I remember a time before Borderlands became a runaway hit. Before Duke Nukem Forever arrived a decade too late. Before the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco and long before headlines for all the wrong reasons. I remember when Gearbox felt like the most earnest development studio and studio-head Randy Pitchford seemed endearingly passionate.
Indeed, it was Pitchford’s passion that drew my attention to the Brothers in Arms series in 2004, when I stumbled on pre-release footage of the series’ first game, Road to Hill 30, while looking for info about Ghost Recon 2 on Ubisoft’s website.
The video featured Pitchford and Gearbox’s then-military advisor, Colonel John Antal, showing off what made their World War II shooter series so different. Using Antal’s military background, Gearbox put a lot of stock into historical, geographical and tactical accuracy.
I never asked to be squad leader
It stood out to me for a few reasons. Firstly, in 2004, video games were in full swing of aping Spielberg’s 1998 WW2 classic Saving Private Ryan and the terrific 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers. Though one was a fictional story and the other a dramatisation of the real 101st Airborne that dropped into Nazi-occupied France before D-Day, both were incredible looks at WW2 and the people that served in it.
I don’t think I was alone but they kickstarted my desire to learn more about WW2 and that, such is the obsessive way I’m wired, fed into my gaming time.
But, try as they might, video games could only capture the surface-level brutality of war but said nothing about it. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its console counterpart, Frontlines, had both replicated Saving Private Ryan’s shocking opening in enjoyably chaotic ways, but neither had any of its wider themes, happy to settle into standard FPS tropes. Put simply: they were era-standard shooters in WW2 skins and why, even now, I only vividly remember those beach landings and barely anything else.
– inspired by Band of Brothers in particular – seemed to hint at something more and, when it was released in March 2005, I was not disappointed. Its ‘Brothers in Arms’ moniker was a reflection of a story that closely followed a small group of soldiers immediately before and after D-Day.
This meant that while genre-mates flew you around the world during their campaigns, Road to Hill 30 took place only in Normandy as part of ‘Operation Chicago’, and its green fields, country roads and rural towns gave the plot some intimacy.
In Road to Hill 30, you play as Sergeant Matt Baker (voiced by pre-fame namesake, Troy) who, as the intro explains, has leadership thrust upon him shortly after landing in Normandy.
During the inner monologues that head each mission, you hear from Baker how uncomfortable it makes him, how he laments having the lives of thirteen men and their families hanging on his every decision.
We learn about the things that helped shape him as a leader though anecdotes of fatherly advice and other childhood memories. We learn about incidental interactions with his men, like the peculiar way Kevin Leggett eats his eggs or how Joe ‘Red’ Hartsock proudly tells anyone who’ll listen about the pre-war bar fight that left his face scarred. We also hear Baker trying to rationalise the things that happen to these characters during their first operation, and how his mental state unravels when feeling out of control.
These monologues do not merely serve as exposition but instead help Baker and his team feel like real people – real people whose relationships (despite some retrospectively-hammy voice acting) take centre stage as they banter and argue in rare moments of calm, and scream at each other when hell breaks loose.
And so, when some die in Road to Hill 30’s big story moments, it means more than in other war games.
Baker’s first loss, for example, is his home-town best friend – a tank driver called George Risner who dies in the push to St. Come-du-mont. With his friend gone, Baker takes a moment to breathe and considers what he’d say to Risner’s family when he gets home, reflecting on the hole left in his life.
“I’ll never see George again.”
Baker’s mental state only worsens as more men fall, but no more so than after Allen and Garnett perish off-screen during a recon mission with Leggett. Squad tensions run high in the aftermath as everyone turns on sole-survivor Leggett, though Baker only blames himself for not being there to stop it. Leggett also struggles massively with survivor guilt before his own death during the team’s climactic defence of Carentan, but it’s the suicidal nature of Leggett’s final moments that haunts Baker in ways not fully explored until the third core entry, Hell’s Highway.
