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Brothers In Arms

The Utah Beach Museum at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is the answer. It's the answer to all those questions fired at developers about the morality of making wargames. The questions may be expressed in different ways but they always amount to the same thing: How do you feel about turning a painful, traumatic conflict into entertainment?

Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software, uses the Spielberg defence: "We're fulfilling a fantasy, but also retelling a story as authentically as possible. I think it's important that it can remain as a reference piece. Five years ago this would have been too expensive to research, but now the audience is bigger and we can take on projects like this." His enthusiasm for the subject matter and commitment to the project (he spends at least an hour on top of a hill - Hill 30, he tells us - assessing it for the game) gives us hope that his interest in history is not just for the press releases.

The museum is three miles from Utah beach and is in the Normandy town made famous by The Longest Day, the John Wayne movie depicting the descent of paratroopers into a hail of German bullets. A life-sized facsimile of a soldier hangs by a parachute from the church steeple, providing a graphic reminder to tourists of what happened here 60 years ago. Apart from a large American bomber filling up the central hall, it's your typical museum full of artifacts, touchscreen monitors and bored schoolchildren. The kids sidle by, taking little notice of, well, anything. One of them points lazily at a Thompson sub-machine gun while another swings his bag at a fellow pupil to break the tedium. History is not alive here, and even the older visitors look like they've come purely out of a sense of duty.

Bringing this rich history to life for a new generation is only one of Pitchford's objectives; the good news is that Brothers In Arms does detail like no other war game we've encountered. Where Medal Of Honor Frontline gives you a prosaic version of the Omaha beach landing (which took place 12 miles from Utah beach) and then veers off into a Boys' Own adventure, Brothers In Arms sticks to the broad historical facts. It takes place over an eight-day period and reprises the major conflicts fought by 3rd squad, 3rd platoon of the 502nd airborne division during the invasion.

It's also odd because you get to see the invasion happen from an unusual perspective. As part of a paratrooper division, you land in the fields behind the enemy front line. Your job is to fight your way towards the allied forces, destroying and securing strategic points on the way and thus providing support to the thousands of troops fighting their way up Utah beach.

Your first task, however, is to find your scattered comrades before avoiding detection by the enemy and securing the exits of the four roads leading to the beach. The murkiness of the Normandy countryside coupled with the superb ambient sound effects make for an incredibly tense insertion. Hedgerows loom out of the dark and as you run to take cover from stray bullets pinging around you the sound of your heavy breathing ramps up the tension further. Brothers In Arms is not short on atmosphere.

Many of the higher-ranking soldiers in the game will be modelled on their historical counterparts, right down to facial features, name and accent - but the character you control, Sergeant Baker, and his men will be fictional. This was necessary to allow some artistic freedom but also out of respect for those individuals who fought and died during the Normandy invasion. "Brothers In Arms is based on a true story and it's the first action game to really put you on the real battlefields," continues Pitchford. "It's not just a corridor shooter with artwork that places it within a theme like you've played before. Brothers In Arms is the first team-based firstperson action game set in the period. It puts you in the boots of a paratrooper for eight days during the most important battle of modern history." Indeed, the 502nd parachute regiment is distinguished as the only squad to participate in every major action of the campaign.

Character texture is brought out through the conversations that take place between Baker and the dozen men under his command. Baker is at first reluctant to face the responsibility of taking young men into battle (a theme also present in Saving Private Ryan) but the other troopers also have to deal with personal issues amid the mess of war as they move from battle to battle. These vignettes are played out with subtlety and should provide even more motivation for astute tactical decision making in the field.

'Veracity' is the word of the day as Pitchford drives around Normandy from one location to another pointing out key areas that appear in the game. He rattles them off with boundless excitement: Purple Heart Lane, Hill 30, Dead Man's Corner, Carentan. Along with eyewitness accounts, delving into archives and dispatching a team to survey the local area, Gearbox also enlisted the help of Colonel John Antal, formerly of the US army. Now the company's military and historical director, he travels with us to add tactical depth to Pitchford's exposition of what, why and when.

There's little doubt that Gearbox is taking a brave decision by sticking to the historical truth, at least as far as it's outlined in the history books. "Military tactics haven't changed that dramatically over time," Antal tells us. "It's first about finding the enemy, then fixing the enemy, then flanking the enemy. Flanking really means something in this game. If you can attack an enemy from an unexpected direction then you create two things: confusion and fear."