As with most other World War II games, this review starts with the old adage: many gamers bemoan the dearth of WWII shooters out there. So for any new game of that genre and setting to come out, there are hurdles not of its own creation that it has to surmount right out of the gate. Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway faces just such a hurdle. So how does it cope? Let’s find out! Full reveiew after the jump.
The Brothers In Arms series has always been a little different from the rest of the pack. Sure, it is a first-person shooter (yay!). But what has set the series apart from the rest of the pack is its attempt and putting the focus squarely on squad tactics and realistic military thinking. Instead of the typical one man army, you are a squad leader, and have charge of a varying number of soldiers making up different, discrete squads: an assault team, a machine-gun team, and in Hell’s Highway a base-of-fire team and a bazooka team. You command these men throughout your adventures and, hopefully, come out the other side of the Nazi war machine intact. More or less.
Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway (which from now on I will refer to as BIA:HH to save typing) takes place during Operation Market Garden in September 1944, three years after the events in the first title of the series, Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30. Market Garden was intended as a last final push – the largest land assault ever staged – to the heart of the Reich through the Netherlands and Germany. The idea was to push through the borders and stage a final, crippling assault on Germany’s industrial heartland, rendering impotent the German war machine and bringing the war to an end “by Christmas”. Unfortunately for the Allies, it was also the most loaded with an insane amount of fail operation in history and did not succeed. Field Marshall Montgomery had assumed – fatally – that the troops that would be encountered were either “old men and children” or would be hardcore troops so weary from fighting that resistance would be minimal. What he didn’t know was that far from being “old men and children”, some of Germany’s toughest soldiers and armoured divisions were ready and waiting in the area to chew up the allied forces. Rather than battle-weary, the troops were battle-hardened, and the offensive turned into a rout – more allied troops died on the first day of the operation than all the allied troops lost to date in Iraq.
So amidst this bleak proposition, you sally forth into the Dutch landscape as Staff Sergeant Matt Baker, reluctant squad leader for a unit of Rangers in the 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne. The men you command are a mixed bunch – some old friends from previous games and some new faces. Your time with the game will see you fighting bitter battles across the countryside, through towns and villages and against overwhelming odds. You will also experience the bond that is unique to fighting men, and hopefully learn a little more of the story that has permeated through the series. So what do you get for your money?
First off, let’s handle the esoteric: the story. BIA has always had a strong story, and the characterisation is well-designed to make you feel for your men and want to try to keep them alive as much as you can. Rather than faceless cannon-fodder that is the staple of the Call Of Duty series, BIA attempts to weave a deep and rich fabric of back-story, history, and personality. The story itself is obviously based off of true events – the battles you fight really did happen, and some of the higher-ranking characters you will meet actually existed. The story in BIA:HH is deep, engaging, and unusually for a first-person shooter, emotional. Matt Baker is a troubled man – reluctantly leading his men, he grieves for every loss and takes it to heart, seeing it as some personal failure – occasionally leading to criticism from his peers who feel that to be effective he should stop trying to be everyone’s friend and simply lead. But that is not how he rolls.
Although Gearbox have taken a great deal of time over their story, and gone to great lengths to make the characters three-dimensional, there is a major flaw that negates a lot of this effort: if you have not played the earlier games, you will most likely not have a clue what the hell is going on without reading through Wikipedia. The story is intended to flow from one game to the next, but the unfortunate three-year gap between this and the previous release of the franchise means that even for those who know the story of the other games inside out, sometimes you are left feeling lost and confused. There is a “previously on…” cutscene right at the start, but without the context of prior knowledge, this is pretty much no help whatsoever. I would suspect that a gamer new to the franchise would have to play through more than once to get the full picture, if at all. But, even without prior knowledge, the story is meaty enough to provide the uninitiated with a rewarding and moving plot, despite the inevitable confusion. However, if you do know the full story from previous games, what you find is a number of answers to questions that you may have been left with. Gearbox themselves have said that there were many things that in previous iterations made no sense or were not given context deliberately – because they would be resolved here. The back-story with Pfc Leggett is the best example – his previous story is vital to this game, and yet one of his major “plot points” was something I was not even aware of from the Road To Hill 30. His apparent suicide at the end of that game seemed odd, yet in BIA:HH it is given and explanation and closure, and is actually quite moving. So you have to credit Gearbox for some solid story arcs, even if the delays in releasing this game mean that you have to work for your closure.
For the most part, the FPS gameplay is standard fare, with no real issues or problems. Gunplay is excellent, and weapons handle very well indeed – as you would expect. Commanding your squads is a doddle. Simply select command button or trigger to open the command ring, look where you want them to go and release the button or trigger (depending on your controller setup). This function is context-sensitive so that pointing an area of cover, for example, directs the squad to move there, pointing at enemies directs them to open fire on them, and pointing at destructible cover such as sandbags, fences etc. directs them to fire on the cover (and the enemies behind it) to destroy it and expose the targets. The thought of commanding up to three different teams as well as playing the game yourself, and not getting killed, sounds as daunting as explaining stick-shift driving to someone who has never driven, but in practise it is effortless and you can devote your thinking to the best way to use your teams, not how to facilitate it. If you have never played one of the series before, you will be happily issuing commands without thought pretty quickly. AI is such that most of the time, your squads will accurately interpret your commands and act accordingly, intelligently seeking cover and firing on enemies whilst carrying out your wishes. Movement of your character is very Rainbow Six, with a third-person view for when you are in cover, which makes scoping out a room from cover great fun.
