It has been several years since the first Brothers in Arms game (Road to Hill 30) hit the shelves, to critical acclaim.
This third iteration, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway has had multiple delays - it was initially expected in late 2007. All the while our anticipation was growing, despite the fact that World War II shooters have been pretty much thrashed to death in the past five or so years. The Brothers in Arms series has always been a little bit different. Would Hell’s Highway revive the glory days of WWII shooters, or would it fizzle and sputter in the face of stiffer, more modern competition?
Brothers in Arms became renowned for having a sort of gritty realism that its counterparts lacked, and the squad-based tactics put it in a league of its own. All of this is still very much present in Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, as you take on the role of Staff Sergeant Matt Baker. The game puts you in the middle of Operation Market Garden, from the glider landings to the infamous bridge crossings in Holland. It builds on the story-lines of the previous iterations, however it is certainly not necessary to have played the other games, as the connection is more to do with the characters you see throughout.
Considerable effort has gone into historical accuracy and the developers have even enlisted the help of a historical expert. The towns you pass through have been built up from historical evidence and photographs, and occasionally you will encounter recon positions where you will unlock some information about the area, and often a particular building which has some historical significance, which really ties the game in with actual historical events.
The game follows Matt Baker’s squad and the various missions they are sent on to liberate Holland. The story is very cinematic, although we found the cut-scenes to be confusing at times, even if very well done. The game clearly draws much of its inspiration from the TV series Band of Brothers, with the same deeply emotional and moving imagery and a similar sense of gravity being portrayed. Throughout the game Matt Baker is plagued by visions of deaths he witnessed under his command in the previous games, and is tormented by these ghosts. It seems to portray the effects of post traumatic stress, adding to the realism that the game presents regarding the gritty effects of war. Adding to this realism are the exceptional sound effects that have been included. The ping of your clip dropping out, or the whiz of bullets, the explosions and the cries from your squad - and from the enemy - are simply exceptional.
The level of detail in the characters, and the sheer graphical improvements made in the series present this well. Skin is pock-marked and scarred, and even the stubble on the soldiers' faces looks exceptional. The weapons also look very much like the real thing. Levels are highly detailed, farms will contain the odd animal, rubble lies about realistically and most areas are fortified with sand bags and other makeshift fortifications which you can use as cover. The way smoke rises and billows, flames lap and splinters fly as cover is shot to pieces is simply testament to the excellent work that the developers have put into optimising this game.
A more gruesome side to these graphical advancements are the full scale dismemberments in Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Limbs will be torn off, and it is not unusual to see a torso torn in half by a well-placed grenade. Blood splattered bodies strew the field, and it is clear that the developers went to great lengths to avoid trivialising the events surrounding WWII. That said, the inclusion of slow motion action shots that occasionally kick in when you do something dramatic such as a head-shot, or destroy a sandbag defence, is borderline if it was seriousness they were going for. But the game includes partially destructible environments, so naturally they needed to be shown off.
And the destructible environments are impressive. Sandbags can be blown to pieces and rickety fences or wooden carts can be shot apart removing any cover the enemy (or your own boys) may have had. Basically, holes will appear and the fence will fall apart precisely where you place your shots. But brick buildings and such are not destructible, and apart from a few MG nests that you blast away, you won’t be knocking down too many walls.
The level structure itself is somewhat more open than what you may be used to, however there is still always a very clear direction you need to take. Most levels will have flanking opportunities and similar, allowing you to go at a situation in a different way, some more effective than others. The squad based combat means you are given several teams to control, from an Assault team, to a Base of Fire team, an MG team or even a Bazooka team, and later in the game even tanks which you can drive yourself. These various squads play very different roles in combat, and to have the best effect you need to maximise your performance and not lose any soldiers. You also have to use cover all the time to avoid being shot.
Essentially damage is only taken when you are not behind some decent cover, and it is vital to move from cover to cover to avoid dying. You can order your squad to suppress an enemy unit before making a move as well, to reduce the risks of being shot. Any time throughout a battle you can pull up the tactical map to give you a better oversight of the situation and spot potential flanking positions, however you can’t command units from this view. The map itself is presented in a hand-drawn style which adds to the atmosphere. It works well and you will be using it often to plan your approach.
Squad controls are relatively easy to master, although occasionally the squad AI goes a bit awry and you find yourself in a predicament. This is not too terrible considering the check-point system that you can reload to, but it is frustrating when you order a squad to hide behind some cover only to find them running onto the exposed side of said cover. We found that when we were indoors the squad controls were worst, with our squads running all over the place at times. Thankfully the majority of the game plays outdoors and therefore this is not too great of an issue, but it is frustrating nonetheless when you are having a perfect run and your own soldiers do something stupid.
Unfortunately when a squad member is injured, there is nothing you can do. No running out and hauling him behind cover to call for a medic or anything like that. For a game that touts a responsive squad that will trip and help each other up, this seems to be an area that is lacking, which is a shame. The enemy AI is good though, as the they will shift cover and manoeuvre depending on what moves you make. Enemies never throw grenades however, despite you having several to hurl their way. This might simply be because if they did, your squad would be decimated far too often. Grenades simply go hand-in-hand with WWII titles, so they are sorely missed here.
The controls in Hell’s Highway are tight and easy to use. There are several control schemes to choose from, but we preferred the default. The player has the ability to sprint, leap over cover, duck behind cover, use the iron sights and use gun emplacements with ease. As you run and move around, the camera bobs realistically, and the game does an excellent job to make you feel as though you have a presence on the battlefield. Leaping over cover will result in the player looking down and placing his hands on the cover before hauling himself over.
The game has a very high level of polish; everything feels just right. There's plenty of content as gameplay itself is relatively slow and each mission will take a considerable amount of time to complete, and the multiple difficulty levels will give you a reason to come back. After completing the game on the hardest setting a Realistic mode is unlocked which removes the HUD and crosshair completely.
The multiplayer is the one true let down for Hell’s Highway. Why? Because only a few weeks after release, no-one is playing it. The multiplayer consists of Capture The Flag missions, which quickly become repetitive and boring. The graphics are half-arsed in the multiplayer and much of what makes Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway interesting is missing (i.e. the squad based combat). You do still have squads and the ability to plant way-points for squads, and you still have a squad commander who can call in strikes and recon, but you try getting a bunch of random gamers listen to you in the heat of battle.
It clearly was meant well, but the multiplayer simply isn’t diverse enough to have retained the attention of most gamers. With a solid group of friends, though, no doubt there is fun to be had, but if you are considering Hell’s Highway for the multiplayer, forget it.
Overall, Hell’s Highway is a fantastic shooter. Considering the sheer number of WWII shooters on the market, it does an exceptional job of putting its nose ahead of the rest. Despite the lack of a decent multiplayer, this is a clear favourite in the single-player space - we were actually quite glad to have a shooter from this era after a considerable dry period. If you're a fan of shooters, or of the WWII genre, this is one not to be passed up for the epic story-telling, great graphics and excellent playing style.