“Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway” review

by on Mar.23, 2010, under PC Game Reviews

Game: Brother’s in Arms: Hell’s Highway
Developer: Gearbox Software

Goldilocks takes time out from her porridge to give a “thumbs up” to Gearbox Software’s third Brothers in Arms game.

Just when you thought World War 2 themed first person shooters were out of favour, the gaming fraternity has, once again, been subjected to holiday season releases featuring the free world taking on the original “Axis of Evil.” Although Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War isn’t due for another few weeks, Gearbox Software has already managed to get their sequel to 2005’s Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood out the door. As we have already thoroughly assessed the developer’s previous works in this franchise, we decided to subject their latest work, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, to a similar treatment.

The Game
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway continues the story of Staff-Sgt Matt Baker and his squad in the 101st Airborne Division as they progress through France and the Low Countries in Western Europe, 1944. The events in this game cover Operation Market Garden, a bold Allied attempt to grab a foothold across the River Rhine in the Netherlands by capturing three key bridges and opening up a path to threaten Germany’s industrial heartland. Although the operation ultimately failed, the bridges, and the land corridor connecting them, became the setting for some of the most intense and bloody combat seen to that date on the Western Front. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway focuses on the opening ten days of operations in the 101st Airborne’s small sector north of Eindhoven.

In a similar vein to previous games, the players focus is primarily aimed at fire-team based tactics rather than the usual “one man against the world” style of game play. If you attempt to charge forward into the open (with or without your squad,) you will meet a rapid and messy demise. Successfully completing a mission requires that you understand the concepts of suppressing and flanking the enemy. Within each map are a multitude of sand dunes, ridges, buildings, fences and other obstructions that offer cover to you and your squad from the copious German troops scattered across the battlefield. Using a simple mouse-based command system (which remains unchanged from the original game,) you control the movement and target selection of your squad’s fire-teams.

By subjecting an opposing fire-team to weapons fire, you will eventually suppress that target, making it more interested in self-preservation than firing at you. By skilfully suppressing the enemy in turn, you can manoeuvre your assault team carefully into a flanking position where you can attack and destroy your foe from an exposed side. In essence, each and every mission is a tactical puzzle that will require you to choose which enemy units to suppress and what route your various teams will need to use to advance on enemy positions. Once you’ve mastered these essential small unit tactics of “fire and manoeuvre,” identifying the best methods of attack will become second nature.

Game Play
One of the hallmarks of the Brothers in Arms franchise is the developer’s continued attempts to postulate deep and moving storyline links between missions. You’ll spend quite a bit of time viewing a dozen or so lengthy in-game cut-scenes. There are some references to events in preceding titles that may confuse players who haven’t experienced the original games but not enough to detract significantly from the story. In fact, one key plot element was never shown in the first game and is only revealed in retrospect here. While this latest storyline is greatly improved upon the first two game’s efforts, there are still a lot of hackneyed stereotypes present. Without revealing any spoilers, let’s just say that it’s an attempt at melding some of HBO’s Band of Brother’s story elements into a WW2 first person shooter. Kudos to Gearbox for making the effort, but in all honesty, I doubt that there currently exists any combination of 3D engine, script writers and artists that can pull this off with any aplomb.

The developers managed to justify inserting some chilling visual elements lifted straight from Monolith’s F.E.A.R. midway into the game, and for some reason, the voice acting of the U.K. tank commander was considered so bad that sub-titles were deemed necessary for the his single cut-scene appearance! To top it off, it would appear that dead people are fully aware of the future, as one cut-scene depicts a deceased character hinting at events that are obviously intended for a sequel. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell what upcoming battle Brothers in Arms: Blood, Snow & Tears (my working title) will be set in!

The game’s missions provide a good mix of urban and rural combat settings. Although the game encounters are linear, the map designs are contrasting enough to provide multiple solutions. A couple of urban missions also add multi-storey buildings to the mix, adding a third dimension to puzzle solving. The developer’s artists should also be credited for using obstructions relevant to each map’s theme to represent the cover and obstructions that are integral to solving each mission. If you’re in a built-up factory, you’ll see industrial machinery and work benches scattered around each work hall. Fortified areas will have concrete bunkers, sandbagged redoubts and trenches logically laid out. Although piles of crates do make the odd appearance, they are only used in pertinent locations, such as stacked next to parked supply truck etc. Longer operations have been broken up into smaller chunks to decrease level load times, and no more than a second or two should pass before the next phase of combat is “locked and loaded.”

