It’s been ten years since a Brothers in Arms game has been released, yet the series captured small squad tactics in a way I haven’t seen since. Brothers in Arms focused on paratroopers from the American 101st Airborne Division. The first two games, Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood, both released in 2005, take you through the Normandy campaign while Hell’s Highway (2008) follows the unit during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. The core of the game revolves around solving combat scenarios with the squads under your command. The games created a robust, yet simple squad system that allowed you to focus on the combat situation without having to worry about too much micromanagement.
The squad system has so much potential that it’s a real shame we haven’t seen more games make use of it. Despite a slightly dated control scheme, the contextual single button to issue commands is brilliant. It manages to nail the “boots on the ground” experience that Call of Duty spent most of 2017 banging on about. I’m so used to giving orders from a comfy isometric perspective in the sky in other tactics games, that being locked into the rubbish field of vision that run of the mill human eyes give you creates some interesting challenges. Your position on the battlefield limits the orders you can give. Need your squad to pin down a machine gun? You need to actually stick your neck out to point and yell at it. To get your squad into a great flank position, you first need to get yourself into the right place to give that order. How you position yourself on the battlefield becomes as important as positioning your squads. Despite the now ageing graphics, this aspect of the game still feels tense and immersive. Orders aren’t just virtually transmitted, every command has your character yelling it to the squad with accompanying tactical hand signals. It gives a great sense of place to your character as a part of the military machine and the head of a unit rather than the gung-ho leader who will single-handedly shoot their way to Berlin.
This emphasis on teamwork with your squad made Brothers in Arms stand out from other popular shooters at the time. You cannot beat the game alone. Your weapons are deliberately inaccurate (the oddly laser-like Kar 98 aside) and death is swift. The same goes for your squads. Winning fights requires all the pieces at your disposal. Suppress the enemy, out position them and finish them off with flanking shots or grenades.There is a real satisfaction in solving these puzzles when the level design is at its best. Thanks to the simplicity of controls you’re not pulled out of the experience by the frustrations of micromanagement. SWAT 4 and the original Ghost Recon excelled at creating an tense engagements from which the casualties were persistent but both suffered from the fiddliness of having to give highly specific orders to individual squad members.
Brothers in Arms would benefit from cutting back on the rigid story and instead allow for more emergent narratives. You can become attached to characters but their deaths are all scripted into the story. Fatalities are all delivered in cutscenes outside of your control and therefore outside your responsibility. A major theme of the series is the feeling of guilt that haunts the protagonists as people die under their command. Tying the grim consequences directly to the orders you’re giving would be a great step for the series.
Brothers in Arms has at its core a brilliant squad system that is bogged down by the common trappings of its genre. Hells High Way constantly interrupts you with corridor sections in which you’re split off from your squad and have to endure traditional FPS sequences and the cutscenes are at best, flawed attempts to imitate brilliant wartime dramas like Band of Brothers. Rather than trying to emulate the bog of WW2 shooters it once stood out from, I can only hope that if we do see another entry into the series, it will take inspiration from squad tactics games like XCOM, adding persistent casualties, upgrades or the ability to choose the fireteams for a mission.
Thank you for reading, if you’re still feeling tactical then check out our review of Mutant: Year Zero or Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Alternatively, sit yourself down for a good book and check out one of our Bookclubbing reviews.
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