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Anyone who was around in the late 90’s and early 2000’s should remember when World War II shooters dominated the first-person shooter market. Medal of Honor games were releasing left and right and Call of Duty was soon to follow. In March of 2005 Gearbox Software released Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 for Xbox and PC and it was followed by a sequel, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, released in October of that same year. But these were not your typical World War II shooters. These are considered tactical shooters and have a heavier focus on story and characters compared to similar games of the time. Many players consider these games to be two of the best World War II shooters ever released.
Both games are based on true events of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. In Road to Hill 30 you play as Sergeant Matt Baker and after your plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire, you jump from the plane over Normandy and lose your kit in the drop. After teaming up with the other members of your squad, you and your squad members fight your way to Hill 30, the historic location of the Battle of the Bloody Gulch. Apparently, the game is based on the historical Mission Albany and you play through true missions of the 101st Airborne.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is essentially the same story told from the perspective of another soldier in Baker’s squad, Sergeant Joe “Red” Hartsock. You’ll encounter many of the same soldiers and even fight through some of the same battles of the first game, albeit with different objectives. About halfway through the game the story will proceed from where the first game left off.
I don’t know the standard for the voice acting process in video games but it sounds like each actor recorded their lines individually making almost every conversation between the soldiers sound odd. It just sounds like the actors weren’t playing off each other’s emotions. Maybe they were coached like “shout this line” and “whisper that line” but whatever happened, the end result is just a mess. The voice acting can sound awkward at times and more often than not the conversations don’t sound like they have a normal flow to them.
Now I’m a huge fan of Band of Brothers and watch it frequently. I think the developers were trying to mimic the storytelling and character development of this popular television series in these games. I mean the jump over Normandy sequence in Road to Hill 30 feels almost ripped straight out of Band of Brothers. But the problem is that Band of Brothers is a true story about real soldiers and these games are about fictional soldiers and the writing here just isn’t on the same level. With the voice acting as shoddy as it is, it was even harder for me to care about any of the characters. Baker and Hartsock give these brief monologues before most chapters which I believe is intended to make these characters feel real and human, with the idea that you would be able to care about what they’re going through. But it just falls flat. It’s obvious the developers were trying to do something different than many similar games of the time but the writing leaves a lot to be desired.
Both games are pretty much identical in terms of gameplay. These are considered tactical shooters where you can command a squad of up to two teams. The fire team is meant to suppress enemies, the assault team specializes in charging at suppressed enemies, and every now and then you can command a tank to assist you in battle. There’s no planning or anything and the teams are assigned to you during each chapter so you can have any combination of the three. Commanding the teams is simple. You tell them where to go and if you want them to suppress or assault the enemy. When enemies are nearby a red circle will appear over them indicated they are not suppressed. As you fire at them the red circle slowly turns gray and when it’s fully gray they are fully suppressed. This means they won’t be as accurate or shoot as often. It also means they don’t pop out from cover often making it very difficult to shoot them.
Now earlier I said that these games are “considered” tactical shooters. Calling these tactical shooters may be an overstatement. Now I suck at tactical games and even these but there’s not a lot of tactical thinking required here. The goal of almost every battle is to literally just suppress and flank the enemy and it’s obvious that each map is designed with flanking in mind. There’s always places for your teams to take cover and always routes for flanking. Whether you’re commanding soldiers or even a tank the process is always the same, suppress and flank. The thinking part is finding when and where to lead your soldiers during combat and how to flank the enemy. That’s it. If you want to compare this to other tactical shooters like Rainbow Six or even SWAT 3 and 4, there’s no planning or preparation. You don’t get a map of the area or even a detailed briefing other than what your commanding officer tells you. It becomes hard to think tactically when you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes the enemies don’t spawn until you reach a certain point on the battlefield so you and your squad could be running to the next objective only for enemies to spawn around you so you have to adapt to situations on the fly. It becomes annoying because your guys can get killed quickly if they’re out in the open.
