Just when you thought it was safe to head back into World War II…
Gearbox’s latest addition to what someone must have told them was a drought of WWII games, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway doesn’t bring much to the tactical table. A sub-par shooter with awkward controls and an under-developed strategy component, the title is only slightly more successful than Operation Market Garden.
A plan to fast-track the war and have the boys home by Christmas of ’44, Market Garden was the largest airborne offensive in history to date, and became one of the last noteworthy victories – for the Nazis. As the Allies tried to seize a highway through Holland and push into the center of Germany, German forces surrounded and crushed them. Hell’s Highway addresses the somber subject matter and the strain of war with a fair amount of delicacy – a bit too much delicacy for a video game in which blowing people up should be fun.
You play again as Matt Baker with three separate squads available under your command: an MPG team that primarily lays down suppressive fire, an assault team which helps with flanking attacks, and special weapons teams (machine guns, bazooka) that serve most against masses of enemies or the more deeply entrenched. While special weapons do require special commands, your team’s AI is generally bright enough to fire on an enemy. A major game component is suppressive fire, and Gearbox should have asked themselves, “Is this fun?” No, it’s not.
Environments are constructed for purposes of cover and obstacles, and degradable cover is the game’s big addition to its tactical approach. The destructibility of the cover plays nicely into the strategy of Hell’s Highway as digging in behind a wooden fence is not going to last long while, interestingly, cars back then were built to withstand endless assault.
The strategic aspect of the title is not overly involved, just enough to keep you from exposing yourself in the middle of a firefight. Digging into cover and laying down suppressive fire while another team flanks the enemy will become second nature while you check your maps and plan your attack. On the downside, when it comes time for important measures like digging in things get a little fussy for a life-or-death maneuver. Furthermore, the ability to use your teams is integral to success in the game which means it really stinks when directing them fails. Apparently well-placed directives are taken more as suggestions, with your team running through enemy fire and getting shredded on their way to dig in alongside the cover you indicated instead of securely behind it. Worse is when you call your troops to you only to have them land in front of you open to enemy fire. It’s times like these that are severely lacking in military precision and it seems your squad abandons tactics in favor of run and gun.
I admit, mostly I let my squads do their suppressive fire thing, left the assault group someplace safe and advanced to finish the job properly. Not to say they couldn’t be trusted, but the fools couldn’t be trusted. War has made me bitter and given me a tiny superiority complex. Oddly, there are some poignant, if unrealistic, solo sequences that seem counter to the very squad and strategy oriented gameplay. Why am I, head of this whole platoon, going on a solo mission?
The enemy AI isn’t spectacular, but it isn’t completely unremarkable, and troops will try to flank you and slow your progress. Unfortunately, until the battle begins there is a sense that you can walk all around a perimeter until you set off the enemy by crossing an invisible line or opening fire. This shatters the realism of the game; otherwise you feel like you really are plotting your attacks with great measure. The enemy AI will attempt a few odd maneuvers – once a line of soldiers walked directly at my position while I stood there in plain sight and didn’t react until I was in the midst of them and firing, giving new meaning to the whites of their eyes bit.
With three difficulty levels to choose from Hell’s Highway allows for some limited replay value, and for gamers very involved in the story there is a reasonable amount of depth available from little touches like finding hidden Kilroys to Recon Reports, which offer great detail about the operation. Visually, the game is not particularly impressive. Clipping abounds and cutscene pop-in is just plain wrong. Many of the environments look generic with the exception of some well done textures. All the enemies are wearing one of three standard issue Nazi masks. Either that or all Germans look the same. The graphically unimpressive multiplayer experience is an afterthought, with up to twenty players trying to raise and lower a couple flags and eliminate the enemy squad. The score is pretty traditional war movie fare with nothing to complain about, and it is only the cheesy voice acting that hurts. Phrases are repetitive, sometimes out of place, and the awkward cut scene dialog kind of makes you squirm on your sofa.
Brothers in Arms seems to wish they were cool enough to eat lunch with Band of Brothers and ends up taking itself all too seriously. It is an earnest backdrop for a game in which the “fun part” is supposed to be blowing people into tiny bits. The story is still pretty compelling and the game handles the material well enough, but technical aspects drag down the glory. World War II is not unexplored territory, and Hell’s Highway’s innovations are too unsuccessful to be working over the same turf.