99% of gamers will agree to some extent that Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30 was a sublime first album for Gearbox Software. The difficult second album is always dreaded by musicians however, and this metaphorical second album for the production company responsible for the highly-praised squad tactics and first-person action that comprised Road to Hill 30 must have been an absolute nightmare. This short review covers Earned in Blood’s positive aspects, including some improved AI, open level designs, multiplayer missions, and weapons – it also touches upon aspects of criticism, which focuses mainly on the problem that Earned in Blood isn’t enough of a departure from the original Brothers in Arms.
Veterans of the Brothers in Arms saga will recognise that Earned in Blood is spun from the same thread as The Road to Hill 30 first and foremost through its protagonist. You play as Corporal Joe “Red” Hartsock, who as well as being one of the many men dropped behind enemy lines in run-up to the battle of Normandy in real life, is also the very same Joe Hartsock that was present in campaign of Road to Hill 30. Earned in Blood is in fact set at a time that overlaps the events of the original, allowing previous players to view certain events of that timeline from a different perspective whilst simultaneously introducing newcomers to the historically-accurate, real-life events that are represented here in video game form.
There is no other option but to start with the main crux of criticism early in this review, which revolves around the similarity of the gameplay to the original. The mechanics of the game when viewed in isolation are actually quite impressive: squad-level tactics dovetail wonderfully with some shallower and more instantly-gratifying shoot-outs.
You can walk around, kneel down behind cover, and fire at your enemy whilst looking down the barrel of the gun you have equipped, all in the first-person perspective. More importantly, you are able to command your team, ordering them to perform various tactical actions that include finding cover, opening fire, or charging your enemies. These actions allow you to carry out the recurring tactical notion of “find, fix, flank, and finish” – the “four Fs” form an overarching theme throughout this game as they did in the original.
However, this is the problem with Earned in Blood. It’s simply too similar to the action of the original to warrant thinking about it as a true sequel. There has been some noticeable improvement to the quality of the enemy AI. Enemies will actively seek cover and respond to your squad’s movements rather than just follow a pre-determined, non-dynamic movement pattern. Expect the enemy to actively out-flank you if you play on the higher difficulty settings as well.
There are plenty of missions to get stuck into in Earned in Blood – 13 in total. These take you to many parts of occupied France, giving the developers many opportunities to show off their level-design skills as you traipse through wooded areas, forests, towns, and cities. However, it’s a little disappointing that Gearbox Studios insisted on allowing the progression of each level to remain as linear in fashion as the mission of the original. Though you’ll occasionally be able to attack an enemy from a number of angles, each mission in general has a set path that you must follow in order to trigger essential events.
Multiplayer and Conclusion
Some of the more welcome improvements rear their head in the game’s multiplayer offerings. Skirmish mode allows you to revisit the single-player campaign levels, only this time playing cooperatively with other players. Timed Assault is also a nail-biting mode full of action and never short on tension; it requires you to eliminate all enemies on a map within an imposed timeframe. Let’s not forget the ultimate hardcore-gamer mode either: Tour of Duty. This mode restricts you to a single squad with one life, tasked with completing five consecutive missions within the aforementioned parameters.
The graphics and sound are also difficult to criticise here. The PC version of course looks much better than the Xbox iteration, but both have high-quality and high-fidelity sound effects as well as historically accurate weapons and realistic (for 2005, anyhow) player models. It all pales in comparison to more modern titles like ARMA 3 of course, but this is to be expected since games of the past are restricted by the linear passage of time as we know it.
As ever though, Earned in Blood is worth the effort it takes to purchase and play it because of its historically-accurate events and sublime storytelling, not to mention the tactics-heavy squad-level combat.