'Educational' usually isn't a word you'd associate with games (not the good ones at any rate), but Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30 is remarkable exception. Not only does it feature great gameplay, but it offers up a virtual documentary of the World War II D-Day landings thanks to its attention to realism and fascinating added extras.
It helps that Brothers In Arms is based on the true story of US Sergeant Matt Baker and his squad of 101st Airborne Paratroopers, who dropped into German-occupied Normandy on D-Day. Developers Ubisoft have taken real world events and locations and recreated them faithfully, allowing gamers a glimpse of what it would have been like for Baker and his boys at the time.
Brothers In Arms borrows a lot from Hollywood films like 'Saving Private Ryan' for its mood and feel. Each chapter in the game starts with a black screen with white titles explaining the time and place of the mission, coupled with a sombre voiceover from the game's main protagonist Sergeant Matt Baker. This is usually followed by a brief in game cutscene where the mission details are explained, as well as allowing for a bit of banter where the personalities of your various squad members start to show. These cutscenes and the narratives from Sgt Baker are generally well done (if a little "war is hell"-style maudlin) and do a great job of pulling you into the compelling story.
Brothers In Arms follows Sgt Baker's squad from their botched D-Day landing to eight days afterwards, with missions involving clearing out French towns of German troops, clearing fields of debris to allow Allied gliders to land and more. You'll come across German infantrymen, machine gun units and even the occasional tank (while you can use you own tank to take out the Germans' heavy units, there's no better feeling in the game than sneaking up behind a tank, climbing on top and dropping a grenade into it).
In your sights
The game itself sees you take first-person control of Sgt Baker, with controls similar to any other FPS you may have played on the Xbox (or any other console) before. You move with the left control stick, aim with the right, and use the control pad buttons to jump, change weapons, reload and fire. Pressing down on the right control stick enters the aiming mode, where the perspective changes to a view looking down your gun's sights which results in more accurate aiming. Players will find it near impossible to hit anything unless they're in the aiming mode - we were in several instances where found ourselves practically toe to toe with some German infantry in the normal view, but failed to hit them because our gun wasn't aligned properly. As Sgt Baker, players also have the ability to throw grenades, ride shotgun on small tanks and take control of fixed machine gun turrets.
If first person shooting was all there was to Brothers In Arms it would make for a fairly ho-hum experience. But the title shines with the addition of its "tactical" element, giving you the ability to take control of your squad members to help take out the enemy. Sgt Baker can command up to two different units at the same time, which can be either made up of squad members or a small tank. Baker can command these units to move to certain positions and fire on or charge at enemies. Whilst these commands may seem somewhat simplistic, within the context of the gameplay it leads to fast and exciting situations where real-world combat tactics have to be employed to ensure victory.
Enemy units you encounter in the game feature Supression levels, symbolised by round indicators over the enemy's position. A fully red indicator means the enemy is able to move about freely and fire at you with more accuracy. Fire back at the enemy's position, however, and you'll see their Supression indicator go grey. A fully grey indicator means you've effectively 'covered' that enemy, and they will not move from their position and will fire back less often (and with less accuracy).
Successfully navigating your way through the game's levels usually involves you finding places for your squad to offer suppressing fire on enemy units while you try to find the best position to flank and finish them off. Or you can do it the other way around, with you holding down the Germans while your units take them out. It's this element of fix, flank and finish that makes Brothers In Arms an impressive action strategy title and adds substantially to its already outstanding level of realism. The game forces you to use intelligent tactics to win the day, as well as offering you the adrenalin rush of personally taking out the Nazis - it's a winning combination.
The game's AI - both for enemy and squad units - is quite intelligent, which once again adds to realism. Enemy AI will usually find the best cover before firing on your position, although we found some instances where, after getting behind an enemy unit, they would run manically from side to side instead of finding a new place to hide. Your squad's AI generally fares much better - they respond to your commands quickly, will find the best cover themselves and are accurate enough to be able to take out enemy units on their own. Graphics in the game aren't outstanding, but generally serve up well the drab look and feel of the French countryside at the time. Interestingly, Brothers In Arms has no music during the missions - we're assuming this was a deliberate decision by game programmers to add more realism and intensity of the game.
The game's realism extends beyond gameplay itself, with Brothers In Arms offering up plenty of hidden extras that gives players insight behind the real world missions the game recreates. Extras include diary entries, actual photographs taken by the real-life Sgt Baker during this mission, US army background information about the Germans and the Allied assault at the time, and much more. Many of the tidbits you unlock offer genuine 'wow' moments where you realise just how close the game you just played was to the real thing. These unlockable extras give players the best incentive to finish the game on different difficulty levels.
Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30 is an immersive WWII gaming experience that's a great blend of run and gun with smarts-based tactical gaming. Play it and you might learn something about this turbulent time in our recent history - we certainly did.
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