Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway
I Don't Know what it is about them, but I just can't get on with the Brothers in Arms games. I should like them, ignoring any ingrained hatred of the constant stream of World War II games that have been piled on top of me over the years. I just don't though.
I get bored hiding behind cover for arbitrary reasons. I get bored of whittling down a 'scare-o-metre' over some Nazi's head, before walking round the side and shooting him. I just think it's all a bit forced, a bit, as I said, arbitrary.
However, aren't games like Call of Duty just as arbitrary, just in different ways? I mean, they're intensely funnelled, linear shooters that don't make their own nailed-on "you must do this" mechanics as blatantly signposted. Yet they're so, so, so much more fun than Brothers in Arms and it's brethren. It does seem to be one of those games that tastes of Marmite. Or maybe Bovril. Either way, it's got that beefy taste that I don't want in my gaming spread. It just leaves me bitter when I could be enjoying the sweeter taste of Call of Duty. Or even just go back to the nostalgic days of chunky Medal of Honor peanut butter, or the jammy texture of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. We'll finish off this analogy by simply stating Brothers in Arms is Marmite, while Call of Duty is Nutella.
Download Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway
Actually, the typical Dutch snelweg is a pleasure to drive along. Not as well administered as your high-end German autobahn, but definitely a damn sight more pleasurable to navigate than a motorway here in England. Odd then, that the road referred to in the title of this latest game, today largely part of the A50 from Eindhoven to just west of Arnhem, is given such a bad rap. It has its moments, but it's far from hellish.
That said for a couple of weeks back in September 1944, it was rather backed up with traffic. Monty had some daft plan to drive into Germany and have the war tied up by Christmas, but he was aware that if the Germans snagged onto his kooky nonsense, they'd put a stop to it by blowing up the bridges along the way. Had there not been a war on, it might have just worked. The bridges weren't the problem though. As it turned out, what was buggering things up was the single road and the thousands of troops fighting their way up it, of which, in this latest WWII shooter, you are one.
Hell's Highway isn't so much about Monty's "Glorious Failure" as it is a story about a bunch of soldiers doing their job. Which in the context of '40s foreign policy, mainly involves killing Krauts. The bunch of soldiers in question are survivors of - and replacements to - the recon squad that so gallantly fought across Normandy in the first two games.
As such it's advantageous, though not strictly necessary, to have a grasp of what happened in The Road to Hill 30 and beyond. It certainly helps if you want to grasp the characters under your command rather than just control them, so that, even though you can't change whatever fate may have in store for them, if nothing else you'll have a decent narrative to wrap yourself in, inbetween trying to shoot the bad guys that are between you and your objectives.
On the face of it, this third Brothers game isn't much different to the first two. Whilst Call of Duty and Medal of Honor continue to do charge heroically down FPS alley, Brothers prefers you lay down suppressive fire, keep the enemy occupied while you or one of your squads goes round the side and sticks it to 'em like proper soldiers. Then, when the fighting's over, you can question the futility of it all (war, silly, not the game. Games are fun), while the next mission loads up.
War, hints the title, isn't about duty or honour: it's about brotherhood. In arms. Until they get blown off. Then it's about trying to find a nurse who'll wank you off in a hospital bed.
Unless you've played a Brothers game, the all-important suppression mechanic is initially odd, until it makes complete sense. Basically you shoot in the direction of the red spots floating in mid-air, get your squads to do the same, then when they turn grey, move around until you can get clear hits on the German soldiers beneath. Yes, I've deliberately made that sound stupid and abstract, because it is. It also works brilliantly. If you want a real challenge - and there is none so challenging in any FPS - try the game on "authentic mode" with all the spots and crosshairs turned off. That's how the brothers really did it.
While the gameplay evolutions are small, Hell's Highway has a much more intense feel about it than previous games in the series. Hill 30 was more in line with other FPS games, only with plenty of right-click 'go there' trickery to give the feel of being there. Highway takes the realism up a notch, ironically by being less realistic: the ghostly situational awareness camera that destroyed the mood somewhat in Hill 30... (even though it was optional) has been ousted in favour of pulling the camera out into a third person, over-the-shoulder viewpoint whenever you hunker down behind cover. As the game doesn't pause things, the combat feels much more in your face as a result, even though it's behind your shoulders... as weird as that sounds.
