Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood

Gearbox Software and UbiSoft have thrown caution aside with Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood. This full-blown follow-up comes hot on the combat-booted heels of the previous game, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, the shooter ode to Saving Private Ryan.

10That constricted timeframe means good news and bad news. Fans get a retread that’s more of a standalone expansion than a real sequel in the proper sense, but there isn’t anything here to change your mind if you didn’t care for the original. Sgt. Joe “Red†Hartsock replaces Sgt. Matt Baker as the lead, but the World War II action still takes place around D-Day, German troops have to be suppressed with the same old tactical maneuvering, and the story remains heavy on Spielbergian melodrama in the spirit of Ryan.

A few refinements alter the character of gameplay, though. Gearbox apparently spent the months between the release of Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood beefing up the AI. This mainly results in more realistic krauts. When Fritz, Hans, and pals spot you moving into a flanking position now, they retreat, try to flank you in turn, or goon you head-on.

This ensures more realistic action and much more difficult levels, and a slightly less enjoyable game. It’s just not a lot of fun repeating flanking maneuvers to take out every squad of Germans you encounter, especially when you’re often rushed into action by enemy mortars that zero in on hiding spots in under a minute. Frustration can be so high that you order your teams to make suicidal charges.

More intelligent opposition also emphasizes puzzle-like level design in all 11 missions. Zoom out to the situational awareness view and you can see not only where you need to move, but also where Hitler’s finest will move in response. This makes each level a tad predictable, and even a bit tedious, because you always know what you need to do even if you can’t accomplish it right away. More mid-mission surprises would be welcome.

Also, it would’ve been nice if Gearbox had saved some brain cells for your own squad. Just like in the first game, your buddies need to be micromanaged. Fail to lead them by the nose and they’ll pull spectacularly stupid moves like hitting a machine-gun nest with suppressing fire from the clear because there isn’t quite enough room to get behind a haystack.

7But for the most part, everything is where Gearbox left it. Mission intensity is unparalleled. No other tactical shooter comes as close as the Brothers in Arms series to depicting the brutality of close-quarters combat during wartime. While there is some repetition—missions are modeled on actual battles fought by 101st Airborne commandos in the aftermath of D-Day, so there is a lot of farmhouse clearing and fighting along those famous French hedgerows—the feeling of being in mortal danger never gets old. Few shooters keep you so focused.

Multiplayer also remains a great change of pace. With the exception of the spectacularly hard (five missions, one life, no checkpoints) Tour of Duty mode, it’s a complete rehashing of Road to Hill 30. But this objective-oriented, cooperative skirmishing still feels fresh compared to regular deathmatch games. Skirmishes can also be played solo, so you can get a feel for maps before buddying up.

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Perhaps the only serious complaint is the continuing absence of save-on-demand. Being able to save every time you cleared a trench would be a cheat and would undoubtedly drop the intensity. But it’s still no fun getting stuck at save checkpoints and repeating lengthy sections of the game (which happens often in a game as hard as this one).

Aside from niggling irritations, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood marches behind its predecessor as one of the most polished tactical shooters ever released. While some of the bloom is now off the carbine, anyone who appreciates contemplation before killing will enjoy their European vacation with Joe Hartsock and friends.

System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 5 GB HDD, WinXP

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