The other reason Brothers in Arms took my fancy was because, even back then, we were fast-approaching first-person shooter saturation, not only in terms of military-themed shooters, but WW2 shooters especially. I had begun moving away from run ‘n gun games, looking to more cerebral options like the Ghost Recon series, which ultimately led me to discover Brothers in Arms, which too had a focus on tactics.
In reality, its tactics system wasn’t far removed from what Pandemic’s Full Spectrum Warrior had done on Xbox and PC a year before, with your role to direct fire and assault teams (and sometimes tanks and other units) around battlefields, pinning and flanking to outsmart your opponents. Brothers in Arms, though, put you right in the centre of it and with a gun in your hand, having you orchestrate skirmishes from eye level.
I revisited the core series’ entries on PC in recent weeks and was surprised to find that directing squads still feels pleasingly intuitive. Select your unit, hold a button while you point them to where they’re to go or who they’re to fire on and they’ll oblige. As they move, they’ll automatically react to their situation – seek cover or shoot at enemies that appear – but once in cover you can order them to intensify fire on key enemy units so you or your other team can move safely into advantageous positions.
And positioning your teams thoughtfully is vital because shooting an enemy yourself is intentionally difficult. Guns bob wildly when looking down iron sights, making it pointless shooting at enemies that pop out from cover (though this became considerably easier as the series progressed), and your aim only gets worse when under fire yourself.
And somehow, despite action being technically slower than its WW2 stablemates – there’s no sprint button in the first two games and you and your team are often in cover – Brothers in Arms creates a terrific illusion where skirmishes feel frantic and dramatic, more so than a lot of twitch shooters, as you bark orders at your teams and scream for covering fire as bullets whiz by.
Two sides to every story
Released in the same year as Road to Hill 30, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood was an incredibly quick-fire sequel that made only minimal changes to the formula, but its tweaked A.I. made enemies more reactive. In Road to Hill 30, pinned foes had a tendency to stay in cover unless caught in the crossfire, but with Earned in Blood they’d push back, change positions if they saw your approach and flank you right back if you left your team exposed. In tandem with larger battlefields, this led to combat sequences that felt more organic, ebbing and flowing in and out of your favour, and way more satisfying to overcome. Earned in Blood also had a little more variety in locales too with urban areas, though they were mostly levelled.
Interestingly, Baker takes a backseat as you play as one of his men, newly promoted Joe ‘Red’ Hartsock, now with a team of his own. Rather than being a window into Hartsock’s head (as with Baker), the story plays out through Red’s mid-operation interview with a military historian, where he talks about the tail-end of his time in Baker’s squad and what came after.
But, while Earned in Blood is not explicitly about Baker, we see another side to Baker’s story and get a view of what others think of him. In the aftermath of Carentan, for example, while Baker was celebrated by his superiors for lone-wolfing and bringing in tanks to save the day, some of his crew feel aggrieved. They respect Baker and what he did for them, for sure, but felt they also fought hard and suffered during the first game’s climactic battle. Red is no different, declaring to a surprised historian that Baker had “earned his stripes, but so did the rest of us.”
You get to see this firsthand when you eventually replay Road to Hill 30’s final playable chapter but from Hartsock’s point of view. Where Baker went right to meet up with the armoured division, Red took a team left to cut off the Nazi reinforcements heading towards their last line of defence. It was a task just as gruelling as Baker’s.
While the larger group have opinions on Baker too, joking about “Baker’s goose chases” and questioning his decisions, Hartsock at least acknowledges how much leadership has taken from him, and sometimes treats him with kid gloves. Referencing moments after Risner’s death in Road to Hill 30, Red explains that he chose not to report more bad news to Baker because he “looked like anything I said would topple him.”
Earned in Blood focuses less on the mental struggle of leadership and tackles the subject from a different angle – defiance. Hartsock tells the historian how he and Baker once had the unluckiest number painted on their helmets to tempt fate – if fate wanted them, it could have them.
