Brothers in Arms DS should be a disaster. The very idea sounds preposterous: a 3D, third-person shooter with real-time gameplay on the DS? Well, such concerns are not unfounded. The game is barely managing to keep itself together and deeply flawed, but still a worthy entry in the franchise and a neat curiosity for DS fans to seek out.
To be honest, the game is only called Brothers in Arms for the brand recognition. It follows a random unit of paratroopers as opposed to Matthew Baker’s ongoing story and it shun the franchise’s tactical aspect entirely. The only Brothers in Arms elements it retains are the World War II setting and the shooter gameplay, and even those barely resemble the rest of the series.
The game’s story is largely unimportant and doesn’t do any of that fancy character development stuff seen elsewhere in the series. You are just a paratrooper taking part in 3 different campaigns with a handful of missions each, this being Normandy, Tunisia, and the Ardennes. There are mission briefings and some dialogue between soldiers, but it’s minimal and often easy to miss.
Now, there is no way to describe the game’s controls without it sounding awful, so bear with me here. It’s not as bad as it sounds.
You move around with the D-pad and control the 3-dimensional camera, which doubles as your aim, exclusively with the touchpad. The touchpad does basically everything. You drag a clip symbol into it to reload, you do the same with binoculars to aim, you throw grenades by swiping up, you switch weapons around; the only function mapped to a button besides moving is firing your weapon with the shoulder-button.
It’s difficult to get the hang of and I ended up stuck on the grenade tutorial in particular for over 10 minutes, but it is something you get used to over time. As clumsy as it feels to control, it is fun to charge into battle gunning down Nazis by flicking between targets on the touchpad. To compensate for the special control scheme, the standard difficulty mode gives you a lot of health to work with and encourages risky play, which does away with the slow, cover-to-cover gameplay that characterized Brothers in Arms.
Don’t get me wrong, the cover is still there and you’ll need it often, especially on the higher difficulty mode you unlock after finishing a mission. Your character automatically ducks behind cover or sticks to walls when appropriate, but it feels faster as enemies go down quickly and you don’t have to command your team around. You can run & gun if you don’t let the enemies muster a defense and they brought back the mechanic where you can climb on tanks for a cinematic grenade-kill, making for an exciting high-risk, high-reward strategy.
The game also features vehicles and these are just outright comedic to control. Tanks, jeeps, anything you can get your hands on moves at ludicrous speeds and turns almost instantaneously. There is not a shred of realism to it, it’s as close to channeling the spirit of the legendary Big Rigs as you can get without deliberately sabotaging your game. Still, despite the preposterous controls, it’s fun to drive around the stages shelling anything that speaks German, and I’ll take this game’s take on tank-on-tank combat over the tedious tank segments of the PC/console titles thus far.
Missions in Brothers in Arms DS are short and action-packed, making it easy to pick the game up for a quick round and feel like you made good progress. Each mission has a variety of objectives, so a regular combat mission might then have you pick up the sniper to weaken the enemy defenses before a raid on their camp or you’ll commandeer a tank and speed your way through the Nazi frontline to blow up their bunkers. It can often be unclear what the game wants from you, however, and this can lead to a lot of frustrations and limitations.
The game’s levels are quite big and look fairly nice, but this comes at the cost of render distance and freedom. Invisible walls are plentiful and the few times where they aren’t around, the game will randomly kill you or fail the mission if you stray too far. Even a little bit of exploration could cause your officer accuse you of desertion and force you to reload from a checkpoint, which are fortunately quite generous. The rendering distance is also an estimated 5 meters ahead of your character, causing things to constantly pop in. Especially in vehicle segments, large portions of the screen can be taken up by a void that hasn’t loaded in yet, which is a shame because the game’s 3D graphics are otherwise quite impressive for the hardware.
Some missions just became strange, like one I had to give up on because I was expected to snipe targets somewhere in a part of the level that wasn’t loaded in yet, but if I got closer the game randomly blew me up, even if the one remaining enemy tank wasn’t aimed at me. In another case of unclear design, I was tasked with deploying a smoke signal on a fortification, but these only worked if thrown at a very specific spot and, if you don’t do it quickly enough, that’s another pointless Game Over.
There is no denying that Brothers in Arms DS could have done with some more common sense and quality of life improvements, and it’s certainly not a go-to solution for anybody in the mood for some gunslinging gameplay, even if you add in the stipulation that it must be on a portable game system. However, it is a novelty among the DS’ library and it’s just hilarious to play through a game trying so hard to make something out of such unenviable position.
Brothers in Arms DS isn’t great, but I much admire its ambition and its dedication to touchscreen controls. Its achievements are at least worthy of respect, no matter how often it trips up on the way.