Brothers In Arms

But won't the focus on historical accuracy compromise the player's freedom? "Actually, recreating the battlefields gives the player more freedom than he's been allowed in the corridor shooters that have come before," argues Pitchford. "On a real battlefield you aren't just funnelled down a path, but you have options about how to proceed tactically. You can charge up the middle, or you can set up for a flanking manoeuvre around one side or another. There are several things that happen by using real battlefields, but mainly it's to give you tactical freedom."

Gearbox's work with the PC version of Halo is apt because you can imagine how it could work in a WWII game. Each mission drops you into a battle area and gives you an objective. Unlike most FPSs, there's no tight path channelling you from A to B - battles in Brothers In Arms are mainly about the suppression and flanking of an enemy force. Antal explains that it's the most fundamental and powerful manoeuvre in military history. While there will be areas where you're pinned down and movement is restricted, such as Purple Heart Lane, many missions will give you the freedom to change tactics on the fly and the space to outmanoeuvre enemies across large expanses of land. At least that's the theory.

Interestingly, there's also an overhead tactical view that can be triggered by pausing the game. The camera slowly pans out from your position to give you an overview of the field of battle, highlighting both enemy and allied forces. It's a feature that may appear at odds with Gearbox's staunch approach to historical accuracy and tactical realism, but after playtesting Pitchford believes it improves gameplay dramatically. It's reassuring to find a developer keen to incorporate a mechanic for the good of the game even if it does threaten to impinge on the original formula.

But is the AI up to the job? There are four levels of sophistication. The first is Simulated Intelligence, based on standard military tactical procedure; the second is Expert Systems, which reacts to environmental obstacles; the third is Situational AI, a state that alters depending on what the enemy is doing and the tactics they employ. The fourth is the most basic: Scripted AI. This doesn't answer anything, of course, until it can be seen working in-game, but hopefully Gearbox's experience with Halo should deliver a canny enemy, not afraid to take cover and organise attacks. Pitchford is confident, noting a little wryly that Halo's AI was good "at manoeuvring around boulders and trees."

It's the specificity of Brothers In Arms that sets it apart from any other wargame on the market. The forensic approach to data gathering may enhance the experience and make Brothers In Arms educational as well as deeply engrossing. It might also prove to be its Achilles' heel. There are two worries with the Gearbox approach: first, the focus on historical accuracy is necessarily time-consuming - will it be a distraction from building balanced and interesting gameplay features? After all, it's much easier to recreate real-world locations and real objectives than it is to make its inhabitants behave in a clever way in combat situations. Second, there's the suspicion that it could turn into a history lecture wrapped up in a FPS engine.

So far, we've made little reference to the working game itself, and this is because, so far, there's only been a one-level demo available to play. Yet already there's enough spark and excitement in the situations we've seen to convince us that this is no feeble FPS bolstered by a few extravagant cut-scenes. The tactical directions are not dissimilar to those employed in Freedom Fighters: the left trigger brings up context-sensitive commands that you can issue to your two fire teams, while the white button switches between them. You then issue the relevant commands - fall back, engage, suppress, etc. The soldiers under your command will snap to their tasks quickly, and the controls never feel clumsy.

Gearbox also has a broadly realistic view of character mortality. There will be no health bars, magical medical canteens lying conveniently around, or multiple lives. If you do something stupid, you die. Warnings will be given: bullets whizz by your ears followed by flecks of red blood splashing across your vision if you stay out in the open. Failing to respond to these obvious signs by not taking cover and you'll inevitably keel over and die. There are checkpoint markers during each mission but the game teaches you the importance of self-preservation very quickly.

The only thing at odds with Gearbox's approach to 'realism' during battles is its use of suppression meters. Take shots at the Germans and bright red circles appear above their heads. Each red pie is eaten away, Pikmin-style, as the enemy come under more fire to indicate that they're pinned down. It's clear and concise shorthand for a new player, but probably too lurid for tactical purists. Fortunately, Brothers In Arms does give you the option to switch them off.

But is Pitchford worried that the interest in WWII is waning? After all, just when most other developers have moved on to the Gulf War, Vietnam or fictional conflicts in North Korea, Gearbox is back where the likes of EA was several years ago. "With programmes like Band Of Brothers the mindshare has increased and just a few days ago the D-Day commemorations were happening here," he says confidently. "We want to build games that we can't find anywhere else. Brothers In Arms is something Gearbox has been working on for years - we just didn't talk about it until it was getting close to being done."

War and videogames have always been close partners but the relationship has rarely been one of mutual respect. Brothers In Arms could change all that, delivering an entertaining and - dare we say the dreaded word - educational videogame. Whatever the case, it's likely to have more impact and be more relevant to a generation of teenagers left cold by relics in a museum. And that can't be a bad thing.

Brothers In Arms will be flanking the Germans on PS2, Xbox and PC early in 2005