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Raven game designer Manveer Heir's latest 'Design 101' column takes a look at Gearbox's Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, examining how the repeated switching of perspectives changes the ways players approach combat situations and makes the game fe

Manveer Heir, Blogger

October 10, 2008

6 Min Read

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at the latest installment in Gearbox's World War II series, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.] Brothers in Arms is a series I've always enjoyed, thanks to its mix of first-person action and strategic gameplay. Being able to order squads of infantry to suppress and flank opponents in order to get the drop on them was always satisfying for me, and I enjoyed that change in formula from the rest of the run-and-gun shooters that were prevalent at the time. What made the series so different for me was the requirement to stay hidden to survive. Most shooters you can run and strafe to kill enemies, but not Brothers in Arms. You had to crouch behind cover and choose your spots carefully to kill the enemy. A full-frontal assault was suicide. Since the original game came out in 2005, much has changed in the world of shooters. Specifically, Gears of War popularized the cover-mechanic that many shooters are now using. As is natural with any good series, Gearbox has attempted to adapt the Brothers in Arms series to these new changes by adding a cover system. However, instead of adding to the experience of the game, I found this cover mechanic to detract from the core gameplay that made the original game so much fun. It isn't because a cover system was implemented; rather, it's how the cover system was implemented in this first-person shooter. Design Lesson: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway implements its cover system using the third-person perspective, which changes how players approach the combat situations in the game and makes the game feel more disjointed. The problem with going back and forth between a third-person and first-person camera is the transition between them. If you pop the camera to the new view instantly, the player may have a tough time grounding themselves into exactly where they are standing and which way they are facing. Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway gets around this by interpolating the camera between the two views. This makes the transition a little better to stomach. However, while I knew exactly where I was at all times I found myself playing the game very differently than before. Being in third-person means there is no more aiming down the ironsights of the gun. Most shooters today have ironsights, and firing down them is more accurate but usually harder to see. Instead, you get a zoom while behind cover, which gives you all the benefit of ironsights without any of the penalty. That may seem great, but it fundamentally changed the way I attacked many combat scenarios. Normally, in the original Brothers in Arms I would use one team to suppress the enemy so they wouldn't move from their cover. Then, I would move to the flank with the other team and pop out and kill them rather easily. Usually I would go into ironsights quickly, to get a couple accurate shots off, then go back to hiding behind cover. In Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, I could easily pick off guys from a far distance thanks to the third-person view of the enemy and the perfect crosshair. So, instead of constantly flanking enemies I found myself going to cover and using my rifle zoomed in from behind cover to pick enemies off. If I was having trouble, I would use the squads to suppress the enemy, so I could advance alone. Rarely would I actually attack the flank with the squads or even on my own. Instead, I just aimed for the little bit of head that popped up and moved closer if necessary. This took away some of the strategy that I enjoyed so much in the original, and it's due to the fact that aiming and shooting in the third-person perspective was far too easy. Another issue with the changing camera perspectives is the fact that the game wants you to be at cover at all times. If you are not at cover, you are most likely going to die fast. So, the majority of the game you are actually in third-person not first-person. You can actually determine what view you are in by what your actions are. If you are moving, you are in first-person most likely. If you are in combat, you are in third-person. Since most of the game has you in combat (this is a shooter after all), you probably will see more of the third-person view than the first-person. By implicitly separating actions with views, the game feels disjointed at times. It makes me wonder why even include the first-person perspective. It adds little to the game, if the game is best played from third-person. It doesn't make the game more immersive, since you are constantly being pulled out of the characters eyes when you go to cover. The ironsights don't add more to the game, because you won't use them that often. To me, third-person is the wrong way to go for this series. It has always been about the visceral nature of war, and I feel that is best expressed through first-person in most games. The original games proved the formula works very well. A cover system is important, but it's possible to implement that cover system in first-person. The core strategy for winning at the game would not have changed if this were the case. The aesthetic feel of the game on a moment-by-moment basis would have remained unified and also matched the previous games in the series. In my mind, this would have been the better approach. The game felt too much like I was doing my own thing and the squads were just there along for the ride, than being an integral part of gameplay. This makes the game feel like other World War II shooters and not like a unique franchise. Changing camera angles on a regular basis is not a good idea, in my opinion. Find the best perspective for your game and go with that the whole time if possible. Sure, it makes sense to go third-person for the vehicle level, but don't change camera perspectives on the player every 30 seconds. Hopefully, the next installment to the Brothers in Arms series can fix this flaw. [Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]

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