There are two interesting additions to the game system that add some extra tactical options for your squad to leverage: Destructible terrain and the new cover system. Destructible terrain is usually represented by thin wooden fences or crates which offer defensive cover for you and your men, but gradually deteriorate as they are subjected to enemy weapons fire. They are particularly useful as a temporary shield for yourself or a fire-team if the distance to your desired location exposes you to too much firepower. Sticking around for too long however is usually a recipe for prompt annihilation of your men. At the other extreme, small stone walls have been rendered invulnerable to anything that the German army can throw at you. While this is plainly unrealistic in the real world, it’s a necessary compromise to allow you to deal with the tanks and heavy weapons that you’ll regularly encounter.

Of more significance is the new cover system, similar to the one implemented in Epic Games’ Gears of War. In essence, you can hunker down and hide behind any suitable cover on the map by pressing a single key. When you are in this mode, you are immune to weapons fire from the covered side, yet still able to execute commands and actions as required. You can crawl along walls or hedgerows, pop up to fire at the enemy or direct your fire teams, throw grenades etc. The implementation of this feature is incredibly intuitive; it even allows you to check corners inside building doorways seamlessly! There are a few minor problems taking cover behind trees or in odd tactical situations, where you will accidentally cower on the wrong side of an obstruction but these events are few and far between.

Another useful addition is the new Tactical Map that replaces the original (and much wordier) Situational Awareness mode. This is nothing short of a direct overhead representation of each map that expands as you progress through a level. On it you will find every objective, enemy and friendly unit and terrain obstruction that could possibly be of benefit to you. While veterans of the series should be able to play the game competently without this aid, neophytes will find this a great tool for learning how to play the game (as evidenced by its use in the tutorial.) The only real issue with this feature is that it’s impossible to be ambushed, as you’re instantly made aware of the positions of enemy troops.

The developers also added a bit of variety in the form of some solo missions (where you are forced to take on the Germans alone.) As a side note, it should be pointed out that the only reason Gearbox managed to get playable and entertaining solo missions into the game is because they also greatly improved the iron-sight accuracy and targeting of your own character’s personal weapons. In the previous Brothers in Arms games it was nigh on impossible to get a kill personally as aiming and hitting anything smaller than a house was an exercise in blind luck! Those titles forced you to manoeuvre your fire-teams correctly in order to successfully complete your mission. Fortunately for your protagonist, the default difficulty level has a targeting reticule to help you aim as well as iron sights that give you a much better chance of hitting your target. One could almost argue that they’ve actually overdone this, as it is now possible on Veteran difficulty to leave your squads at their starting position and “solo” each mission! I can only assume this was done because of the myriad complaints about the first two games in which gamers complained about how they weren’t physically killing anyone in what they assumed should have been a first person shooter, rather than a tactical squad based game.

The game’s identity is further confused by the addition of individual tank missions (where you act as gunner/driver for one of the British 30th Corps Sherman Fireflies.) While these are entertaining arcade fare where you’ll mow down German infantry and destroy dozens of tanks and anti-tank guns, once again they don’t mesh into the tactical squad based shooter theme that the series is based on. It’s like Gearbox couldn’t decide whether to make an old-school first-person shooter or a tactical squad based shooter and ended up doing a bit of both. Purists of the latter can always crank up the difficulty to Authentic (which is unlocked when the game is completed) which will remove all of the visual aids and you can always pass on the tank missions in the Chapter menu once the game has been completed.

The artificial intelligence code has also been tweaked and improved. German’s react with a range of sensible strategies depending on your fire-teams positioning and movement. Unfortunately they also react instantly the moment you or your men move into flanking positions. It doesn’t matter if you managed to sneak behind a building completely out of sight of the opposition; as soon as you put your head around the corner, the German’s uber-enhanced peripheral vision instantly alerts them to your presence. There are also instances where the tactical situation may cause the Germans to have a temporary brain haemorrhage. I have witnessed quite a few instances of soldiers stuck on map geometry running on the spot as well as the odd German who suddenly feels the need to do jumping jacks over a wooden fence in full view of my troops! Just another example of why waypoints aren’t the best solution to tactical AI I guess. Your own soldiers also react more realistically in combat. They’ll refuse to fire on an enemy that hasn’t spotted them, allowing you to carefully manoeuvre your squad elements into a position where you can ambush them. They’re also smart enough to pick fresh targets if their current one has been eliminated.

