With all of the World War II shooters out on the market these days, in order for a game to get noticed it has to find some sort of niche. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 did just that, combining first-person shooter action with strategic, and yet simple to use, squad-based gameplay. Its adherence to authenticity served it quite well, also.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is the essential sequel to Road to Hill 30, and yet again combines strategic elements with action-oriented gameplay. The problem is, neither its first-person shooter nor strategic elements pay off very well on the PlayStation 2 version of the game, nor does their sum equal anything greater than the total of its parts, which is quite lower than we'd ever expected.
Now granted, the action-oriented segments of the game can't exactly stand on their own without the strategic elements, and that's by design. You don't have pin-point precision aiming, as Earned in Blood sways you to rely just as much on strategy as you do on headshots. Fair enough, and in theory this would be a reasonable design decision, except that the strategic elements don't work well at all.
The gameplay is designed to be something of a chess match. You find your opponents, set up suppressing fire in order to keep them pinned down, and then flank them to take them out. This is the rule of thumb for how things work, and in a perfect world, this would work quite well given a varying number of setups and options with which to perform this maneuver.
One problem is that the game's levels, or should we say individual encounters, are set up in such a linear and practically forced manner that you don't have all that many viable options of what you can do. Sure, you can pull off some crazy stuff now and again to mix things up, but running Rambo-style into an enemy nest isn't the intention here and you'll very likely be killed doing so. Well, in the other versions of the game that is. For whatever reason, the PlayStation 2 version of the game is quite action-friendly and you're able to storm numerous bunkers, fox holes and such, wiping out enemy after enemy before you finally bite it.
The levels are so linear that there is almost always only one entrance into an encounter. With all of the short walls, bushes and whatnot around, you figure you could just hop past them and essentially start from scratch with your own plan, but you're constantly funneled into a pre-planned fight scenario. From there, you usually only have one or two possible places to safely set up your men, though there isn't generally a massive difference between your options. So you set up your men, have them throw down covering fire and head off on your own (or with your second squad, if you have one) and attempt to flank the enemy. Once they're dead, you move onto the next section, take a look at what you're being forced to do again, and repeat.
Some of these encounters do work reasonably well, with some even providing an adrenaline-soaked experience as you haul ass for cover. There are many games out there that thrive on scripted sequences, and in theory, some of Earned in Blood's "scripted" encounters are actually pretty good.
Still, given that this is an equal parts action and strategy game, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the title to force you into maneuvers. A strategy title should let you think for yourself and set up your own tactics, not solve puzzles. If the game was intentionally puzzle-based, and brought more to the table as such, things would be fine, but as a strategy title, it only partially works.
But then the AI gets involved and completely destroys any hope of strategy, or even fun, that you might have taken out of these encounters. Your squad mates are horrendous at pathfinding, they run out into open fire in suicidal manners, and most of the time they simply don't understand how to use cover, which is a major, major part of this game. Because of their near-complete lack of understanding how to use the environment, the same environment that you're forced to use to survive any given encounter, any hope for fun or enjoyment in the game's skirmishes flies right out the window.
Your squad mates are quite susceptible to being in just the wrong place, unable to provide covering fire, so they stand there with idiotic looks on their faces. For instance, you might tell your squad to head to the front half of a truck, which you would ideally use as cover so that they can more safely throw down suppression fire. Instead, one of the might stand near the center of the truck, one further out towards the rear and out in the open field, and another closer to the front of the truck, but backwards and again, out in the open field.
In another instance, you might attempt to position your men at the corner of a wall. If you're lucky, one solder may in fact use the wall correctly (though much less often than you'd hope), while another moves and stands outside of the cover - backwards - and the other a good 20 feet to the left of the corner, aiming in some entirely random direction. Sure, the soldiers are meant to rely on direction and instruction to do their jobs, but you're not exactly given the ability to explain to them how they go about chewing food, tying their shoes and not standing around in the open to get shot.
The enemy AI doesn't fare too much better. For instance, if you happen to come right up on an enemy and run out of ammo, all you need to do is to run at him until you're within about five feet. In this range, the enemy will only try and club you with the butt of his rifle, enabling you to reload as you backpedal away from him.
Other curious AI actions plague Earned in Blood as well. For instance, if you can manage to get your team to properly suppress the enemy, you might try and stealthily flank them around the outside. Regardless of how quiet and unnoticed you think you've been, as soon as you pop your head over a wall, even if it's practically behind them, the enemy will turn their attention to you before you fire off one shot.
The game's online modes are essentially worthless on the retail PlayStation 2 version of the game. There are some cool modes, sure, but the online component is all but unplayable due to incredibly excessive load times between rounds, very choppy framerates in-game and incredibly poor computer AI. For instance, we tried multiple skirmishes with two of us on a team as the Americans. As we'd approach the Germans with our squads, their soldiers would individually run into the middle of our squads, stand around and randomly fire off a few shots.
While trying to play a Defense game, enemy troops would run down the hillside and straight into our group, paying complete disregard to our suppression fire. This breaks the entire focus of Brothers in Arms: suppress and flank.
To top it off, Earned in Blood inexplicably does not contain a copy of the network setup software, which means that if you have a new memory card or have never been online before, you have to remove the game and pop in the setup disc. Every other game we can recall since the first-gen online games has included this software.
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