The Brother’s in Arms franchise has been one of the wildcards in the World War II shooter genre since its inception back in 2005. Back in those days Gearbox was looking for a way to try to bring squad based gameplay to the trenches of Normandy. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 was a fairly competent series debut, successfully transplanting Rainbow Six mechanics into World War II. The game managed to snag an average Metacritic rating of 87, easily securing a sequel.
A follow-up came much faster than one would expect, releasing a mere eight months after the original. Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood once again proved to be a critical success, pulling down an average review score of 84 and once again showing that the market was ready for more expansion in the squad based genre.
For Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, Gearbox has gone back to the drawing board. They decided to redesign this installment from the ground up using the Unreal Engine 3 as the backbone. Though the core concepts of the game remain the same, it was shocking to have to wait over three years to get the next installment in the franchise, especially considering the fairly short gestation time of the first sequel.
After such a significant waiting period, has the console game world passed Brothers in Arms by, or is it the shot to the arm that is needed to kick start the next generation of squad based shooters set in the Second World War?
As in the first two games, the story places you into the shoes of Matt Baker, a war hardened squad leader of the 101st Airborne Division. This is a true to life squad from World War II, just with different character names. You follow the events of Operation Market Garden which was an offensive operation where the allied forces where actually defeated. But as the saying goes, “the outcome doesn’t matter; the story is in how you get there.”
Baker is tasked with leading his man into battle while also dealing with his personal demons. Between levels, Matt goes through a series of flashbacks that tell the story of how he managed to sacrifice his own personal beliefs and integrity, to protect a fellow squad member. This continues to eat at him throughout the game until it comes to a critical climax.
The actual missions themselves are the standard story of a small squad of twelve to fifteen men, being given the job of opening up a hole in an area heavily fortified by the enemy. There are several twists as members of your squad begin to dwindle, succumbing to both physical and mental wounds. As the accomplished leader that you have become, it is your job to rally your troubled troops and prepare them for the biggest fights of their lives.
Straight out of the gates, it becomes very evident that you are outnumbered by enemies. In some games this is a hindrance, but in Hell’s Highway it provides a chance to see what the enemy AI are capable of. The bots seem to react semi-intelligently, taking cover when necessary, even flanking and forcing the offensive at key choke points in the map. In rare moments it almost seems as if you are in the heart of all of the action, but those are few and far between.
Even though the World War II genre is starting to show its age a bit, the plot is engaging enough to make the player want to progress, just to see what happens next. At first the story seems rather scattershot, but as you get deeper into the game, the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together in very interesting ways. What truly makes the plot shine is the voice acting, which is top notch. Each voice actor portrays the situation and hardships of war with a grace, while still giving the characters an emotional edge.
Between stages, the story smoothly transitions from scene to scene with comparative ease. The story is cohesive enough that all of the different environments seem very logical, while at the same time not using exaggerated storytelling to explain a shift in location. Though may of the art resources are reused numerous times throughout the game, battlefields have several different layouts, which brings about a great deal of variety to the action.
One of the features that Gearbox was heavily promoting was the destructible cover. It is a nice added tweak to the gameplay that forces the player to pay attention to what is going on around them. This helps add to the immersive aspects of the game.
When a game like Call of Duty 4 has so clearly defined the proper control scheme for a first person shooter, it is hard to learn a new set of controls. Hell’s Highway not only forces the player to learn new maneuvering and shooting techniques, but also the controls necessary to command the troops. Giving orders to the troops are the some of the most unwieldy mechanics of the entire game, which is tragic considering that this is a supposed selling point of the game
Along the same line of the uncooperative troop commands are the abysmal attempt at vehicle controls. There is not a single mission that involves a motorized that does not end in controller mashing frustration. The worst part about these missions are that if you failed it was not due to lacking skill, it was the lack of precise controls.
If there was one criticism that diminishes from the game more than anything else, it is the lack of commons sense on the part of the AI squad mates. When they are not babysat at all times, there is a high potential of running directly into the line of fire, refusing to use cover that is right in front of them and aiming at the furthest possible enemy from themselves. It is depressing to create the perfect battle plan, only to have it ruined by an AI that is suddenly overzealous with their shotgun, blowing everyone else’s cover.
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a mediocre game with a schizophrenic balance of interesting storytelling, countered out by lackluster and inconsistent gameplay. Unfortunately the flaws take a significant toll on the overall experience, preventing the player from being able to fully commit themselves to the story. Hell’s Highway would be a good weekend rental, but not something that you would be faulted for missing out on.