Review: Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway

BHHW_X360_BXSHT_3D.jpg World War II shooters have been in constant supply since the first Medal of Honor hit the market on the original PlayStation nearly a decade ago, but not a one has captured the visceral battlefield brutality more authentically than Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. While never reaching the graphic intensity of that infamous D-Day Normandy beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan (nothing ever will, I don’t think), as far as videogames go Hell’s Highway manages to depict the harrowing nature of the war with a similar impact.

Hell’s Highway does in fact take many of its cues from cinematic WWII source material like the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers. The base plot itself is generic WWII fare we’ve seen many times before in film and videogames – you are the leader of a ragtag team of soldiers facing insurmountable odds on a mission behind enemy lines, in this case Staff Sergeant Matt Baker of an 101st Airborne Division recon team sent into Holland as part of the failed Allied military operation to secure a corridor of bridges leading into Germany known as Operation Market Garden (aka Hell’s Highway) – but as predictable as it may be the story holds up well and does its job enough to suck you into the game world.

As a newcomer to the series myself, though, the story is initially confusing since it continues off of events of the previous games and does the familiar plot trick of starting towards the end of the game before flashing back to three days earlier to relive the events leading up to that moment. A “Story So Far” prologue attempts to recap past events, but it flies by so fast and doesn’t go in-depth enough to make any sense to players new to the storyline. However, by the time I completed the game’s 10 missions, I had a sense of what events took place in the past and how they affected the current relationships between the characters. And really, that’s what Hell’s Highway is about: the relationships and interactions between Baker and his team and the emotional extremes they go through together. Inconsistent voice acting hinders development of certain characters, but as a whole Baker and his squad are characters that you ultimately forge a strong bond with.

The connection you form with the characters is an integral part of the gameplay as well. Like previous Brothers in Arms games, Hell’s Highway is a squad-based, cover-based FPS that is every bit as much about tactics and strategy as it is shooting. In fact, if you really, really wanted to, you could probably complete many areas of the game without directly firing a single shot. That wouldn’t be any fun, but the squad AI at your disposal is more than capable of clearing an area if you direct them properly.

Gameplay in Hell’s Highway centers around the four F’s: find him, fix him, flank him and finish him. What that all equates to in action is simple. You want to pinpoint the Nazi positions, direct your troops to lay down cover fire (or do so yourself), sneak into a flanking position (by yourself or with backup) and then finally take down those Nazi bastards with all you’ve got. On the surface, the game’s environments are incredibly linear – each level feels sort of like a corridor of the battlefield rather than the entire battlefield – but within that linearity is an underlying sense of open-endedness in plotting out how to get your team from point A to point B alive. Cover pieces are scattered throughout each mission and it’s up to you to scan the area and come up with the optimal plan of attack around the provided cover points.

At any given time you are in command of up to three individual squads, each having a weapon specialization, such as bazooka teams good at eliminating enemy tanks and exploding bunkered enemy positions, machine gun teams with long-range weapons for laying down suppressing fire, and basic assault teams equipped to handle flanking duties when you’re ready to have them move in. Having multiple teams to manage probably sounds like it’d be very complex — especially on a console controller — but in actuality the squad controls couldn’t be any more intuitive. At the tap of the B button (Xbox 360 version), you are able to quickly cycle between each team. Then by simply aiming at the desired target and either pressing the left trigger or holding it down you can quickly command the selected team to move to the targeted location or attack it. That’s all there is to it. The controls are so effortless and so precise, more so than any squad-based shooter I’ve ever played.

The shooting mechanics are just as strong, too. Firing off rounds of with an M1 Garand or M1A1 Thompson delivers a tactile punch that is incredibly satisfying, doubly so when you manage to pull off the perfect headshot accompanied by a slow-mo action camera sequence of your target’s head popping like a watermelon under the force of Gallagher’s Sledge-O-Matic. Oh yes, Hell’s Highway is one viciously graphic game. The gore and dismemberment system is incredibly realistic. I’ve heard some complaints that the violence is maybe a bit too over the top, but I couldn’t disagree more. The slow-mo kill sequences aren’t overused at all (and can be turned off entirely if desired), so when you do pull one off it only enhances the action. I’m glad Gearbox decided not to pull any punches. WWII was a horrific war, and frankly to now look back on the sort of sanitized manner in which it has been portrayed in games past (particularly in the bloodless Medal of Honor games) only makes me appreciate this game’s gritty atmosphere to a greater extent.

I do have a few things to take issue with, though. First and foremost, for a game that was in development for a few years I expected it to be a little more polished. Hell’s Highway is by no means plagued by bugs, however a few small technical shortcomings did manage to sneak by Gearbox’s attention. While the game is highly detailed overall, the dreaded Unreal Engine 3 texture loading bug once again rears its ugly head, frequently becoming a distraction during cut scenes. Every now and then I also came across an AI pathfinding glitch when either a teammate or an enemy would get stuck running in place. They always snapped out of it in a matter of seconds, but still, it’s distracting when it happens. More than anything else, though, I’m disappointed by the lack of co-op play, be it local or online. 20-player team-based competitive multiplayer is supported online, but I’m one of those gamers who believes that certain games aren’t built for multiplayer, and to me Hell’s Highway is one of those games. The squad-based gameplay and narrative emphasis of the single-player campaign just don’t translate to an online experience with players who generally prefer running and gunning. But co-op play through the campaign, that’s another story. Being able to play side-by-side with a friend, each player commanding a squad, would’ve been a blast.

With these minor misfires, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway does feel maybe a bit rough around the edges, but all in all it’s an exhilarating FPS experience powered by intense, strategically open-ended gameplay, a rich, pulls-no-punches wartime atmosphere, and a gripping story you’ll be compelled to relive time and time again.

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Pros:
+ Exhilarating mix of squad-based strategy and satisfying FPS action
+ Intuitive squad controls
+ Gripping story starring characters you connect with and care for
+ Detailed environments, rich ambiance, and graphic gore system together form an authentic atmosphere

Cons:
– Online multiplayer seems unnecessary; no story co-op mode
– Texture loading and occasional AI bugs
– While not bad, the voice acting could’ve been better

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3 and coming soon to PC
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 9/23/08 (PC version ships 10/7/08)
Genre: FPS
Players: 1-20

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!