If there’s one thing that came out of all the hoo-ha around our Age of Decadence interview (other than that willful antagonism can be an awesome promotional tool), it’s that there’s something of a split between people who believe mainstream games are justly and necessarily slicker of interface than their more fiddly ancestors, and people who think that no, they’re just getting simpler, because gamers are getting stupider.
Brothers In Arms is fine example of this division. It does squad control - something that in so many older military-themed shooters involved memorising several dozen hotkeys - with great grace. Context-sensitive, just point, click, and your men go there, shoot that, shelter here. Easy? Stupid?
Not a bit of it. It just knows what's important.
An Armed Assault replacement it isn’t, of course. It’s almost as pop as any Medal of Honor game, and for the more hardcore soldier sim heads, that just isn’t good enough. Well, each to their own. For my money, it’s a natural meeting point between trad. FPS and the tactical cleverness of squad-based games past. Freed from complexities of interface, I have all the more headspace to assess the environment, to strategise and counter-strategise.
So what else can second sequel Hell’s Highway (which still sounds like a Meatloaf album to me) do with point’n’squad, beyond spankier graphics? Well, what with it having suffered a couple of mostly unexplained delays - it was originally due in late 2006 - we don’t know quite what manner of beast it is. It's made some exciting promises, and I'm curious to see how many of them have been realised. There's rumours we may see it before March is out, so perhaps the answers aren't far off.
First, here’s the stuff that worries me. Apparently 10-15% of the game is played solo - just the player character without his trusty squad. This suggests an increased focus on conventional FPSiness - which previously was something I played BIA games as an escape from. Then there’s the heavy-handed-sounding “Bro-Mos” - Brotherhood Moments, which involve the game snatching control away from you when your mates cop it and showing you catching them as they fall - apparently to demonstrate how close such soldiers were. Brothers In Arms, quite literally.
It all sounds a little melodramatic, and possibly at odds with BIA’s traditional respect for genuine historical occurrence. Then again, so was Call of Duty 4, but it approached it with relatively subtlety, and when it did force you into experiencing something beyond the scope of its interface but essential to the story, it neatly tricked you into thinking you had some control over it. Cutscenes are yesterday’s news for high-budget shooters. Let’s hope Gearbox realise that.
What they certainly have realised is that there was always something a little mechanical about the BIA games, for all their blessed escape from the ludicrous fantasy of One Man Versus All The Nazis. Restrictive paths through the environments, pointless limitations on what you could jump over... As Gearbox head Randy Pitchford himself admits, “We were so interested in pushing the tactics of fire and manoeuvre, of flanking, that we created a lot of mathematical systems to almost force that. Every combat was a puzzle - there was one solution, and it was our solution.” This time, it’s to be your solution.
An interesting comparison that occurs to me offhand is Hitman: Blood Money. While unquestionably a Hitman-formula game, it relaxed its rules enough to allow organic success. If you ballsed up, you could find an inventive way out of it. While finding the 'right' way had the satisfaction of precision, I felt proudest when I pulled off a mission my own way entirely, causing merry hell but reacting on the fly to problems, snatching vitory from the jaws of defeat. While Hell’s Highway isn’t going to let you steal SS uniforms or inject Panzer commanders with sleeping serum, it will, Gearbox claim, allow you to carve your own path through a mission, with tactics or straight gunplay.
Ingeniously, the artificial signposting of objectives is also for the axe - you'll need to judge where to go based purely on visual cues. The demonstrated example is locating the flak cannons you need to disable by observing their smoke puffs, or spying their spotters on nearby rooftops. The degree of balancing needed to pull this off is fearsome to contemplate - every scenario needs to hit a sweet spot between too obvious and too oblique. If Gearbox can pull it off, it should be infinitely more satisfying than the tiresome Find The Door challenges so many other FPSes default to.
It’s hard not to reach for Gears of War as a touchstone. While on the one hand Epic's successful escape from Unrealtown is built upon relatively prehistoric values, it's also become one of the de facto standards of the Xbox 360 FPS generation. That dash'n'hurdle mechanic is going to crop up everywhere - we clocked it in The Club just this week. It and BIA have something in common in terms of necessary use of cover, and I hope they turn out to have even closer ties - specifically, co-op.
BIA: Earned In Blood was a fantastic co-op game. Each of two players controlled their own squad, constantly communicating to offend and defend, to stage pincer movements, to flank and out-flank, to use brains to outwit a foe of impossible numbers: this was true co-operation. For no good reason, it wasn't possible across the main campaign though - just special co-op skirmish missions. I want to be able to play through the entirety of Hell's Highway with a chum, as I did with GoW's campaign. That's my kind of Bro-Mo.
And here's Randy Pitchford taking a Fragdoll on a guided tour down Hell's Highway. I tried to find a way to say that without it sounding like bad innuendo. I couldn't.