Several new fire-team types have been added to the standard “Base of Fire” and “Assault” elements present in the original game. The medium machinegun team functions as a highly efficient suppressive fire unit, while the Bazooka team is invaluable in taking out fortified machine-gun nests that would otherwise rip your squad to shreds. Despite the additional demands these weapons place on your supply officer, it appears that he’s up to the task at hand, because none of your soldiers will ever run out of ammo. While your own magazines are somewhat limited, you’ll occasionally stumble across ammo canisters parachuted into the area that allow you to fully reload your weapons. You’re still limited to carrying two weapons, a pistol and hand grenades but you may freely loot German corpses for their weapons (sans grenades) if the need takes you.

The developers have also taken time out to address a lot of the complaints we noted in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood. You can now change the game difficulty at any time during a mission; a feature that was a much maligned omission in previous games. The health meter has been replaced with a flashing red haze (similar to the latest Call of Duty titles) that appears when you are in danger or under fire. Take a quick break while in cover, watch the haze gradually fade and you’re ready to make your next forward movement. If any of your squad members is incapacitated they’re only unavailable until the next save checkpoint, whereupon they miraculously recover, ready for action. There are no in-game events that put pressure on you to rapidly solve a mission (like the gradually approaching mortar and artillery fire in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood.) If you want to cower behind a wall and spend five minutes contemplating your next move, the only pressure you’ll get are repeated comments from your squad plaintively querying why no one is moving. Those of you who were continually frustrated by the difficulty of earlier Brothers in Arms games will greatly appreciate the gentler gaming experience these variations offer. The only downside to these game play improvements is that the game’s duration is incredibly short; you can easily finish your initial play through in under seven to eight hours.

It can be safely said that the developers spent a lot of time improving the visual appearance of this latest release. Based on a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3, this games graphics exhibit vast improvements in detail over its predecessor. Gearbox’s artists have managed to create a number of detailed environments to showcase the engine’s power ranging from a fire engulfed train station in Eindhoven to the rain-swept cobblestone streets of Veghel. When you charge across a rain-soaked field, you can see bullets ricocheting off the ground, spraying you with mud and water. Soldier’s faces are much more detailed, with higher polygon counts, and passable lip-synching has been implemented to link with character dialogue. They’ve also included cinematic slow-motion cut-scenes that can be randomly triggered when a particularly gory event occurs (such as blowing up a machinegun nest or head-shotting a German.) Those of you who find this Action Camera annoying can always turn it off. Although video configuration options are limited to texture and shadow quality/detail, this is symptomatic of the engine, rather than a limitation imposed by the developers. Turning up these three sliders to maximum still provides a visually immaculate experience that runs as smooth as silk on a large variety of PC platforms.

The audio and orchestral soundtrack is equally spectacular. Music continues to be sparsely used, restricted to cut-scenes and when particularly emotive moments occur during the game. The advantage of this is that the various audio queues and sound-effects aren’t overborne by a virtual symphony orchestra rehearsing nearby, allowing the player to immerse himself further into the game. Tank and artillery fire exploding nearby will leave your ears ringing from the blast. Your squad mates whisper commands back and forth as you creep towards the enemy, but when gunfire erupts, these are replaced with bellowed commands, warnings and insults. The sounds of war continually echo in the background and if you look overhead you can see and hear the occasional allied fighter droning past. Listen to the ominous swish of a Waco glider, wings creaking as it sweeps in at low altitude. From the sound of your boots crunching on glass within a shattered church, to the staccato chatter of an enemy MG-34, the astonishingly realistic work of the development team’s audio engineers an ever-present reminder of life and death on the battlefields of the 1940’s.

The multiplayer component of the game wasn’t tested sufficiently enough to warrant inclusion in this review.

The Verdict
Despite my original mediocre opinion of the Brothers in Arms franchise, I’m happy to say that considerable improvements have been made since 2005. Most of the niggling idiosyncrasies that made the game a masochistic experience have been removed or rectified, and the addition of the cover system and improved aiming now give your alter-ego more impact on the battlefield. The slavish attention to detail imparted by Gearbox’s staff makes each mission a unique (albeit brief) adventure into World War 2 small-unit tactics that no first person shooter aficionado should miss. To paraphrase Goldilocks: “This Brothers in Arms is just right.”

Be Sociable, Share!
:, , , , ,

Leave a Reply