Moving around and staying alive is not easy in BIA:HH though; with the emphasis being on semi-realism you will in no way last more than 10 seconds if you run-and-gun this game. This is not Call Of Duty or Medal Of Honor. You are pretty much required to actively seek cover and use a pop and stop tactic to ensure your continued existence. The game uses the tried and true military method that has been a staple of the franchise – find your enemy, fix them in place with suppressing fire from your machine gun or base of fire squad, flank around them whilst they are fixed in place and fully focussed on the guys shooting at them, and finish them off smartish. Thankfully, this tactic is not required all the time (as it was in Road To Hill 30), but is always valuable when you are facing a stalemate (a situation that your squad will bitch about, regularly).
Picking off enemies is for the most part a case of iron sight FTW, and your weapons are designed to work as accurately as possible without harming gameplay – shooting from the hip will usually end up in an empty clip, a wall full of holes and a very angry German coming towards you, but using iron sights increase your accuracy dramatically. Scoring the kill is satisfying though, although in comparison to the way enemies animate when killed in Medal Of Honor Airborne – with continued inertia – the death animations could be improved a little. Still, this is compensated for in a pleasing (and gruesome) way: when the game judges that you have scored an impressive kill, such as a headshot, grenade toss or bazooka blast, the action slows to a crawl, the camera zooms to the hapless recently deceased and you see the carnage in all its g(l)ory. Gearbox has tried removing the guts ‘n’ glory aspect of war by leaving in the guts and removing the glory. Blood flies, and in the case of explosive kills, body parts are rent asunder, with bones jutting and bits flying. Often you will see arms and legs removed and flying off in different directions. Occasionally a soldier is torn in half or you will see a corpse with only half a head. Some have criticised this move, but to me it is not anywhere near as intense as some non-reality based games out there and does help to signify that war is a nasty, painful and altogether unpleasant business. Getting shot does not just mean you lose your hat and stop moving. This action-cam effect is used reasonably sparingly – often you can score several headshots in a row and see nothing, and when it does kick in, it is usually to cries of “Woah!” or “Eew!” or “fuckin’ ell!”. At least from me. To me, it has never felt titillating, rather it feels shocking – which is what I suspect the point of adding it was.
Adding to the realism and the attempt to make the point that guns hurt and war is hell is the health system. As in, there isn’t one. Gearbox has explained that there are no magic canteens or medical packs that miraculously seal bullet wounds and restore you to health in real life. Nor can gaping holes in your chest cavity be amazingly repaired in seconds by simply getting out of the line of fire. In BIA:HH, if you get shot once, you will probably die. That’s how reality works. Now, you would think this would make the game an absolute fucking nightmare, with endless repeatings of levels, but Gearbox’s solution is actually quite remarkable and works much better than I had expected. You are pretty much required to take cover throughout the game, behind walls, objects, fences, anything, Whilst in cover, you are pretty safe from harm, save from the occasional lucky ’88 round. But when you pop your head up to squeeze a round off at the dirty Hun, you are at risk of being shot. As the risk increases, the screen reddens, and if you continue to ignore it, you will 100% get killed after a short time. To emphasize the point, your squad mates will bollock you for being careless and tell you to get your head down, in case the bright red screen was not incentive enough. So rather than magic cures and potions, the focus is prevention rather than a cure. Don’t be a dick, and you might live another day. I though this might be utterly distracting to gameplay, but in fact it is very effective and reinforces the slower and more tactical pace of the gameplay – and can make for some wonderfully tense and drawn-out firefights. Again, if you run and gun, you will die.
AI is good, with the best of the bunch being your squads. Enemy AI is a little lacking – not compared to other games but compared to what we were promised. I have never yet seen a German grenade thrown at all, and most enemies will tend to reach a point of cover and play the whack-a-rat game, only moving if they are behind temporary cover – such as a fence – which has been destroyed. They do not flank you or use counterattacks against you, which goes against the primary ethic of the German troops at that time, which were much the same as your find ‘em, fix ’em, flank ‘em and finish ‘em mantra. But, there has to be a balance between realism and fun gameplay, and no-one wants AI that is too challenging. Still, a little more depth would have been nice.
Visuals are…well, it is hard, this one. They are a mixed bag, to be honest. It is very hard to not harbor a little disappointment with them, truth be told. However, this comment needs context.
