Gearbox Software brought a serious dose of tactics to shooters with its Brothers in Arms games. Their gun-in-hand point of view helped people feel at home, but winning battles required more than simply pulling the trigger. With a squad at your command, success hinged as much on your ability to direct your fire teams as it did your skill with the trigger. A pattern of using one fire team to suppress enemies, and then maneuvering the other to an advantageous firing position, quickly developed into the game's signature style. Keeping up with it all put both man and machine to the test.
With the next in the series, Brothers in Arms 3: Hell's Highway, half of that equation gets a big boost in power. The benefits of licensing Unreal Engine 3 shined through as soon as Gearbox President Randy Pitchford fired up an early version of the game at a press event earlier this month. WWII soldiers make a great showpiece for the visual capabilities of the engine, with all their insignias, ammo pouches, and other gear and uniform details. Anyone who's played Gears of War will immediately recognize the style, including the ugly maroon blood splatters across the screen in the heat of battle.
But the Gearbox team has taken that engine as just the starting point to build up from. In addition to adding polish to the graphics with touches like self-shadowing and a bump in texture detail, they made significant additions to suit the unique Brothers in Arms mechanics. Cover often means the difference between life and death in this game, and it behaves pretty much exactly as you'd expect from looking at it. Hunker down behind a stone wall and you're in good shape, but a collection of wine crates, or an overturned wagon won't stand up long to a hail of bullets. The degradation, and eventual destruction, of cover happens with an unbelievable degree of realism. We watched as bullets took out individual slats on a picket fence in one case, and shot the hub off of a wagon wheel, knocked the wheel itself off, and then blasted through the deck of the wagon in another.
The significance of cover never strays far from your thoughts, and Gearbox makes sure to remind you if it does. The game takes a pretty serious simulation approach to gunfire. For the most part, if you get hit, you're in dire condition. The good news is that at the range you typically encounter the enemy, the first bullets headed your way probably won't connect. To give you a little extra push to get to cover, when the lead starts flying, everywhere except suitable cover positions begin to turn the screen monochromatic, indicating the degree of threat to you. So, the more withering the fire, the more your survival instinct kicks in, highlighting where you need to head to take shelter.
SCREENS: Click the image above to check out all Brothers in Arms 3: Hell's Highway screens.
When you get the situation back under control, the Unreal Engine also makes squeezing off the return fire pretty rewarding. Watching Pitchford use the M1 from a flanking position to take down some unsuspecting Germans made it clear that getting a rewarding gunplay feel into the game also sits high on the development list. To drive that point home, the demo wrapped up with Sergeant Baker clearing a chateau on his own. He worked his way from room to room, ultimately commandeering a German MG42 overlooking a courtyard for a dramatic conclusion.
These new solo segments will help break up the game and work with the staged areas to take a significant step forward in the storytelling element of the game. With the mechanic now set, Pitchford explains that they want to steer clear of simply throwing a succession of tactical puzzles at the player. This time out, they want it to all work together to capture that intensity of being in the thick of battle. That desire also figured into the decision to set the game in Operation Market Garden. Sure, it holds the distinction as the largest Airborne invasion in history, but it became much more than that as early Allied successes stalled, and all too soon, they found themselves outnumbered and facing strong German counterattacks.
Gearbox takes the gravity of the battle so seriously that all the missions in the game are based on the historical orders and forces in the field. As such, expect to find yourself in increasingly grave situations as the operation progresses, hoping to hold on and get your boys through to the end. If that emotional element comes through, this time out the "brothers" in the title will especially ring true.