Brothers in Arms DS
Brothers in Arms caused quite stir back in the day when it made its PC release. Critics waxed lyrical about its open maps and believable interactive worlds that simply behaved as you would expect it to; blowing a truck of soldiers over sent them sprawling onto the road to pick themselves up and run for cover. They achieved the sort of non-linear open experience that had become so rare in the World War II genre.
It seems that Gearbox Software is looking to pull the same trick again. The first DS outing for the franchise is already turning a few heads. This is mainly down to its impressive game engine that delivers a genuine over the shoulder 3D run-and-gun battlefield experience, all in the palm of your hand. It's impressive and not only matches up to the visual quality of Metroid Prime Hunters but also achieves this in a densely populated environment that bristles not only with scenery but vehicles, men and buildings.
Like other DS 3D game engines, the frame-rate is kept high by allowing the background textures to get pixelated and blocky; this trade off willing to sacrifice the look to maintain the feel. Because of this, screenshots don't really do the game justice. Much like Gran Turismo on the good old PS1, you could live with the background pixelation because the main elements moved smoothly and believably. The downside with this approach is that once you have set your stall out in this way, the game succeeds or fails on its ability to create a believable world in which to play, something Gran Turismo achieved with its wonderful physics. Not wanting to let the cat out of the bag too soon, but Band of Brothers achieves this by convincing us that we are partaking in a genuinely persistent and ongoing battlefield environment.
The visual experience is enhanced by some excellent sounds and voice-work. Whilst this avoids becoming overbearing, the effects and voices add a surprising amount of depth to proceedings. As with most DS games it's not until you don a pair of headphones and jack-in that the audio really starts to come to life. The intelligent use of the DS's stereo adds a real air of drama and helps you locate where the action is at.
Your first encounter with the game proper certainly provides plenty of sensory input. As you hang from your parachute you survey the scene as planes crash, comrades take out tanks and minor scuffles break out between the two opposing forces. It's enough to send chills down even hardened veterans' spines. Once you are free from the parachute the first level introduces you to the basic mechanics of movement. The stylus is used on the lower screen to look around whilst the D-Pad is used to run and strafe, much like we have become used to in Metroid Prime. Icons on the bottom screen can be dragged into play to reload your weapon, zoom in for sniping or throw grenades. The grenade aiming alone is genius, drag one of these bad boys into play and the display zooms ahead over the enemy troops, you then use the stylus to determine where it should land, this is a simple mechanic that has been well thought through and works really well. There is even a robust cover-mechanic, although you do have to adjust your aim once you have popped your head out. It all has the feel of a fully-fledged console title rather than a handheld game. It is head and shoulders above many previous first-person shooters (FPS) that have been attempted. The only down side on the control front is the inability to adjust the sensitivity of the stylus. Interestingly, there is no need for a inverse look option as touching the screen only makes sense with an up-is-up set-up (although I could be proved wrong).
The game guides you through its levels with a series of way-points. Although this obviously prevents you from going off piste, it makes the game feel much more contained than it actually is. This detracts from its believability, which as we have said is the lifeblood of the experience. As the game develops these way-points do become less of a focus as your objectives become more complex; but we're never too far from getting from A to B whilst killing C. Obviously, this may be a limitation of the genre rather than the execution but it does feel like a less nannying approach to player guidance would have stood them in better stead. The action is helped by the discovery that you can drive a variety of vehicles such as tanks and jeeps. Pausing a while to again be impressed by just how fully featured the game is, we did find it took some time to adjust to the different controls of each. Whilst this was obviously intended to communicate the different driving experiences it seemed a little overplayed at times turning the jeep into a skittish young fawn scampering all over the place.
The difficulty of each level has obviously been set with the wider DS audience in mind. Things proceed at a much less demanding rate than we'd come to expect from home console versions. Although this makes a lot of sense for the more casual market it does make your first encounter with a level a little easy at times. You can revisit them on a harder setting but by then the beans have been spilt and it's never quite as exciting the second time through.
Once you consider the quality and full-featured nature of this title, not to mention multiplayer modes and veteran difficulty settings to give you a reason for another tour of duty, you have got a great little package. Gearbox Software have managed to squeeze another ounce or two of power out of the DS, and it's all put to very good use. The game ultimately makes a success of itself because the experience is not only believable, but great fun to play.