CONTENT WARNING: This article focuses on a game rated M by the MSRP for blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language. The editors have chosen to feature this game on Liftoff! due to the educational angle presented by the author and historical nature of the game. This article will not glorify the violence of war but discretion is advised.
My education was on the unusual side. Born with too many allergies to fit on a single page, back in the 90’s when nobody believed severe allergies existed, homeschooling was essential. I got lucky though, in that I had parents who were dedicated to the task, and ensured I learned more than what was in textbooks. I’d read up to 12th grade literature by 10th grade, done intro psych, and had been exposed to multiple religions, but nothing was quite as unexpected as the day my father came home with a copy of Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30.
I knew that World War II shooters were a thing, but my parents were very concerned about glorifying violence. That’s why Gearbox’s first original IP stuck out to them – it didn’t promise bombast or “hoorah!”, instead offering a historically accurate (for the time) depiction of the battles from Normandy to the titular Hill 30 in Carentan by the US 101st Airborne.
Playing as Sgt. Matt Baker of the 101st’s 502nd Regiment, a quiet man who reflects on life during loading screens, you lead two squads of soldiers through German occupied territory, outmanned and outgunned, hanging on by the skin of your teeth. Tactics alone will win the day; this is no tour to Castle Wolfenstein.
You won’t find any magical canteens to make you feel better. Hiding behind a chest high wall just means you’ll not take any further damage. Should any of your squadmates fall in battle they’re out for the rest of the level. They feel like real people, with their personalities and character arcs inspired by first-hand accounts from veterans.
One of the most vividly detailed and poignant moments is Gearbox’s portrayal of Objective XYZ. Objective XYZ was a simple series of houses and farms, with moderately small regiment of German soldiers camped out. Acquiring not only the layout of the town but the Official After Action Reports relating to XYZ, Gearbox went the extra mile by organically including moments from two of the bravest soldiers in the battle, Sgt. Summers and Pvt. Camin. The pair ducked and weaved through multiple buildings, before coming across a dining hall full of oblivious Nazis troops. They took out the entire hall without a word, doubtless saving Allied troops’ lives had the enemy been able to mount a counter-offensive.
The level design and AI spawns are set in such a way that you naturally emulate those same movements without even realizing as you make those same pushes to flank the enemy. It’s one of the closest moments a game has ever come to letting you relive history, a major sequence out of of several highlights in Brothers in Arms. Being able to see the story behind the action thereafter is the one-two punch that truly makes you appreciate the moment in history.
Gearbox went so far with their research that declassified materials included as unlockables in the game. You can see town blueprints, orders from command, and photos of the real soldiers who fought against the Nazis occupation in France. Their research was so detailed, they partnered with History Channel to create a documentary further illustrating the 502nd’s journey to Carentan. Special animations were created just for the production.
You have to understand, up until this point, I’d only played Mech Warrior and Star Wars games, as far as action titles were concerned. I was used to damage as being a mere hindrance. I’d watched plenty of documentaries and read about the war, but Brothers in Arms truly hits you in a way no of its peers had achieved. Medal of Honor may have captured Spielberg’s tone in Saving Private Ryan, but it was far more generous to players. Call of Duty was even more directly attempting to create a cinematic presentation above all else. Brothers in Arms never concerns itself with feeling like a movie – it wants to keep you grounded in the present.
Your arrival to France is terrifying, planes exploding around you, and you? You’re forced to jump without your equipment. For your very first mission, you’re down to nothing but an unsteady pistol with meager iron sights. While the game’s tactical mode grants you an eye in the sky advantage to survey situations, that singular fantastical element hammers home how vital flanking and strategy are in real combat. Levels aren’t quickscoping madhouses, but deadly puzzle boxes where the rules can change at any moment.
Even when you’ve acquired a tank, or have two full squads, the tension of knowing anyone could be lost with one errant shot is a stress not seen outside the likes of XCOM. Certainly, you have the assurance that if you die, you can try again, but Brothers in Arms eschews checkpoints outside of a handful of moments. You must live with your choices from the very start, knowing very well any soldier could decide the tide of battle, and any loss could be catastrophic.
Further cementing this sincerity, you don’t have a glorious victory at the end of Brothers in Arms. You took Carentan, but at the cost of several brave soldiers. There’s still a war to win, a war you have to hope you can survive in order to honor and remember those who didn’t. Yet it’s not the moment to moment battles that stick with you. You remember Allen and Garnet debating over whether a pistol’s strong enough to hurt Superman. You remember how Hartsock’s always got your back, pulling Baker through, even when Baker would rather just stay down in the dirt for good.
I recently returned to Brothers in Arms, to see if it still held up all these years later. While the visuals have aged considerably, and my aim has improved drastically, that air of authenticity remains, strong as I remembered. I won’t ever say it’s the same as being there, but Brothers in Arms taught me something World War II textbooks never could. It showed me a pinprick of how small yet toweringly massive war can feel. The crushing urgency between the dreadful silence as you wait, apprehensively bracing for when the gunfire to starts again.
Most importantly, that soldiers aren’t action heroes, but just everyday people trying to stay alive and do their duty in the face of uncertain odds. With the newest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare boasting how it intends to explore the depth of emotion and consequences in war, I certainly hope they paid attention to Gearbox’s work. Brothers in Arms might be old fashioned, but it’s one of the most informative, humanizing retrospectives on The Great War that can be experienced.