There are times when you look at the screen and think “wow, that is awesome”. But there are also times when you see low-res, klunky textures and think “Lordy”. There are the occasional “Hour Of Victory” moments. In of themselves, the graphics are impressive, and overall very good, but I think the problem comes from not with what we have got, but rather with what we were led to expect. Aside from a few stand-out moments, do not expect the ultra-matt, ultra-realistic screenshots that we have had over the last three years. You can kind of forget that tech demo where it showed the Matt Baker model from this game side by side with the one from Road To Hill 30. Expect little bits of those here and there. I think the problem is not that Gearbox have failed in the visuals or necessarily overpromised. In fact, I propose that the problem here is not the design, but the platform – the console. I think my disappointment comes not from the fact that the graphics didn’t quite come off as promised, but more from a feeling of “my 360 can’t give me the graphics I have seen up until now”. I don’t know why I think this – any other game would just be “man, these guys are idiots.” But with the large play areas, Gearbox’s attention to details, and knowing just how much they pushed the original Xbox to create the look of Road To Hill 30, I think it seems evident that Gearbox simply overshot the mark a little, and had to throttle back, because the 360, powerful though it is, simply couldn’t do everything they wanted. But what you get is the best they could offer on the platform, given its limitations. This is a shame, because many people will just see a broken promise and bitch about it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Rather than the almost photo-real images from the screenshots, we instead get standard Unreal Engine fare – which is starting to show its age. Medal Of Honor: Airborne with graphics dumbed a little bit because the maps are a fuckton bigger. But, all this notwithstanding, overall, it looks pretty good, and there are some standout moments.
There are some moans to be had. The game is all about story, but sometimes you are pulled out of it sharply by shortcomings. Probably the most powerful cutscene in the game is one (no spoilers here) involving a child and a German soldier. But the power of the moment, which is reinforced by awesome lighting, great camerawork, and an unbelievable facial expression, is shattered by really bad animation of the German. This is a shame.
Facial animation is mixed too. Mouth animation doesn’t seem to work at all. Some games can be practically lip-read, but in BIA:HH the mouth animations constantly seem off. There are too many lower teeth being waved about, lips just seem to flap, and when characters shout their mouths move just the same as when they talk. Again, not a major issue, but it breaks the immersion. And, worst of all, when you are in cover and in third-person view, issuing commands elicits no mouth movement whatsoever. Awful.
The third-person “in cover” view is cool, but the major drawback to this is that there are no iron sights – you simply have a zoom effect and aim with the reticle. This is ok, but on the “Authentic” difficulty setting (where enemies can hit a gnat’s ass and ten thousand yards with one shot and where you have NO HUD or reticle) you have no way to quickly pop your head up and take an enemy out, as you have no way to know where you are firing. Taking out one enemy becomes a laborious game of pop-up and see. Ironically, I found a simple solution – stick a tiny dot of some sort in the dead centre of your screen, where the reticle normally goes. As you always fire at the centre of the screen, you are able to aim effectively. It works, but it is ridiculous that you have to do that – especially when you can see your character (not you) looking down the iron sights as he fires.
Team AI is for the most part good, as I said, but there are times when, if you direct your squad to a position far off, they will take the most ridiculous route – across the line of fire – and get mowed down sharpish. This is easily solved by leapfrogging them in smaller steps, but it is still a pain. And it is not unusual for your squad to sometimes stand there doing nothing, instead of firing at the enemy who is in plain sight. And from time to time you will see the classic “character running on the spot because they can’t get over a twig” scenario – something that should no longer happen in a modern game.
Voice acting is generally pretty good, if sometimes a little wooden, although the script itself is excellent. However, one major pull that hinders you developing the bond with your squads is that for the most part, they all look pretty similar. Other than your character, the British guy and Red, I usually have no clue who is who, and so give up trying. This often leads to confusion with major plot developments; especially a problem given that you have to work hard to follow the story in the first place.
Finally, the game does have a few “army of one” moments in it – you are typically stuck in a building on your own, and must flush out the enemy. Now, many people have criticised this as unnecessary and a distraction, and poorly executed. But, actually, I think that with the cover mechanic it works really well, and can lead to some tense ad slow exploration – one segment in a hospital stood out particularly well for me. With eerie lighting, spooky music, a building in ruin and the need to peek out from corners, I found it very absorbing and very effective. I give it a thumbs up 🙂
So, all in all, I would say that this is a definite must play game, flaws aside. Despite shortcomings, the gameplay to be had is tremendous. WWII aficionados will love the historical accuracy – the fact that some of the characters are actually real people will be a kick. In fact, I was impressed that they attributed the correct history and fate to Lieutenant Cole. And the fact that they included Colonel Sink in the game, and not only got Dale Dye to voice him (he played Colonel Sink in Band Of Brothers and is a totally awesome dude) but also made him look like Dale Dye as well, is just fucking awesome!
Squad tactic fans will enjoy the game – although nowhere near as in-depth as Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six, it still feeds that need. And FPS fans will find the simple squad tactics a nice little gateway to a more complex, thoughtful and less run-and-gun way to play. But, if run-and-gun is the be all and end all for you, you probably will hate this game. It is slow, tactical, and careful. That’s what makes it fun.
So in closing, I say that although it was maybe too long a wait, and it is not clear where the extra year in development paid off, I would heartily recommend this game. If you have played previous instalments, you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t, you may find yourself all at sea with the story and characters, but that’s what you old Xbox is for – go play the earlier ones.
Or remember: Wikipedia is your friend!