Review: Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway (PC)

HellsHighwayPC.jpgIn his review of the XBOX 360 version of this game, Matt called it “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.” Now that the PC version is out, let me sum up this review by wholeheartedly agreeing. The game is flawed and rough in places, and the PC version feels in definite need of more patching, but make no mistake that it is an excellent experience – even if you think you’ve had enough of World War II shooters.

The game starts by taking your through the previous entries in the series (if you haven’t played them, you really should!) to give you historical perspective and get you introduced to the characters. Then you get launched into a tutorial mission (actually you can turn off the tutorial messages, but it is a nice start for new players or refresher for returning veterans) which takes you through all of the unit and squad operations available to you as leader.

You play as Matt Baker, and while the first two games were focused on the Normandy invasion, Hell’s Highway drops you right into Operation Market Garden. Students of history know that while there were successful campaigns, the overall operation was a failure and there were staggering losses. While video games typically put you in the position of winning battles, Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway puts some more realistic context around the difficulties allied forces encountered in those operations. In the several years of World War II shooters, one of the big advances has been more effective realization that you are only a small part of a larger force; Brothers In Arms is uniquely qualified to put a different twist as you are leading a squad of soldiers but are also part of the fighting force. It is emotionally very effective in all of the games, but particularly so in Hell’s Highway.

The Brothers In Arms games have always been technically excellent – the graphics and sound effects are very realistic, and you can tell they have made use of the military consultants they have employed with each entry. Hell’s Highway is no exception: from the very start you really feel immersed in the environment, from the dust that filters the light as shells pound the surrounding buildings, to the looks on your squadmates’ faces as the losses mount. The sounds are overwhelming at times – this is a game to play with your surround speakers turned up loud (or if you have kids and play at night as I do, with quality headphone). The music is stirring and helps build the atmosphere. All of this creates a distinct and memorable experience despite the last seven years of PC shooters being dominated by a string of WWII franchises.

Gameplay in the Brothers In Arms franchise reminds me of classic 4X strategy games in a way – but whereas those games have you ‘Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate’, these games feature ‘Four F’s’ of “Find them, Fix Them, Flank Them and Finish Them”. This approach set the first game in the series – Road to Hill 30 – apart, and was improved and fine-tuned in the Earned In Blood sequel. This is laid-out again in the introduction to Hell’s Highway‘s training mission, and is a nice reminder of why this franchise has managed to stand apart in a sea of me-too shooters.

There are plenty of solid shooter sub-genres: straight-ahead FPS, tactical shooters, squad-based shooters, tactical squad-based, and so on. Every franchise from Medal of Honor to Ghost Recon to Full Spectrum Warrior carves out its’ place in a respective sub-genre and then delivers a solid experience true to that genre. Often games will provide minor features borrowed from another sub-genre, particularly squad commands. However, attempting to move too far away from the strength of a franchise often results in diluting the strengths that made the game work in the first place. I mention this because Hell’s Highway nearly succumbs to the seeming desire to broaden its’ audience by becoming more of an action-based FPS and de-emphasizing the tactical squad-based elements.

That sets up my major criticism, the one that will have this game gathering dust while I still pull out the first two entries in the series: Hell’s Highway feels more ‘GRAW meets Gears of War meets Call of Duty‘ than the third entry in an acclaimed franchise. The cover system featuring third-person view takes away from the squad tactics, and the aiming system makes it much easier to take out enemies without resorting to strategy. Add to that the emphasis placed on these features by having some areas too small and constricted to allow for proper flanking tactics, and you have a game that really feels like it has lost its way at times. Not that all of the changes are bad – in the pre-game introduction mission, you learn that the cover is now fully destructible, a feature that is appearing in more and more games and really makes you plan your assaults more carefully.

Fortunately it manages to stave off spiraling into mediocrity as I feared it would by maintaining the 4-F’s approach, some excellent levels, and most importantly a very well done story that allows you to forgive the minor transgressions and enjoy the game. It even lets you pass by the many bugs and glitches that plague the game. There has been some effort to patch the game, but as I finished I still found that it would have benefited from further polish.

As for multiplayer, it is excellent. There are a bunch of maps, and play is team-based. This is not some mindless frag-fest (nothing against mindless frag-fests!), as each player on a team has an assigned role to fill, and players only spawn once the round is over. That makes paying attention to your role and your surroundings very important. The graphics are not as good in the multiplayer game, which is to be expected, but the gameplay is every bit as well done.

Despite my criticism of some of the gameplay elements, I thoroughly enjoyed this game. It took me about ten or so hours, which is definitely enough to escape me criticizing it for being too short. The impact of the story, the well drawn characters and nicely voiced dialogue really do an excellent job of drawing you into the game, and the tactics and action do the rest. It has been years since we all started saying ‘what … ANOTHER WWII shooter?’, yet this game shows that there is always room for excellent games even in over-crowded genres.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Excellent graphics and sound
+ Great story
+ Solid gameplay

Cons:
– Story might be confusing if you missed the first two games
– Changes in gameplay remove some uniqueness
– Bugs and glitches need more patching

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 10/07/08
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-32

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!