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Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-03-03 22:33:40

Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway - Rank B

Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: Ubisoft
Date: 9/23/08

Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC

Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway is actually the third installment in this series that depicts the semi-fictionalized account of the 101st Airborne during World War II. The first two games, released on the previous generation of consoles, covered the exploits of D-Day and the subsequent push into Carentan. Hell's Highway picks up from there, portraying the Allied invasion of the Netherlands dubbed "Operation Market Garden". (For those of you who are unaware of the historical particulars, here's a minor spoiler: it did not go well for the Allies.) Some of you might be yawning about now, muttering, "Great, another WWII first person shooter". Yes, but Brothers in Arms has always provided a unique experience by differentiating itself with a strict attention to historic authenticity, and more importantly for gamers looking for something different, a decided focus on actual squad tactics over run and gun silliness.

As Staff Sergeant Matt Baker, you command the elements of Fox Company. Using simple point and click mechanics, squads are ordered to move and fire. At the simplest level, you are given a fire team and an assault team. Once the German position is located, the fire team should be placed behind cover and ordered to suppress the Germans. An indicator above the Germans will turn from red to grey, indicating that they are being forced to keep their heads down. This offers the opportunity to order the assault team to safely rush the German flank and eliminate them. This is the mechanic that sets Brothers In Arms apart; it's possible to win many firefights without even firing a single shot yourself, as long as proper command of your troops is implemented. The only other title I know of to integrate these military fundamentals into core gameplay was Full Spectrum Warrior, which was originally designed as a U.S. Army training tool.

If you're a history nerd like me, or enjoyed HBO's Band of Brothers, the Brothers In Arms series is irresistible. Matt Baker and the other characters are fictional, but most everything else about the game is as historically authentic as could be reasonably expected. The timeline of events - from parachuting in behind enemy lines, to working with Dutch resistance to secure Eindhoven, to the brutal German counterattack - is presented with meticulous attention to detail. Unlockable intelligence reports are peppered in, to provide strategic information as well as anecdotal flavor.

All of the gear, vehicles, and weapons also hint at the tremendous amount of research and care put into historical accuracy. I detest it when weapon characteristics in games fail to reflect their real life counterparts (I'm looking at you Call of Duty: World at War!), but Hell's Highway delivers. Certain missions will give you access to other specialized squads that are new to the series, such as a machinegun team or a bazooka team. As you can see from the screenshot above, a bazooka is pretty handy for taking out German machinegun emplacements. And speaking of, you can finally lug around an MG42, the most feared weapon of its day.

Disappointingly, however, Hell's Highway is the weakest entry in the series. As strong as the tactical aspect of its gameplay is, the actual first person shooting is decidedly mediocre. Between the soft controls and sluggish cover system, it lacks the crispness of a quality shooter. This becomes most apparent during the several sequences when Baker is separated from his unit and on his own. Instead of a unique tactical experience, the game deteriorates to a run-of-the-mill exercise in repeatedly pulling the trigger. I felt this same disappointment during the tank levels. In previous Brothers in Arms, tanks could be ordered just like your squads. They would provide the firepower that your paratroopers lacked, while your riflemen protected them from heavy infantry. But now, instead of the tactical demands of commanding combined arms, the tank sequences are the sort of straightforward blasting you can find in any number of action games.

The storytelling is also somewhat suspect. Instead of simply presenting the military campaign and relying on the primal conflict of war for drama, Hell's Highway insists on focusing on a clumsy narrative that alternates between being ham-fisted and confusing. It goes for a sort of Heart of Darkness descent into madness, but the tone and pacing feel out of place. Nuance is required to pull this off, and the writing and voice acting are anything but subtle. Case in point, German soldiers are shown to be murdering a civilian woman. They drag her into a barn and hang her for no apparent reason. Is there REALLY a need to vilify Nazis? They're already the most iconic villains of modern times; we have sufficient motivation to shoot them without any additional heavy-handed incentive. A new feature called "action cam" turns headshots or other dramatic kills into gratuitous slow motion spectacles. If this was The Matrix, fine, but this shift toward sensationalism feels inappropriate for a series previously endorsed by veterans groups for its respectful depiction of the sacrifices of war.

Shifting to the current generation of consoles naturally resulted in a substantial jump in visual impressiveness, but compromised quality for this complexity. This is a common occurrence with third party games that run on the Unreal engine; they generally look terrific, but tend to be plagued by odd glitches. Textures suddenly pop into existence, dropped weapons occasionally hover in the air, and bits of destructible cover can fly apart in improbable directions. Twice during my playthrough of the campaign, scripted events failed to trigger making progress impossible. None of these glitches are deal breakers, but they are distracting.

Hell's Highway's multiplayer is entirely dismissible. It wasn't even developed by Gearbox, but was farmed out to Rockstar New England. So kiss goodbye the historical and tactical thoughtfulness of the singleplayer game. There's only one generic mode: run around and capture points and/or kill all of your enemies. Laughably, one player is designated as team leader, and you can imagine how many people on the internet follow orders, even assuming the commander is competent in the first place. Hey Gearbox, I gave this a lot of thought. You should handle your own product, and develop a multiplayer mode that is at least as tactical as your singleplayer. Each player should command a squad instead of a solo gunner, choosing between the following specialties: fire team, assault team, machinegun team, bazooka team, and tank. The player would control movement ONLY, allowing squad A.I. to fire, with their effectiveness determined by positioning and the amount of incoming suppression. This would force actual teamwork, and reward battlefield comprehension over reflexes. Gamers already have a slew of twitch based shooters, and this change of pace would surely find an audience craving something different.

As for which version to get, there aren't too many differences. I prefer the Xbox 360's controller (better sticks, triggers, and rumble), but the two console versions are comparable. PC gamers can enjoy the usual futzing around with settings in exchange for higher performance and more glitches. I'm just hoping you buy any version and encourage Gearbox to continue their saga. The second half of this review has been extremely critical, but only because I expect so much from a Brothers In Arms game. Hell's Highway concluded Operation Market Garden with a "to be continued", but initial sales of the game failed to meet expectations. I'm just hoping there will be a fourth entry, which should cover the intense fight for the town of Bastogne, and the infamous Battle of the Bulge. Hell's Highway isn't perfect, but it deserves a good hard look from gamers, and Gearbox deserves the chance to improve upon it with a follow up.

[Edit: I discovered the trailer below after I finished writing this review. I find the contrast between my criticisms and the elements that Gearbox focused on to be revelatory.]

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