But after losing Allen and Garnett, and Hartsock’s closest friend Desola just the day after, Red was no longer willing to accept fate’s decision. He decided that he would do what Baker couldn’t and would keep his team alive – specifically Sgt Seamus Doyle, who had saved him moments after landing in Normandy.
It’s here we realise why Joe Hartsock’s own story focuses so much on Matthew Baker – Earned in Blood is largely about Red reconciling how he feels about being in his friend’s shadow. He thought he could do better. Be better. He couldn’t.
During the assault on St. Sauveur, Red can only watch as Doyle is blindsided and obliterated by a tank shell.
Sensing Red’s emotional state, the historian tries to reassure him he did all he could and what had to be done, that the capture of St. Sauveur was an important steppingstone on their path to ending the war in Europe. But by telling this story, Red realises that he and Baker aren’t so different and that no one can control the fates of men in war.
With his interview over, Red seeks Baker out and takes a seat with him. The pair talk about the book they could write about their adventures. They bicker about its title and how, if they ever get back to England, they’ll share a whiskey.
Letting go of the past
While Earned in Blood released right on the heels of its predecessor, we had to wait three years for the third main instalment. Sandwiched between was a PSP release, Brothers in Arms: D-Day – a competent handheld mashing together of missions from both the first two games – and Brothers in Arms DS, a mediocre third-person shooter for Nintendo DS that shared only setting and title with the series; a decision I’m sure made only on brand recognition (a subject we’ll touch on again shortly).
Still, around the launch of the Xbox 360, Gearbox began to show off what the generational leap meant for its latest entry, Hell’s Highway. Once again, Pitchford’s passionate demoing across a series of ‘vidocs’ sold me. He introduced new mechanics, like the new third-person cover system and health system (which annoyed some fans who found the idea less immersive), a kill cam for spectacular shots or explosive action and, not only better-looking environments, but more reactive environments. I remember being particularly impressed when they showed how wooden fencing snapped off exactly where shot and, to be honest, I am still impressed by this, having spent an obscene amount of time in my recent revisit wasting ammo on innocent white pickets.
By the time Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released in 2008, though, most of the things that impressed me so much in previews had been done or bettered. Epic’s Gears of War had been released and popularised the cover-shooter, not only managing cover mechanics more elegantly but also with equally impressive destructible cover. Likewise, Call of Duty 2 and 3 had been massive hits and already had WW2 fanatics covered. Plus, people were getting tired of the WW2 schtick as a whole.
Still, I loved every second of Hell’s Highway. It saw a return to Baker’s perspective and his attempt to come to terms with his past by asking ‘What is it that makes a great soldier? Their head or their heart?’, a question his father asked him when he was a boy. It’s answered during the Allies’ time in the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden, explored through elements of post-traumatic stress disorder, closely guarded secrets and superstition.
We pick up the story with Baker as a Staff Sergeant and with a much bigger team. Through the series’ new cinematic flair, we get introductions and reintroductions galore, meeting familiar faces, soldiers who’ve moved between teams or changed ranks, plus a raft of replacements like Franky ‘Beans’ LaRoche or English expat Mike Dawson, both just delivered to the European battlefield.
It’s clear very early on, despite carrying himself well around his men, that the metaphorical ghost of Leggett still follows Baker around as a constant monument to his failings. While Hartsock has, in the previous game, made peace with the fact he can’t keep everyone alive, Baker is more determined than ever to prevent death from happening again.
He becomes fixated on two locals the allies use for reconnaissance, a Dutchman called Nicolass and his young son, Pieter. When he finds Nicolass distraught because Pieter is missing, Baker makes it his sole charge to save the kid who, unbeknownst to his father, has stolen a pistol and gone to fight the Nazis on his own. Baker sees the kid to safety after some sharpshooting and a chase through the city streets, reuniting Pieter with his father, but ultimately can’t save them, as he discovers much later.
