbrush for a clean shot... and running through an enemy-occupied town while planes crash and explode in the background is spectacular and INTENSE."
It ends in chaos. Stumbling about in a daze behind the wooden barricade, somehow avoiding the German troops' bullets, you struggle to find refuge inside the hornet's nest. People yell and scream in mixed languages, explosives spray dirt and dust through the air, but finally your hands free themselves from the mind's distractions and raise the rifle's sight. You turn to take aim... BLAM! You're down! You fall to the ground and lie there quietly bleeding, calmly watching the chaos around you. Another soldier -- a friend -- leaps to the top of the barricades, spreading his arms and baring his chest to enemy fire. "You want me? Fucking take me! Take meeeeee!"
With the image of his bloodied corpse etched on your eyes and the despair of crippled allies echoing in your ears, everything fades away.
A few seconds later, Ubisoft's Brothers in Arms borrows a trick from Prince of Persia and rewinds time to the beginning of Sergeant Matt Baker's mission. When the 101st Airborne's transport plane is unexpectedly peppered with incendiary fire, the entire squad is forced to jump prematurely. As squad leader, you're the first out the hatch, but not before a final thought: "I never asked to lead a squad."
It was an emotional beginning, because I was still reeling from the powerful ending. The following nineteen chapters jolted me back to harsh reality: Brothers in Arms is good clean fun. That's all.
The playable portion of the game begins with one man: Sergeant Matt Baker. He's no Howard "Fancy Action" Bowie -- Matt Baker is a sensitive poet at heart who's been involuntarily thrust into a position of leadership. Like any World War II first-person shooter, you'll run from one checkpoint to the next, shooting Germans and taking their weapons to replenish spent ammunition. The basic idea is to gather your scattered squadmates before heading towards the final confrontation. It's a cool concept, even if Final Zone II already did it 15 years ago.
Shortly into the game, you'll meet up with "Red", one of the best riflemen in the unit. After this fortunate reunion, the gameplay takes on a form unlike any other FPS. Red becomes your one-man firing team -- skilled at pinning down enemy troops. With intuitive and simple controls that let you lay down the law even while pinned, you can order Red to focus fire on a particular group of Germans, forcing them to hide and crouch for cover. Since they're busy hiding from Red's relentless barrage, the Germans shoot at you less often and less accurately... which gives you a great opportunity to personally run down and pop their unsuspecting heads from up close!
As you recover more lost comrades, you'll eventually lead two multi-person squads: the firing team and the assault team. The basic tactic remains the same; use the firing team to suppress the Germans and send the assault team on a flanking action. Even though most of the game amounts to repeating the same "suppress then flank" tactic over and over, the elaborate environments make each situation feel unique. It really feels like you're being sneaky when you traipse through a creek or dart past the underbrush for a clean shot... and running through an enemy-occupied town while planes crash and explode in the background is spectacular and INTENSE.
But excitement can be found in pretty much any good FPS. Brothers in Arms tried to further set itself apart with its authenticity (different from realism). One successful example of this is how crosshairs are turned off by default -- unless you go in and fiddle with the game options, you're expected to line up targets with each weapons' individual iron sights. It's such a simple change from the norm, but surprisingly cool; it's actually refreshing to be forced to carefully aim at enemies!
The game's other big draw is its supposedly genuine camaraderie and pretentious analysis of war. I say "supposedly" because it doesn't take a creative genius to spraypaint "war is hell" sentimentality all over their product. As if the designers' moral message weren't obvious enough, the soldiers you encounter fall into two polar camps:
ONE: Would-be philosophers who spend half their time finding deep meaning in mundane things like how people eat eggs. They spend the other half of their time whining about how much they hate war. Easily recognized by their frequent use of contrived metaphors.
TWO: Insensitive thugs who brag about shooting unprepared "Krauts". One gloats over shooting a German while he was drinking his morning Joe. Another laughs about capping a Kraut while he took a crap. "He was reaching for his gun, honest! *snicker*" Easily recognized by their obvious lack of intelligence.
Killing for the good of the world is apparently a foreign concept to Brothers in Arms. Despite its blatant political agenda, the game's thrilling battles make war seem fun. But the biggest inconsistency -- a HUGE failure for a game that banks on caring about the characters -- is that the pain of seeing your friends die is negated by the joy of seeing them miraculously rise from the dead for the next mission.
Sometimes I played it safe and careful like a good Commander... but sometimes I ordered one of my squads to assault a tank, knowing they'd die, just so that the distraction would buy me enough time to sneak around and drop a grenade down the steel bastard's hatch. But no matter which way I played, everything turned out okay. Generally, anyone can die and it won't matter because they'll come back to life. However! At one point, getting a guy killed in battle DOES end the mission. It's important to let him live to the end of the chapter... so that he can be killed seconds later in a scripted event. The problem is that since his death occurs mid-level, I wasn't sure whether he was destined to die, or whether it was somehow my fault!
Fortunately, Brothers in Arms doesn't rely on its poorly designed characters for depth. Like every modern FPS, it includes a multiplayer mode. I won't pretend to be an expert -- my mind's better suited to taking down AI opponents than real ones -- but I can still tell you what it's got. It's got objective-based squad combat that gives micro-management wizards a fighting chance against lone wolf FPS assassins. Playing Doom II against my ex-marine friend Joe was a suicidal exercise in futility, but Brothers in Arms lets you set an ambush or lay down some heavy fire to send even aces running for cover.
Also, the game occasionally varies the singleplayer mode's core action; sometimes you get to command a tank or complete special objectives like setting explosive charges on anti-aircraft guns. Personally, I love the token bloodbath segments, where you take over a German machine gun nest. I call it a bloodbath because, as soon as you man the machine gun, hordes of German soldiers conveniently decide to charge the nest head-on!
I of course respond to this show of fearless courage by mowing the fools down with rapid-fire, endless-ammunition machine gun DEATH. Like I said before, Brothers in Arms is good clean fun. That's all. And that's enough.
Staff review by Zigfried (March 22, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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