I finished Brothers in arms by Gearbox yesterday.
I won't give anything away about the game specifics here, but as anyone who knows me will attest, I'm a BIG fan of this style of game, so I really want to analyze the decisions they made in creating the game.
If you look at the game from a purely marketing point of view, the obvious competitors are games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honour and perhaps less so Battlefield 1942.
I say less battlefield in that COD and MOH are both essentially "pure" FPS games, trying to immerse the player within a world of combat, whereas I never felt that Battlefield was attempting to do that as much as create an interesting multiplayer experience.
So given the competition, it's interesting to identify the design choices that BIA makes, where they did things right and where they perhaps slipped up.
I must admit, this is probably one of the few games I'd *really* love to work on. I'm a fan of FPS games in general, but particularly visceral wargames which kind of submit me to the horrors of the reality that is war but in a safe way. I appreciate the feelings of veteran soldiers so much more when I've experienced similar situations via a game.
So how have Gearbox departed from the "norm" set by COD and MOH?
Well, the main thing is that intermixed with the pure bred FPS nature of run-and-gun action, they have actually included an element of tactical thinking. This is introduced by allowing you to take control of one or two squads of soldiers. These are *your* guys, you are responsible for them.
You are given time to bond with your squad members during several of the many cut-scenes which intersperse the action. However these really didnt seem to compel me to give a damn about my squad mates any more than I would normally. Perhaps this was because the squadmates never really "died". Typically a fallen comrade you lose during a mission is somehow ressurected for the next mission.
This was an interesting decision, because whilst it allowed you to grow familiar with your teammates, it also became glaringly obvious that whilst not fully expendable, you could get your team shot up and still know they'll be back in the fray for the next fight. Probably not the best for recreating the feeling of loss, although I do understand the dilemma that if you DO allow the teammates to have perma death, then there is no squad continuity and hence very little player buy-in of the whole "squad" mentality.
So given that you have control of one or two squads, how does this affect gameplay?
Well, clearly the idea here was to inject an element of tactical thinking into the normally fairly mindless action involved in COD et al. However by making this hybrid, to me at least, they have created something that is less than the sum of its parts in some ways.
The tactical control of the men for the most part behaves intuitively, with a simple right mouse mode which "points" towards the action you intend the squad to take. This mechanic works fine for the most part (with a minor niggle to do with the AI tactical pathing being occasionally fairly hair brained, but given that pathing tactically is definitely non-trivial and that in the main the whole thing just works, I dont think we should dwell on it).
The problem is with the whole positioning of the game between the action oriented gameplay of COD and the tactical oversight and control of say Combat Mission.
I think my conclusion would have to be that having two squads to control as a tactician simply doesnt involve enough of a challenge to be deeply rewarding, yet having to control them to be able to achieve an objective means that you cannot simply ignore them and play the game as a hardcore FPS like COD.
Another factor that suggests that the tactical element is perhaps under-served, is that the "situational awareness" view, entered by pressing V, simply doesnt give enough control to the player to actually achieve any benefit in terms of situational awareness. The problem with this view isnt in the concept of an out of body camera view, but in the actual implementation.
Because the player can only rotate and elevate (sometimes within fairly harsh restrictions) about units it "knows about", there is little to be gained. Often I gain more situational awareness by simply running around the level making a mental map and letting myself get shot up so I can reload the game and plan my actions from the mental image.
The addition of a simple camera control system that would allow arbitrary panning of the playfield would have salvaged this feature, so I'm quite unsure how and why the implementation was done the way it was.
Whilst the merging of tactical thinking into the action shooter genre is a noble aim, I think that the current implementation can be vastly improved upon. It's a shame really, because the execution of the game overall is very good. Graphics are high, scripting is good, although I found some of the voice acting a little stale (eh Randy? doing voices yourself?) and some of the acting of the characters smacked a little insencere.
So where will gearbox take the next iteration of the game?
Well, I'd hope that in the next iteration, attention is paid to the balance between action and tactics, so that both sides are possible. For instance, it might be possible for the game to judge from the actions of the player (if they are often alone, charging a gun post whilst the squad is sat at the back of the map shooting occasionally, which is often what happened to me for instance) dictate the role that tactics play in the game. If the game allows the AI to actually start making thier own decisions if the player isnt actively involving themselves in the squad control, by watching what the player is doing and becoming active in trying to "help out" the player, then I think the game itself will improve.
As it is, the AI *does* attempt some of this, but if the player forgets to order squad movements often enough (by being engrossed in the action) then I think the AI should compensate.
I've got high hopes for the sequel to the game, not least because I've got a soft spot for Gearbox as a company and the guys that work there. I'm on thier side! so I feel a bit harsh critisizing what is quite obviously an exploration of two fairly complex genre's of game.
So kudos for a well produced, compelling game and here's to seeing a sequel that bests the original in many ways!!!