Where the hell would the entertainment industry be without World War II? You only had to sit through the Christmas TV schedules to be bombarded by it. The Guns Of Navarone, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Heroes Of Telemark - each of them eking out a couple of hours of action from some area of the conflict. As for games, you literally can't move for WWII titles. Try it. Go on. Here's one now: Brothers In Arms, now encumbered by the entirely superfluous subtitle, Road To Hill 30. Why bother? To disassociate it from the Dire Straits album of the same name? To make the free bobble hat look more/less risible?
Who knows? What we do know is that Hill 30 is in Normandy, France, and you need to get your allied arse there quick-smart. You are Sgt Matt Baker, and your elite squad of 101st Airborne Division is scattered all over the French countryside. And when we say French countryside, we don't mean some fat bloke in Texas having a guess at what the French countryside looks like. These mothers have been there, bought the T-shirt, intimidated the locals, snapped every blade of grass and studied every map and historical document available.
Of course, everyone says that, but we actually believe this lot. We believe it because we were flown to a bitterly cold Montreal, taken to Ubisoft's HQ at some ungodly hour and sat through a presentation only marginally less in-depth than that faced by the D-Day troops. However, while stabbing ourselves with a biro in order to stave off jetlag, we did glean some info, including: "It's really early in the morning. I'm from Dallas, I don't get up this early, I'm a games developer."
This from Gearbox president, Randy Pitchford, who - in tribute to absent military advisor colonel John Antal (retired) - began the presentation with the battle cry: "Everyone fights! Nobody quits! Always attack! Hoo-ah!"
Things could only get better from there, and Pitchford gives a convincing argument as to the game's authenticity, producing a seemingly unending series of photos, historical blueprints, aerial reconnaissance imagery, the
lot. There was even somewhat tasteless mobile phone footage of a bewildered WWII veteran saying how realistic the game was and how disturbing he found it.
Hi I'm Randy
By now wholly convinced of the game's anal approach to authenticity, we collar Randy Pitchford and ask him not how, but why? Surely a hedge is a hedge is a hedge. Was authenticity the initial focus?
"The focus from the beginning was to make a game that puts you in a squad of soldiers," says Pitchford. "Here's the difference: you see a movie about a squad of soldiers and it's always about the squad. You're just one of the guys. But when you play a game, you get dragged all over the world and you don't ever remember the names. I don't even remember my own character's name, let alone the names of anybody else. So we started with this idea of wanting to be in a squad of soldiers and as we figured out how to do that, we really got caught up in the history of it. Then we thought, well, this is an opportunity for us not only to tell a great story about soldiering, but also a chance to make sure people who're going to play this game are going to trust us implicitly that this is something that happened."
Pitchford asserts that when he met some of the actual veterans, he felt he had an obligation to make it right. "Some of them didn't even want to talk to us because they complained about how other games had treated the subject matter and how they're almost offensive to them. Have you ever seen a movie that's about something you know a lot about, like journalism, and when you watch it, it's almost embarrassing and horrifying? That's how soldiers feel when they play some of these games. So we wanted to make a game that could be enjoyed by gamers, but also one that a guy like the colonel could vouch for." Ah yes, the legendary colonel John Antal (retired). Drafted onto the project in an advisory capacity, he's now a full-time member of the development team. We've met him, and he's genuinely terrifying.