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Brothers in Arms always felt like it should have been Band of Brothers: The Game. When you’re not blowing German heads off, destroying tanks with Panzerfausts and storming through the Normandy undergrowth you’re learning about the men who fought the war, about their families, their hopes and fears. Band of Brothers, the high profile television drama captured the essence of World War 2 from an American perspective in excellent fashion and the original Brothers in Arms game did well to bring that experience to the PC platform. There were areas that required improvement, and the question that was on my lips as I peeled back the plastic wrapper, was whether this game made those improvements. Does Earned in Blood deserve a Victoria Cross or will we have to report it as missing in action?

The best place to start is by working out whether this game improves on its predecessor. One of that games biggest negatives was the weakness of the main character - Sergeant Baker. Perhaps in the spirit of George Lucas’ treatment of Jar Jar Binks, Gearbox has decided to oust Baker from a leading role and this time puts you in charge of Sergeant Joe “Red” Hartsock, who in the first game was one of Bakers corporals. As Red’s story criss-crosses paths with the original story in an effective manner, we see and hear characters in the game criticise Baker and his philosophical musings. Something I find highly ironic as Red plays out the Socrates of World War 2 character to perfection. The story he relates as you play through the missions is hammed up contemplation about death and destruction in very typical American fashion. Red epitomises everything you want from a war veteran, quiet yet courageous, resourceful yet humble, yet the Ginger Sergeant does not provide enough charisma for a leading role. I feel the ordinary guy-turned-hero story is a bit flavour of the month recently and to be quite frank it’s getting boring.

You may be wondering why I am focusing so much on the content of the story and its characters, and you wonder with good reason. You see, Brothers in Arms is separated from other World War 2 FPS games in that it has tried to evolve the genre by telling a story. Where Call of Duty plays up its excellently recreated war scenarios and Battlefield allows you to participate in what feels like an ongoing live battle, Brothers in Arms aims are slightly different. It advertises itself as based on a true story, a fact that had critics up in arms when the first game was released. The attempt at a story worked in the first game and it works here, as you plough through the chapters you begin to care about your character and those in your platoon. When Red talks about losing friends in missions, or discusses how he came to be the owner of a 6 inch scar across his face it adds a massive amount to the game, especially when considering you’re giving your squad orders. It really makes you feel like you were there at the battle, and that the lives that you should be caring about are on the line.

Bringing us back to reality is another improvement on the previous game. Should you fail in an attempt to complete a checkpoint in a given number of times the game will offer you the chance to revive your fallen comrades. “War isn’t fair but a game should be,” is the line it spouts at you, one that I was glad to see on a number of occasions as I tried to push my team through the increasingly difficult missions. Some of the missions are frustrating but not frustrating in a bad way. It’s not through bad programming, dumb AI or poorly designed levels; all of these quibbles have been fixed. The game can be frustrating because you know there is a way to get past the Nazis that block your path, but you just haven’t been good enough to do it yet. The frustration we all love to feel.

This game differentiates very little to the original and feels like an FPS/puzzler. My ability to shoot the enemy (which at times is near impossible due to your constantly swaying rifle) did not massively influence my ability to complete the game. The majority of the time Earned in Blood follows a simple, yet effective path. Move from one area to another, go into situational awareness mode, locate German troops, work out way to get assault team into good position, kill German troops. The game uses this simple formula over and over again, and doing so provides about 10 hours of fun enjoyable gaming. Why doesn’t this get boring? The answer is simply that it doesn’t ‘feel’ as linear as it sounds. It feels like every situation is different, that every puzzle is more complicated than the last and that when you do finally find a way past the 16 German troops lined up behind the various trees, crates and barrels, you did so through your own sheer tactical brilliance rather than following some pre-defined path the developers had planned for you.

What I am saying doesn’t seem to make any sense, an FPS where your own shooting makes little or no difference, similar puzzles repeated over and over again, poor aiming; not to mention limited weapon choices and fairly average graphics. How can this be enjoyable? Yet despite all this Earned in Blood is great to play, challenging, progressively difficult and a game that rewards you with a feeling of contentment as every checkpoint is passed. All of this while being wrapped in authentic looking, if all be it a bit graphically dated, World War 2 environments. You appreciate those moments of calm before the battle, as you weigh up where you’re going to send your men, as you hear the very well done, realistic sounds of rain dripping onto the barrel of your rifle, moving your mouse left and right so you can survey war torn France. In Earned in Blood your part of the dirt of the war, the glamour and ‘Hollywood Heroism’ has been stripped from you and it makes you feel bare and naked. You’re not invincible and neither are the men who fight and die for you.

Despite this I must bring into question how the game is being billed. Other reviewers have debated whether or not this game is justified being called a sequel. The answer quite simply put is that it isn’t; well, not in terms of what we would traditionally phrase as a sequel.

Earned in Blood hasn’t been massively altered – in the traditional sense - from Road to Hill 30, graphically it doesn’t look obviously different and there have been no leaps forward technically that make it significantly improved from the first game. But where other reviewers have criticised this I feel it important to highlight this as a future trend for a lot of games. When a successful formula has been created, developers will and are beginning to channel resources into creating ‘episodic’ content. It takes a massive amount of money to develop a game from scratch and with something like World War 2, where so many different, exciting and interesting stories are ready to be told is it really such a bad thing that Gearbox have not made many sweeping changes?

The answer is simple, episodic games are coming whether or not we as the consumer like it, and this is simply one of the first incarnations of such a style of game. If you enjoyed the first one, or never played the first one but like the sound of it anyway, then there is definitely something for you here to enjoy. Whether the inclusion of improved multiplayer and the new scenario missions combined with the new story is worth forking over the full £30 (some retailers have reduced the price by up to 50%) is one that is really dependent on the person. If you really liked the first game then this is an improvement, if you like war stories or war games in general then this is a great buy. However, if you were one of the few who wasn’t impressed by Road to Hill 30 then there probably isn’t enough here to make you enjoy this incarnation much more.

With a very different type of war approaching, the battle of Christmas 2005, which World War 2 shooter is going to stand up and be counted? Do you go for the tactical difficulty, yet visually limited Earned in Blood, or maybe you will want something a bit more Hollywood in Call of Duty 2 (stay tuned for our review). This reviewer feels that although comparisons are going to be drawn, they shouldn’t. These two games, although focusing on the same content arrive in very different ways and all true War gaming fans should really have both games lining their shelves. Is Earned in Blood worthy of it’s gruesomely, hard-hitting namesake? Yes, but only just!