If you have seen Band of Brothers or know about Major Richard Winters you will know he was a tactical genius. I, on the other hand, am not. But I don’t think the AI in these games would ever make me feel like one anyway. Your squad members can be smart one minute and stupid the next. Yeah, they’ll get behind cover during combat but they will often run right out into gunfire if it’s the quickest way to get to their next destination. I would frequently have to command them to move shorter distances, essentially guiding them through cover to their ultimate destination so they don’t get killed from their own stupidity. Most of the time your AI squad members perform rather well but when a squad member fails to do something that would keep them safe, like knowing when to stay behind cover for example, it normally results in them taking serious damage and even dying. Frequently I would have each team suppress and I would do the flanking myself. The enemy AI isn’t always so smart, either. In Road to Hill 30, when you flank them, they normally don’t move and will remain where they are as you gun them down. In Earned in Blood they will move about the area more often and adapt to your flanking when necessary but they’ll still do some stupid shit like running out from cover into the open. There is an option to bring up what the games call the Situational Awareness View where you can see the battlefield from overhead so you can determine how you want to flank the enemy. Unfortunately, you can’t actually command your teams from this view making it almost useless.
Now I was playing on the Normal difficulty setting in both games and if you die enough times during a chapter, the games will offer to revive any fallen squad members and you’ll start from your most recent checkpoint which is actually a really nice feature. If I wasn’t able to do that I don’t think I would have beaten these games at all. Even if squad members die and you complete the chapter, there is no permadeath so they will return in the next chapter. But this is also detrimental to the story in some ways. It’s another example of the game’s storytelling not really captivating me as a player. I think most of my soldiers died in several chapters but I’m only supposed to care when a soldiers’ scripted death comes as part of the story. Earned in Blood has this same feature however you’re commended for keeping your squad members alive or penalized if they die. I lost a lot of guys but I never received a penalty. Maybe it was because I was playing on Normal.
I want to mention that towards the end of Road to Hill 30 I began to hate any chapter where I was required to command a tank. Tanks are weak in the rear and several battles give the hint to lure the enemy tank somewhere so you can route your tank around the rear to take it out. The problem is that the tanks move extremely slow and you’ll need to use your squad members as bait and hope they don’t get killed. You can also climb the back of an enemy tank and throw a grenade down the hatch but that only works if you can even get near it. Most of the time I would just have my tank battle it out with the enemy tank and hope for the best. The tank chapters in Earned in Blood are even worse. You’re usually up against more tanks and anti-tank weaponry and there’s way too many sequences where you need to find a Panzerfaust to destroy them. The tanks take about three good blasts before they’re destroyed and since Panzerfaust’s are only single-shot weapons, you’ll constantly be running back and forth to pick up more ammo for it. It’s just tedious.
Both games consist of your typical World War II weapons like the Thompson submachine gun, Colt 1911, and M1 rifle just to name some of the American weapons. The German weapons include the Kar 98 rifle, StG 44, and MP 40 among others. You’re also equipped with frag grenades. The guns are decently modeled but the sound effects could be better. The guns just sound muted when fired. Now actually shooting the weapons in these games is definitely… let’s say “interesting”. This is not a game where you’re going to be running and gunning and just blasting away Germans with ease. By default, the crosshair is turned off and even if it was on it would still be a challenge to hit something. Whenever you aim down the sights, you’ll see the gun kind of shake around and I believe it’s supposed to simulate realistic shooting. There’s no button to hold your breath for an accurate shot so you need to just try and aim accurately which actually becomes annoying, especially later in the game. The problem is that the games are not really simulating the ballistics of the weapons and instead just making it hard to hit your target. There are many times you could be only a few feet from the enemy and your shots still miss. It’s ridiculous. Needless to say, the battles can drag on because of this aiming system. Even the grenades are floaty when thrown.
When looking at the visuals, both games look pretty much the same. The textures can be a little blurry here and there and the character animations look a little stiff but overall everything looks pretty good. The games take place entirely in France but Earned in Blood definitely has more varied locations. Most of the environments in Road to Hill 30 are like farms, fields, and small towns and by the end of the game the environments just feel repetitive. Earned in Blood has these as well with the addition of more war-torn villages with rubble and destroyed buildings, things like that. There’s a decent amount of color in the environments and some good little details to make them feel realistic. Earned in Blood has some bigger maps with more objectives but I would say both games took me about six hours each to complete on the Normal difficulty setting.