He struggles to accept their deaths, with Pieter’s face becoming another that haunts him at his most stressed – one more sign that Baker’s perspective can’t always be trusted.
He isn’t the only one fixated with the locals, though. After securing Eindhoven, young Franky LaRoche makes friendly with a local girl in the victory parade. It’s his first kiss, a big deal for him, so when the Germans try to take back Eindhoven, she’s the only thing on his mind. Sam Corrion, his senior officer, tries to keep him in line but Franky ignores his orders and runs off to save her.
A furious Baker gives chase through the burning streets and buildings, Franky and his girl a ghostly image, forever a step ahead in another sequence that plays with Baker’s grasp of reality. When he finds the girl dead and eventually catches up to a fatally-wounded Franky in an abandoned hospital, he can only sympathise with the inability to save someone he thought he should.
“Don’t be sorry, you did good.”
“Did she get out okay?”
“Yeah, she’s fine.”
Baker again feels like a failure as LaRoche fades from the world knowing the truth. Another ghost for Matt’s growing list.
Hartsock finds him disconsolate in the hospital and struggles to get him to focus. After being separated again during their problematic escape, Baker finds himself on his back, surrounded by Nazi soldiers… that aren’t there.
Hartsock discovers Baker right at that moment, firing his pistol “at the drywall” as Red puts it in a confrontation later, in which he demands to know if the men can trust him before a mortar hits the building, interrupting their argument. Both men survive the blast but Hartsock is taken out of the war, his condition unknown until the end of the game, which is yet more stress on an already unravelling Baker.
“You can’t have him” he tells the world at large while arguing with all his ghosts, before Hartsock’s disembodied voice reminds him not to make promises he can’t keep.
These aren’t the only tensions with his men, most of whom are aware he’s struggling. Baker recommends that Paddock replaces Hartsock over Sam Corrion – who’s been in his squad since Road to Hill 30 – because of Sam’s failure to keep Franky in line. Corrion, who has always considered Baker a close friend, is furious.
Meanwhile Mike Dawson, the English expat drafted into the American Army, who has been obsessed with Baker the entire time, pulls him aside to ask cryptic questions and challenge him on a secret that the entire squad should know. He also lets Baker know how much the squad worry about Baker’s pistol.
The pistol – dubbed the ‘death pistol’ by fans – is a minor side story across the entire series that comes to a head in this third entry. Its legend amongst the squad is that everyone who holds the pistol – everyone but Baker – dies. According to the squad, the pistol has claimed five lives (six if you count Baker’s father).
Eventually the tension between the Baker and Dawson boils over, with Dawson revealing he bumped into a despondent Kevin Leggett way back who, after some probing, shared a secret that Baker had begged him to keep. The secret is a doozy and goes right back to Road to Hill 30, back to the recon mission that saw both Allen and Garnett die, and explains why Baker takes everything so hard.
While scouting on that mission, Leggett’s obnoxiousness got the better of Allen. The pair fought, distracting their point man Garnett, who was fatally wounded by German soldiers attracted by the commotion. Allen tries to retaliate but is too late and also downed, while a panicked Leggett does absolutely nothing but scream for Baker’s help. The Nazis, probably as surprised by Leggett’s inaction as he was, flee.
Leggett spills his guts to Baker immediately, but Matt insists he never repeats what really happened to anyone.
“Because they’ll kill you.”
This is why Baker so desperately wished he was there on that fateful mission in Road to Hill 30. It’s what makes Leggett, drowning under the weight of his own guilt, go out the way he did – firing Baker’s pistol to boot.
Back in the present, Dawson gives Baker an ultimatum: tell the men what happened or he will. Baker, finally ready to accept his complicity in Leggett’s death, sucks it up. Some forgive, some can’t, and understandably so.
