Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood
Early 2005 saw the entry of Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 into the already highly contested wartime shooting genre. However, Brothers in Arms stood out right from the off, mainly due to the creative squad mechanics and several memorable levels. Just seven months later then, Gearbox saw fit to release the highly anticipated next instalment of the series, but in truth the lack of fresh ideas results in the feeling that this is just an overpriced expansion pack rather than a true sequel.
Earned in Blood puts you in the shoes of a Paratrooper Corporal named Joe Hartstock. You form part of an airborne unit who are dropped behind enemy lines the night before the D-Day Normandy landing, acting as a precursor to the main invasion force, with the intention of causing disruption to the German defences. Something that's unique about both this and the original Brothers in Arms is that the whole storyline is based on actual diaries of soldiers who participated in the campaigns recreated. For those familiar with the original title, Hartstock's name may ring a bell, and he and his squad makes fleeting appearances throughout as the storylines of both this and the original overlap. The storyline remains very atmospheric and involving throughout, partly due to the many cut-scenes between the missions, which are told from a flashback perspective depicting your character's memories of wartime experiences.
In terms of gameplay, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is a conventional first-person shooter, but far from just a run and gun game, it implements the same squad based elements which were so successful in Road to Hill 30. The addition of these squad mechanics mean you can plan and carry out real war flanking techniques to attack the enemies from a number of different angles, therefore bombarding the enemies and achieving a swift, yet satisfying victory. What stood out earlier in the year about the original Brothers in Arms is how well the tactical elements; both the realism and immersion, added to the experience, making you truly feel like a commander in charge of your unit while at the same time maintaining the required pace, something many games strive for, but few achieve. Earned in Blood does exactly what its predecessor did and with some minor upgrades to the AI and a general coat of all-round polish, it does it very well indeed. Something which also adds to the realism but may frustrate some players is the lack of an in-game crosshair. It forces you to aim down the barrel of the gun and gives you no unnatural advantage over the real life experience.
Graphically Brothers in Arms does indeed impress in certain areas. The colours never look too garish, helping to convey the bleakness of war-torn Europe. Some of the special effects such as the fog on some levels and the reflections off the puddles on the ground do really stand out. However a few of the textures in places look a little rushed up close and could have benefited from a little more time spent on the attention to detail. Brothers in Arms maintains a reasonably stable frame rate throughout most of the gameplay, however it can be subject to minor slowdown in especially heated battles, but nothing that will severely hinder your experience thankfully. Overall, Earned in Blood offers a very similar quality of audio to the original; one of great authenticity and quality. The guns all sound as realistic as one would assume them to be, and being able to notice bullets whizz past your head is a nice touch. Unfortunately the lack of music doesn't always aid the tense atmosphere, but it would perhaps be impossible to find music to match the some of the scenes the game creates for the player anyway.
The single player campaign, which consists of just over 10 chapters, is likely to take the average player around 12 hours to complete. In most FPS games when you die you often get the chance to continue from a checkpoint, with the amount of health and ammo you passed that checkpoint with. In Brothers in Arms: Earned in blood however, when playing on the lower difficulty levels, actually offers to revive your health, along with the health of your squad members. This welcome gesture helps less able players from getting stuck in certain parts of a level for too long, making it considerably less frustrating than the previous instalment of Brothers in Arms.
Earned in Blood also offers some new multiplayer options on Xbox Live and split screen in the form of a Skirmish mode. This Skirmish mode consists of a co-operative version of the single player levels. Other modes include Defence, in which you have to defend multiple waves of enemy attacks, and also Timed Assault, where you have a time limit in which to eliminate a number of enemies. Both of these games would have been good to see as single player mini games, a fun alternative and a bit of light relief from the single player campaign, but sadly they are only available as multiplayer modes. With the inclusion of these new multiplayer games Brothers in Arms: Earned in blood delivers a more complete and expansive online experience. It's definitely an improvement over the slightly confusing multiplayer and limited scenarios in the original.
To sum up, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is a very good game. Once again, it captures the atmosphere of a war-ravaged Europe magnificently, and with its impressive and involving levels Brothers in Arms is easily one of the best wartime games around. However Earned in Blood is little more than an expansion to the first game and being fully priced at 39.99 GBP (RRP), the value of the package can be in question. If you are a fan of the old game you will thoroughly appreciate what Earned in Blood has to offer. However those who didn't particularly like the first one wont be drawn in by this either. Ultimately, if you are looking for a new addition to your wartime roster, BIA: Earned in Blood is certainly a title worth looking out for. However, the fact that you are being asked to pay full premium for what is effectively an expansion pack in all but name, may put some off.