There are some little minor annoyances in these games. Like when picking up a new weapon, the text to indicate what you picked up appears directly in the center of the screen, obstructing your view. Another issue is that iron sights take up like half the screen and you’ll be aiming down your sights a lot. When a soldier or enemy is killed, their body will sometimes just kind of float in the air and it looks ridiculous. But my biggest issue with these games is that you can’t sprint or lean. I don’t know why you can’t sprint but it would definitely be beneficial if you need to run from cover to cover. And leaning out from behind cover just seems like a good idea in a game like these.
In addition to Earned in Blood’s story mode is the Skirmish mode. It’s clearly multiplayer focused but can still be enjoyed solo. You can play as either Baker, Hartsock, or two German soldiers and choose from different game types, maps, and difficulties. Tour of Duty lets you take three tours of five missions. In Timed Assault you need to take out the enemy forces before the time runs out. In Defense you need defend your position against waves of enemies. And in Objective you are required to complete a specific objective like infiltrating enemy bunkers or protecting the 88 guns. There’s definitely some replay value with this mode.
I’m just going to say it. I don’t think these first two Brothers in Arms games are as amazing as people make them out to be. They’re not horrible but when it comes to the tactics, there’s not much involved in the tactical side of things. Just suppressing and flanking. That’s it. The story just falls flat thanks to sub-par writing and awkward voice acting. The aiming and shooting could be definitely be tweaked a little bit and I enjoyed both games more when tanks weren’t involved. Luckily, where vanilla games fail, mods can improve.
After completing both games I immediately installed Rendroc’s WarZone mod. This mod is actually a set of mutators to change up the gameplay and immersion. You select the mutators before playing a chapter and the mod is even compatible with other custom mutators.
WarZone can definitely change the gameplay, making things more intense, and some mutators even fix some of the problems from the vanilla games. One mutator enables more realistic iron sights so they don’t take a up a large portion of the screen. The CommandMod mutator grants you more commands like taking cover in different formations or maneuvering under cover. You can even mantle over obstacles. There’s a mutator for more realistic weapon ballistics and you’ll actually hit what you’re shooting at and you also have the option of realistic gravity for throwing grenades. Tanks take more damage with the RealTankShells mutator enabled and overall the AI is much improved. Enemies and soldiers are smarter, move around the battlefield more frequently, and even throw grenades more often. Speaking of grenades, you can throw smoke grenades now which can obstruct the enemy’s view. Several mutators will increase the amount of soldiers on the battlefield so the battles can become really hectic and intense at times.
On the immersion side of things there’s a mutator that enhances the visual and sound effects for a more Hollywood-style feel. Another mutator disables the HUD entirely so you better know what you’re doing. One of my favorite mutators enables dead bodies to never disappear. There’s nothing more satisfying than observing all the dead enemies on the ground after a large-scale battle.
Apparently Road to Hill 30 had pretty great soundtrack but the in-game music was cut before release. The WarZone mod restores the music with a mutator. In Earned in Blood you can add a mutator that eliminates Hartsock’s monologue before each chapter which is actually really awesome.
Not everything is perfect with the WarZone mod. There is a mutator that allows you to peak around cover but it doesn’t seem to work like it should. I was never actually able to peak around the corner but instead just move the camera around the character’s head. In Earned in Blood, I couldn’t find a way to apply mutators for the Skirmish solo mode and if there is a way to get it to work, I’m not sure how to do it. With the CommandMod mutator enabled, it seems like the creators removed the ability to cancel out of a command with the space bar in favor of a new command. Sometimes HUD elements would just be missing. And, no, I wasn’t using the NoHUD mutator. With a ton of soldiers added into the game sometimes they do some weird shit during scripted in-game dialogue sequences.
Rendroc’s WarZone mod is incredible and it can change up the gameplay for a more intense and immersive experience. If you haven’t played these games in a while, this mod is definitely a great reason to return.
In the end, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood are good World War II shooters. I think the developers just tried too hard when writing the story and it ultimately fails due to poor writing and voice acting. I suck at tactical games but to call these tactical shooters is still questionable. Because suppressing and flanking is all you’ll be doing, the tactics become repetitive rather quickly. I don’t think these games are the best World War II shooters ever released but I can see why people enjoyed them so much. They offered something different than other World War II shooters of the time and for that I respect what the developers tried to accomplish.