Brothers in Arms is a series that has garnered much praise for the developer, Gearbox, most notably in terms of, storytelling and gritty, realistic gameplay set in World War Two. I'm not exactly a fan of the World War Two genre myself yet I quite liked the Brothers in Arms games. It has been a long time in coming but I finally got to sink my teeth into the latest Xbox 360 version, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway and see what's new in this version.
Right from the get-go, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway delivers punchy cinematic-style visuals, gritty and humorous dialogue and some excellent character interaction that sets the tone for the new story, which is in-fact a continuation of the previous series of games. There's even a Lost like 'previously' kind of prologue that brings new players right up to speed. The only problem is that it will reference several events from Sgt Matt Baker's previous exploits that only fans of the series will get, it's not a criticism however, just an observation.
This game has some fine storytelling, this is top notch character drama with a solid engine behind it to boot.
The game features easy to learn controls and several control sets for people who are used to games like Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (Tactial Six scheme) or Call of Duty 4 and so on. I love Vegas 2 so I chose the Tactical Six setting after playing with the default controls for a while. It could be fair to say that BiA HH plays a lot like an open version of Vegas 2 in WW2 with a similar use of cover, AI team-mates and the ability to give various orders. Whilst this is true, there's also a greater level of tactical control in BiA HH that allows you to experiment with different methods of dealing with the Axis forces.
I would say that it plays out like a typical first person shooter, you see the world (most of the time) through the eyes of Sgt. Matthew Baker, who is a down to earth kind of guy, cares about the men under his command and as a game character actually feels pretty real. You can take cover (something that WW2 games have needed for a while) and it's possible to issue orders in the game, engage enemies with your team without firing a single shot in some missions.
At times the game puts you alone, in a single location with just your wits and a few guns to deal with the problem. Be it killing a house full of soldiers or silencing a few heavy machine guns that are ripping your squad apart.
You can issue orders simply enough and they are context sensitive depending on the team you've selected and the distance between you and the enemy. Or if the object you're asking them to fire on is cover or destructible. You can move your men around the battlefield using a quick-orders system that is slick, it works perfectly and it's simple to use. They'll move behind cover and engage enemies if they're fired upon, trying their level best to keep alive.
When you go into cover, the game switches to a 3rd person view like in Vegas 2 and provides a better tactical overview of the situation. You can combine this with the informative map screen to give you a grasp of the current battlefield and plan accordingly. Flanking in this game is extremely useful, especially against the PAK-88 guns that are armoured on the front but weaker on the sides. It can also help you get the drop on enemies using bigger weapons, panzerschrecks and emplaced machine-guns.
The game isn't for the faint hearted and sets out to show that war is a dirty, grimy and deadly business. The gore level in Hell's Highway is simulated with a variety of systems in the physics engine. You can shoot someone's face off, you can blow the back of their head away, limbs fly from a well placed grenade and the attention to detail can be gut-churning depending on the type of gamer you are. Further to accentuate the detail and perhaps provide a spin of 'cool' on things is the action camera, this zooms in to show a particularly powerful grenade blast or a tricky shot in action, time slows down and you can watch the whole thing in slow motion.
The graphics in Hell's Highway are solid; they have the right atmosphere and feel to recreate World War Two in terms of close quarters battles and long range engagements. The level design combines nicely with this to give you a sense of freedom but also to lead you down a set path through a linear story. It's a nice breath of fresh air after playing a lot of sandbox games recently, not as though there's anything wrong with sandbox titles at all. The lighting during night missions and the eye-candy that results from various explosions is good, dynamic light sources such as fire have been rendered with a decent attention to detail.
The animations for Hell's Highway are top notch, there's a sense of realism about these soldiers that comes through in the game core and the cut-scenes. Combined with the sharp and often punchy dialogue between these characters, facial expressions and body animations bring them to life and make you give a damn about the guys that you're fighting with. You actually might feel something for Baker's crew if one of them goes down during the mission. Fortunately, most of the time, it seems they're down but not out unless of course they're no longer needed to drive the story forwards.
This segues nicely into the AI of the game, allied soldiers are pretty good. They'll take cover and they'll keep out of harms way to the best of their ability. They'll use grenades if they're close enough and follow your orders without getting into a sticky situation unless you make a bad tactical error and have them rush a PAK-88 head on. Enemy soldiers know what cover is, know how to use it and take pot shots at you in turn most of the time, you'll have to adjust your tactics from the normal run and gun mentality to get the best out of the game, especially at the harder difficulty levels. They also know how to flank and will use the environment to their best advantage.
Fortunately there's a destructible cover system in the game, so you can blow wooden objects they use as cover to smithereens. This of course means conversely, they can do the same to you.
The music design in the game is great, it's stirring and it doesn't drown out the action at all. The sound design is likewise excellent with some real attention to detail in the audio department. I also have to say that the voice acting is superb, there's even a performance from Band of Brother's: Sink, just to round out the spot-on casting of Baker and his crew.
It's not all sunshine and smiles in the game though, because whilst the single player is solid, the multiplayer is pretty much run of the mill. Offering three maps with one game type, we're straying into the territory set forth by Battlefield: Bad Company here, that shipped with only the one mode and became tiresome pretty quickly. In Hell's Highway it has squad based play; there are four types of character you can play:
Leader: sets down markers for his team mates.
Regular: standard squaddie armed with basic weapons.
Special: armed with sniper rifles, bazookas or heavy machine guns.
Tank: Exactly what it says on the tin.
The three maps have 'capture the flag' style objectives and whilst being fairly decent maps, there's no real longevity to the gameplay. You play offence or defence; you raise a flag at a point or try and stop the other team from doing so. You get one life and then it's off to Observer/Spectator mode for you until the end of the round. The winner is the team left standing.
That's it, nothing like Rainbow Six Vegas 2's robust multiplayer or Call of Duty 4, just vanilla CTF with no staying power. A few more modes might have made good use of the three maps, even some kind of beach landing or retelling of certain scenarios for the mp portion of the game. Of course, it lacks co-op and that's always something I like to see in a game. I tire of adversarial deathmatches.
There was no noticeable lag however and the mp ran smoothly enough, it was just like taking a bite out of a Big Mac and finding that what you thought was nutritional value, is really just a bunch of chemicals capable of keeping that burger fresh until the end of time. Sadly, there's nothing here in Hell's Highway's multiplayer that will keep it fresh.
Hell's Highway is a great game for the single player story and gameplay however and with an unlockable 'realistic' difficulty there's some reason to finish the game. You can also hunt around for Killroys, which are the little pictures of the guy with the huge nose that US soldiers used to doodle everywhere in the war. If you're looking for a squad based tactical game with a cinematic edge, set in World War Two then you should look no further than this one.