Review: Do you really want World War II in the palm of your hands?
Most WWII shooters follow the same, standard FPS formula: give the player a Thompson and throw wave after wave of bad guys his way until either the entire Reich is depleted or that last little sliver of health disappears from the player's HUD. Either way, there are always plenty more human bowling pins and health kits in the next level to start it all over again. The Brothers in Arms series breaks the mold, turning the WWII shooter into a tactical experience, one that's at once far more accessible and hands-on than the typical Red Storm tactical shooter. Now, Gearbox Software has brought that same combination of tactics and FPS action to the PSP, moving just about every feature over to the handheld platform. But how well does this complex game make this difficult transition?
D-Day tells the story of the the Normandy invasion, from the harrowing airborne parachute drop through the battle for Carentan and beyond. It takes missions from the first two PC versions of the game and combines them sequentially. Not only does this give plenty of play time for the single-player campaign, but it also sets the stories in counterpoint with one another. In the first half of the game, the player controls Matt Baker, squad leader in charge of riflemen and tanks at different points of the game. He's something of a standard game hero, leading the way and blasting the bad guys. His personal story is developed through narration at the beginning of each level when he reflects on the war, his parents' divorce, and the deaths of some of his comrades and friends. All seems well and good, until the second half of the game, when the point of view character switches to Joe Hartsock. Red, as he's called, recounts some of the stories of the early missions from his own perspective, calling Baker's leadership style and personality into question. It's an unusual setup, one that could be used to comment on anything from the nature of military leadership to overused video game character conventions. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work because Hartsock hints at things without giving any specifics and the first half of the story lacks any details that might help us figure out what exactly is getting his goat.
If the story isn't quite there, the primary gameplay mechanic certainly is. This is a shooter, giving the player a brace of weapons that varies from level to level: usually it's a semi-automatic M1 Garand paired with a fully-automatic Thompson or BAR. Swapping between weapons is essential depending on the situation, since the Garand is more accurate at long ranges, while the automatics can put a whole lot of bullets on a target in a hurry. Lead on target is essential for the game's suppression system. If you're up against a German team behind hard cover, you can make sure they keep their heads down by sending a few well-aimed bursts their way. Then, while they're cursing their F?hrer and scrambling for cover, you sneak around to a flank and pop them while they're distracted. It's an authentic tactic, and it means that D-Day's missions aren't mindless fragfests. The pace is a bit slower, since you'll want to survey the terrain using the overhead tactical view to look for good cover and flanking positions. An ideal flanking position exposes the enemy while keeping you behind a solid barricade.
To help with these tactical maneuvers, the game puts a small team of soldiers under your command. Using a relatively simple point-and-click system, you can move two Airborne troops around the map and order them to fire on any target in their field of view. They can lay down suppressing fire on a target while you circle around for the kill. The AI does a decent job most of the time, but sometimes the men will follow your orders just a little too well?if you give the word, they'll rush into an area that leaves them exposed to heavy enemy fire. Overall, though, the suppression and squad control systems make D-Day a far richer, more challenging experience than most other shooters. Having a couple of guys along for the ride gives you a few companions who'll throw wisecracks at the enemy between the shootouts. If they had a bit more character, they'd be a little more sympathetic when they're wounded or killed. As it is, there really aren't any consequences to losing part or all of your team: you get a red X over the guy's face and you lose his firepower for the rest of the level, but then he re-spawns at the beginning of the next level.
The big problem with all these levels, though, is the control scheme. Not only is this a first-person shooter that you control with a D-pad and analog stick, but it's also got that command scheme that allows you to give orders to your troops. They're both tough to do on the PSP, but the second actually works a whole lot better than the first. The FPS system uses the analog stick for movement and aiming: unless you hit the free look button or specifically use your rifle sights, your weapon stays aimed at the same level, which probably won't match up with the bad guys' kill zones. And when you do hit the button that lets you aim, the analog stick doesn't give you the control you'll want, since nudging the stick a bit when you're almost?but not quite?aimed-in either doesn't move the sight at all or makes it jump to the other side of where you want to aim, leaving you standing there trying to aim as the bullets whiz by your virtual vital parts. Throw in a checkpoint save system that resets to the beginning of a level whenever you take a break and turn the game off, and occasionally you'll end up with a needlessly punishing experience.