Shortly after, Matt also discovers the fate of Joe Hartsock, who’s alive but paralysed from his injuries. Red takes the news stoically but asks Baker if they were all worth it. Baker chews on this as he argues one last time with the ghost of Leggett about the lives lost on his watch. Leggett goads him over Franky and the others, tries to keep him wallowing in guilt and self-pity. For once, though, Baker doesn’t rise to his demons – with the weight of his secret gone, he’s ready to let them go.
Resolute, he marches over to the camp, infamous pistol in hand, and delivers a rousing speech about mistakes, trust and the superstition surrounding his father’s pistol. “It’s just a god-damn gun!” he yells before tossing the firearm, throwing away his own baggage along with what had become a symbol for all that was rotten in their team.
“So, here we are, brothers, fathers, saints and sinners. Let’s bring this fight back to the Germans!”
Only, it’s a fight that never came.
After the release of Hell’s Highway, talk of the series went dark until E3 2011, when Randy Pitchford announced the next Brothers in Arms game, Furious 4, which left I and many others mortified.
Furious 4, surprisingly (though maybe not given its success), looked a lot like the studio’s recent smash hit Borderlands. Seemingly, Gearbox was doubling down on crude humour and cartoon violence to turn Brothers in Arms into a hyper-violent, stylised co-op character shooter that gleaned more from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds than the series’ former inspiration.
I had no doubt that Furious 4 could be a great video game but, much like Brothers in Arms DS before it, it looked to be a ‘Brothers in Arms’ in name only; an attempt to capitalise on the established brand name.
Was Gearbox or its publisher unsure a new game would sell without a familiar IP behind it? That’d be odd given Borderlands was such a success. To me, the decision signalled a lack of confidence in the idea and that made me distrust it. Don’t get me wrong – Borderlands was great, I loved it, but I didn’t need every game from Gearbox to be more Borderlands.
In the aftermath, Pitchford assured fans that Baker’s story wasn’t done and that we’d get to see how his story ended, before – a short while later – quietly announcing that Furious 4 had dropped the ‘Brothers in Arms’ name to become its own thing. In fact, it was shelved, and most of its ideas eaten by the ill-fated Battleborn.
And we’ve heard nothing of Brothers in Arms since, aside from the occasional tweet from Pitchford to say it’s still on their minds and to call out Activision for the familiarity of its Call of Duty: WWII box art.
Time to redeploy?
Back in 2014, Polygon interviewed Randy Pitchford about a number of topics, including Gearbox’s collaboration with Telltale for Tales from the Borderlands. When asked about Telltale, Pitchford said “It’s been a lot of fun working with those guys. I think they’re better storytellers than we are, frankly.”
That line has always stuck with me because I feel it does the Brothers in Arms series a huge disservice. Replaying the series in 2019 put the quote back in my mind as I realise not only how much Gearbox has changed tonally, but how few war games have offered anything meaningful to say in the years since (something I’ve indirectly written about before).
There’s a clear disparity between the most impactful war books and movies, and video games, in which the most successful franchises make you the protagonist of war itself – a bulletproof hero that fires every meaningful shot alongside hordes of dispensable husks. That’s not to say that games with that direction aren’t fun or shouldn’t exist – I love a lot of games that do exactly this – but I just find it a shame that more don’t really say anything either, something Brothers in Arms started fifteen years ago.
It speaks volumes that the campaigns of the recent Call of Dutys and Battlefields I’ve played have become a single homogenous blur in my mind – fun while they last but indistinguishable from each other in memory – whereas I could clearly visualise the face of nearly every soldier under Baker and Hartsock’s command, even before my replay. I could remember Leggett, Corrion, Allen and Garnett. I could remember their backstories, their characteristics and conflicts, and replaying the series felt like catching up with old friends.
I certainly can’t blame Gearbox for its tonal shift – I love Borderlands’ rhythmic grind and dumb humour as much as anyone – but I still hope the studio makes good on its promise to finish Matthew Baker’s story. It’s a series and genre that could benefit from its conclusion.
Andy Corrigan is a freelance games journalist based in Australia. If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to follow him on Twitter.