Why the World Needs Brothers in Arms
All right, listen up! The terrain is pretty hot. There is a hell of a lot of fire – some of it friendly, some of it not. But there is an opening. A lot of the units out there don’t have the discipline and the training. Things can turn into a battle royale a little too easy. And they all seem to think they have a rendezvous with Destiny. They don’t. Here’s what we need. A first-person shooter with a good campaign, long and loaded with pathos. It needs a head for tactics, easy to pick up and a challenge in practice, when you’re churned up by enemy fire. And it needs realism: nothing too punishing, just a nice dusting of extra pain. In short, we need Brothers in Arms.
The good news is that it sounds as if we are getting one. Talking on a podcast in 2021, Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox Software, said, “We’re working on another Brothers in Arms game, but I’m not saying shit until we have it.” A wise strategy, in war and game development. Before that admission, however, the series had long been on his mind. “Brothers in Arms is still one of our properties, it’s still very important to us,” he said in 2019. “That is the franchise that put us on the map.” And as far back as 2016, he mentioned that he has “unfinished business there with both the fiction and the history.” I’ll say. The last main entry in the series was Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, fifteen years ago, and it ended on Hell’s soft verge, as it were – on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge, with its hero, Sergeant Matt Baker, giving a rousing speech to his men. And then nothing. The battle never bulged. Baker shouldn’t have said shit until they had it.
What is it about Brothers in Arms that lingers on? Pitchford’s attachment to the series is understandable; after a couple of Half-Life expansions (Opposing Force and Blue Shift) and a string of PC ports, Baker’s mission was the first outing that belonged to Gearbox alone. It also belongs to a diminishing genre. The tactical first-person shooter is, just now, beginning to resurface. After Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the shooter landscape was shocked and awed into submission. The likes of Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon seemed, in contrast to Infinity Ward’s blockbuster, stiff and staid; the prospect of taking some time before deployment and picking out your preferred weapon and approach felt like dithering in the face of Armageddon.
The appetite, however, is coming back. The recent likes of Squad and Ready or Not have proven that people still crave the sensation of being pressed into service, pressed by enemy fire, and pressed for time. The coup of Brothers in Arms was that it took the notion of tactical shooting and dropped it into heavy drama. Listening to Baker’s monologues before each mission, you felt the onset of approaching gloom. He was sad to be fighting, to be away from home, to be watching his comrades fall, or get blown, to pieces. (He was voiced by Troy Baker, in a jumped-up, pre-Joel performance that veers into the mawkish; played again recently, these narrative chunks do feel, shall we say, overbaked.) By the third game, our hero’s mind was broken; he had been dragged through the fire and mud of France and into the sunflowered Netherlands, where he started dreaming up imaginary foes. This was distressing, given that there were plenty of real foes to shoot at. But it was a relief to see a big action game given to sudden blue shifts.
It was also a relief, in the midst of blaring battle, to press a button and enter the tactical map. The viewpoint darted up into the air, as if you were calling on a camera in the underbelly of a plane. The crump and din of enemy fire would slur into ambient noise, and time would slow to a near-stop while you plotted your next move. The ingenious stroke of the tactical map is that its function is wrapped around its form: the conviction that good planning can tame and tamp down the inferno of war is coupled with a mechanic that offers no small relief in the middle of a firefight. It’s a civilising gesture in a depraved place.
Having just bought all three games (Road to Hill 30, Earned in Blood, and Hell’s Highway) what strikes me, years on, is what isn’t there. It may seem odd now, for example, that Baker, whose job it is to leap from a low-cruising plane into hostile territory, doesn’t possess the ability to sprint. Then again, he is weighed down by eighty pounds of weaponry ammo, food, and body armour – to say nothing of a burdened soul – and the fact that the most he can manage is a light jog is perhaps for the best. By far the starkest difference between Brothers in Arms and the shooters of our current moment is the lack of music. Baker’s efforts are not backed by the surging of patriotic strings, and most of what you hear consists of gunfire and shouting – either the boasts of your allies (“I got twenty-twenty eyes! No use hiding!”) or guttural bursts of German. The result is that you don’t feel morally hectored, or hastened along into glory. Instead, you focus on the matter at hand: negotiating your way through Northern France one hedgerow at a time.
This is what we need now. This is why the world demands more Brothers in Arms. We are too accustomed to guns that don’t properly sway. We have forgotten the delicious torment of a shot that appears to be perfectly lined up but is let down by a man’s laboured breath. We have forgotten the miserable joy of providing cover fire and ordering our allies to advance. The crux of Brothers in Arms is an unromantic approach: suppress the enemy, flank them, shoot them. It is difficult. It is dour and drained of colour. It is thirty seconds of glum, over and over again. It is unsurpassed. It is time.
Sunday, March 12, 2023 @ 07:28 AM
Sunday, March 12, 2023 @ 09:50 PM
Monday, March 13, 2023 @ 07:30 AM
If that's what we'd get, they can continue to keep the series archived in the basement.
Monday, March 13, 2023 @ 07:51 AM
Shit is pointless