Brothers In Arms: Earned In Blood
Same war, different tour.
As the nine-hundred-and-seventieth World War II game released in the years following Medal of Honor, it's perhaps understandable that Brothers In Arms slipped under a few radars. What's impressive is that, having done that, it then watched our movements closely, flanked us completely and surprised us with its authenticity and tactical ingenuity - both oddly rare things in a sub-genre borne of a real-life war. It won't be so easy this time, mind you. Just as well then that one of Gearbox's professed goals with this, the not-quite-a-sequel, is to outthink you.
Rather than playing as Matt Baker, who called the squad's shots in BIA, players take on the role of Joe "Red" Hartsock, whose field promotion in the first game moves him out of Baker's ranks and into his wage bracket, and the events of the two games are said to converge at various points. Much as they did in Half-Life: Opposing Force in fact; another celebrated example of Gearbox taking on a subset of games - in this case the FPS expansion - often ignored or relegated to the backs of gamers' minds.
But Hartsock's task will be tougher than Baker's. In the first game, the idea was to direct your squad to take up positions and try and manoeuvre to defeat embedded enemies. You'd point a cursor and tell them to run to it, perhaps pausing the game to assess enemy troop movements within your field of vision and then issuing instructions. That still holds true, but whereas before your enemies were programmed to react in certain ways, this time they're said to be more tactically aware, and much more capable of blocking you off and doing to you what you're trying to do to them. On some occasions, you may be forced to sit and suppress your enemies so they're pinned down and you can manoeuvre as one man to flush them out - and once flushed if they're not defeated the chances are they'll come at you with a view to reclaiming their sniping spots.
Hartsock's task will also be better looking than Baker's, to the tune of a plenty-fold increase in some areas of detail. Better, for the most part, at looking uglier - with handsomely gutted renditions of crumbling French towns and shattered countryside - but also in the little details: the birds abandoning trees as gunshots crack through the air; the shafts of sunlight peeping through the branches; and the emotion you can find in the eyes of the men you fight alongside. You'll probably stand a better chance of picking out the subtler differences in the PC version than we did on the Xbox (or PS2, though, when we parachuted in to take a look at it, that version had gone AWOL), but you shouldn't have too much difficulty noticing the destructible environments whatever your format, or that the number of urban environments has been greatly increased this time around.
Gearbox has also talked about multiple paths to particular goals. You can't just whip out a map and go orienteering across the greens and greys of Western Europe, but you should be able to vary your strategy depending on the role you want to play - perhaps opting to snipe instead of taking point. And the destruction we mentioned you'd be wreaking on the environment can become part of that too, as many elements can be used as cover for your men once the dust has settled.
Taken online, co-operative mode is available for various missions, with one player controlling Hartsock and the other Baker, and there's also a skirmish mode with parameters you can define. Our Ubisoft guide told us that since the PlayStation 2 version was being developed outside Gearbox as before, that version would also feature several exclusive levels.
Above all though, our briefing and brief playtest both pointed to an iterative approach. Ubisoft isn't and never has been calling this Brothers In Arms 2, and it's clear for its many improvements that Earned In Blood is simply a more thoughtful game based on other areas of Second World War's history - and just as happy as before to draw directly upon them, right down to footage of Eisenhower addressing the troops. The original bore comparison to some of the best war-based games - from Allied Assault to Full Spectrum Warrior - so this second game has its work cut out. Judging by our experience so far and indeed the subtitle, fans will have less to learn but more to earn.
Brothers In Arms: Earned In Blood is due out on PC, Xbox and PS2 on October 28th in Europe.