Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brothers in Arms: Thoughts after a Complete Series Playthrough

Thanks to a recent Steam sale I have been playing Gearbox's Brothers in Arms series of PC games:

Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30 (2005), Metacritic score 87.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood (2005), Metacritic score 84.
Brothers in Arms: Hells Highway (2008), Metacritic 78

Curiously my reactions to the games are in exactly the opposite order to their Metacritic scores. I was immensely frustrated by the first game and almost gave up on it. Road to Hill 30 was widely praised for its squad based gameplay but I found the system tedious. In most missions you are given a fire team and an assault team in order to implement classic find, fix, flank and finish  (4F) tactics but the suppression mechanic  which is a vital element of any squad based shooter is in my opinion broken. If you direct a squad to suppress an enemy unit they will fire at them until the unit is suppressed and then stop firing. The enemy squad will only stay suppressed for about 10 seconds before popping back to full awareness leaving you with a very narrow time window in which to manoeuvre yourself and your assault squad.   In addition the squads' fire-power, general survivability and path-finding  are so poor that they only suffice in the most straightforward of situations. If you are facing multiple enemies, or if the terrain is not obvious or if the  enemy has heavy weaponry then you are going to have to do the dirty work yourself. This is rendered an exercise in frustration however because the game enforces a ridiculous amount of aim jitter. The only solution really is endless patience waiting for jitter to subside between every shot. A final unforgivable element was the number of dreadful unskippable cut-scenes. Having finished the series I realise that these serve some value in telling the story but they sure as hell annoyed me when I was forced to sit through them.

I actually enjoyed the second game more despite the fact that it has almost identical mechanics and is even set in some of the same locations. I think this is because I had gotten used to game play and I no longer tried to follow the 4F routine blindly. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to do most of the killing myself and use my squads mainly as targets to distract some enemy bullets.  

I wasn't expecting much of an improvement when I started Hells Highway but I was very surprised. First impression was how much more cinematic the whole thing was. Graphics, sound effects, acting and direction are all much much better. The story is a lot more complicated too. So complicated that I still don't know what it was about (something involving a cursed pistol and a guy with glasses) but somehow that doesn't matter. The game-play also got a complete revamp. Gone is the pretence that this is not a first person shooter and you can finally shoot straight. There is a cover system and auto regenerating health which makes you practically invincible so you can  try to take on the whole German army single handedly. You don't have to though because the squads are also vastly improved. They have more fire power often carrying heavy machine guns and bazookas. They have better path-finding and  joy of joys they can suppress enemies and keep them suppressed. All of this combines to make this episode a lot easier than its predecessors but I don't care. It is just much more fun to play. If you have any doubt over Gearbox's desire to make the game fun consider the fact that MG42 machine guns can now be picked up, carried around and fired from the hip.

Another not to be overlooked plus for Hells Highway is that it isn't set in Normandy. We finally get to see a town other than Carentan as we follow our soldiers exploits in Holland during the ultimately futile Operation Market Garden.

The game does have some flaws. The story as I have already mentioned is incomprehensible and the whole game does get repetitive towards the end. Indeed they could have left out a couple of the final chapters without losing anything. Nevertheless Hells Highway is a terrific game overall and highly recommended.

Did I mention that the game even has some spooky scenes in it reminiscent of FEAR. Bizarre I know in a WWII shooter but they kind of fit in to the overall story.

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