Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway
OverviewPlatform: Xbox 360
An entertaining & fun Dutch romp which takes the much-used World War 2 setting and sprinkles it with clever tactical gameplay
It has been nearly a decade since Medal of Honour first brought the terrors of WW2 to game players around the globe. The success of MOH spawned many pretenders and among the crowd was an FPS that infused squad-tactics with tried and tested first person pop & drop. This series came from Valve’s good friend Gearbox Software, and Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is the third game in the series to add some refreshing variety to the WW2 FPS bandwagon.
You don’t get more refreshing than the rolling plains and vast skies of Holland which play stage to the majority of Brothers in Arms campaign. Refreshing too is the premise, Operation Market Garden, the failed advance toward the Dutch/German border and highlight of the Allied campaign blooper reel. You play as Sergeant Matt Baker, and armed with your rifle and a handful of troops you fight the good fight over eight or so hours of tactical -hooting, with the emphasis on the latter.
At its heart Hell’s Highway it’s a first person shooter which shoehorns you into using some simple squad tactics to complete each arena. Though certain levels critical to the narrative have you going solo, you mostly fight with the control of a selection of squads, each with a specific role. The Base of Fire squad helps ensures Germans keep their heads down, the MG squad can spit shocking levels of lead while the Bazooka team irradiates enemy bunkers and fixed gun positions. Finally, the Assault squad can be used to flank the German positions and put them out of their mystery. Throughout the games ten chapters you will use these tactics to guide your company through Holland.
This tactical approach to combat never makes the player feel like they’ve outsmarted the enemy. Tragically in Brothers in Arms, like in most first person shooters, you’re left with the impression that you’ve been dealt the stronger hand down to some inconsistent mechanics.
As your squads firing from behind cover they’re an invincible, bottomless pit of ammunition. You can happily go make a cup of tea or finish a crossword while your troops lay down a constant stream of fire, immune to any response the enemy can muster. The same can be said about your own character to a degree. Built on the Unreal 3 engine, BOI:HH adopts the red-screen hazard mechanic which Gears of War pioneered. Though the increasing red hue onscreen is supposed to act as a warning of your exposure to fire, you will never be struck by enemy rounds until your TV is shining blood red. Essentially you are completely untouchable while the screen isn’t exploding red and this can be taken advantage of in most of the levels. It’s a shame, because while cover plays such an important part in the enemy’s ability to lay down fire, it doesn’t affect you or your squads in any meaningful way.
What’s also odd is that your invincible head can often sit totally exposed above a fence or hedge while you’re in cover. The same can’t be said for your German friends, and often gunfights decent into ‘whack a mole’ as you take aim where you think the next Nazi will pop up. On top of this any of your fallen squad mates are merely incapacitated until the next checkpoint is reached. Any notion of realism is shattered the first time you reach a marker to see five downed soldiers pick themselves up and run across the battlefield.
Thankfully the squad commands themselves are excellently fine-tuned and supported by a fantastic graphical interface. Your ability to direct squads is directly linked to your characters position on the battlefield, and each time the camera tilts upward for you to direct your squads is a treat. This accessibility lends itself to exploring alternative options, and while the core gameplay doesn’t change throughout the game, the way in which you approach each task is based heavily on your experience.
Brother in Arms is driven by a story that follows on from the previous games in the series. The narrative revolves around the characters in your company rather than the operation itself and though it can get pretty convoluted and some of the sub-plots are downright dumb, the lengthy cinematics between levels are enjoyable. The biggest disappointment as you play through Hell’s Highway is that without prior knowledge of the characters, the majority of the story lacks any emotional context. Gearbox attempted to counter this by providing a recapping cut scene at the start of the game, but it falls way short of introducing some very deep characters.
Graphically the game impresses and disappoints with its choice of environments rather than any engine issues. The naturally bursting colour of the Dutch countryside is a welcomed change to the de-saturated visuals often laboured onto shooters. However when the sun sets and industrial cities swallow up the countryside, you’re back in the tired, clichéd environments. These levels are broken up by a number of tank-driving missions that tie nicely into the narrative. Fortunately, they’re brief, not particularly tasking, and a lot of fun as your cannon makes light work of sandbags, buildings and fleeing German troops. Of course there’s plenty of gory death when you’re on your feet too, as the ‘Action Camera’ mechanic will slow time and zoom onto random head-shots you pull off. It’s particularly satisfying when the camera zooms in on a devastating grenade throw, with severed arms and legs dancing majestically in the air. Worth mention too is the exceptional audio design. It’s a ‘WW2 Very Best Of’ with favourites such as shrieking bullets, rumbling tank engines and that satisfying Garand’s ‘ping’ as it’s final round is emptied into Nazi skull.
There is a feeling that the multiplayer needed to be added since the single player hasn’t much replay value in today’s gaming environment. It’s tried and tested capture the territory, but with the single player tactics applied. Squad leaders can set waypoints for the same individual squads in the campaign, with no respawns, and plenty of tanks and explosions. Whether or not it works is down to the individuals who play it , though I suspect its tactic-heavy gameplay will become tiresome to most FPS aficionado’s.
Though the story doesn’t hit home like it should have, and the gameplay sits on the fence between tactics and gung-ho, Brother in Arms: Hells’ Highway is among the best shooters to come out this year. It has enough original content to make it a memorable gaming experience, but with a short campaign, and a Marmite of a multiplayer mode it’s a tough one to call. The simple fact is that it’s probably not value for money as a full price title, but if you can get it on rental or on the cheap somewhere down the road, Hell’s Highway is an entertaining and fun Dutch romp.