Apparently it's like Gears of War, but I've never played that, so I'll say it's like Kill.switch (yeah, just me, I know). In any case it's good. Really good. Bullets crack around you, and the realities of combat feel much closer when you can see more around you than a myopic first-person view might allow. The camera almost never goes haring off in odd directions either, which is something of a pleasant surprise.
Squad AI is almost perfect too. Only once did a squadmate get himself stuck running on the spot, and he was decisively picked off for his hesitancy. Squad members will run through you and give you a little jink, probably because walking through other bodies looks weird and unrealistic, but here it's a mix between the two that neither looks silly, nor will have you trying to thread your way between bodies and wishing you were playing Medal of Honor instead. Your buddies will pick their targets, find cover for themselves and generally do their duty. They won't take risks though, that's your job.
Faulty, But Rich
It's hard not to like Hell's Highway. Even though the tank-driving bits are pure arcade, they are a welcome break in the tense action. The game has its moments of cloying melodrama, but doesn't shovel it with as much violent fervour as other shooters (such as Gears of War - so I'm told). I'm not sure if the slow-motion zoom shots of Germans losing their limbs and headshots hitting home rather distract from the war is hell theme, or add to it. It happens so often than the impact is lost after a while, making the game feel more gratuitous than gritty.
More annoying repetition comes from the dialogue of your comrades. By the time you actually get to fighting along the eponymous highway, hearing "They're not all gonna miss Baker!" again and again from your platoon will have you wanting to turn into the lone gun hero the game tries to keep you from playing. Then there are the countless doors that can't be opened (I think one door is kicked in during a cutscene), the walls that are just that little bit too high to climb, the sofas and windows that are immune to gunfire. All needless funnelling through the maps. And yet the series is still proudly moving forward. It's just so likeable.
The first game was a solid start, and each game is making steady advances while other series are stumbling about in sequel hell. For all its faults Hell's Highway is a rich experience that should be played through at least twice, because in completing the game you just want to keep going; which is always a good sign.
Thankfully a fourth game is promised, almost certainty to be based during the Battle of the Bulge if historical accuracy is to be maintained, which means that there are deeper, colder hells for the developers still to mine before the road to Berlin is finally reached.
At arm's length
When co-op play isn't co-op
Hell's Highway is a game that is focused around co-op play, so it's unfortunate that the main route is only open for soloists. The promised multiplayer co-op mode was dropped during development leaving instead a multiplayer game that's potentially good, but since no servers were up, nor other pre-release players around to join us, we couldn't test it out.
Staff Sergeant Matt Baker must have a lucky rabbit's foot. Surviving several campaigns in a war which cost the lives of 72 million people, Baker still keeps his devilish good looks. His rampant serendipity continues into the third Brothers in Arms FPS as he repeatedly evades death, ranging from dodging bullets to a girder spearing itself in the ground an inch from his face. Regardless of this artistic license with chance, Hell's Highway is grounded in BIA's trademarked historical accuracy, being based on Operation Market Garden.
This daring mission, the basis of the film A Bridge Too Far, aimed to secure a series of bridges in the Netherlands to allow the Allies to advance across the Rhine to cut off Nazi forces. The name of the game refers to complications that led to the enormous Allied force being funnelled into a single road - highway 69. This was known as Hell's Highway.
The chunk of the game that I played through took place in the insertion into the Netherlands. You're dropped in gliders right into Nazi territory as a part of the three airborne divisions, yours being the 101st Airborne. You play Staff Sergeant Matt Baker, with his chiselled jaw and baby-blue eyes, leading two squads through German-occupied towns, wiping Fritz out and taking down their AA emplacements.
Hell's Highway has got all of the staples of the BIA series. You can suppress enemy troops by firing near them, filling up a reticule above their heads to send them into a suppressed state that makes them less accurate and more prone to being flanked. A new new trick meanwhile is the Rainbow Six: Vegas 2-esque cover system that lets Baker drop from the first-person view into cover, popping out to shoot in either third or first-person. It's such a logical development that I wonder how it was missed out until now, and it fits like a missing piece of the puzzle into the strategy of the WWII game.
While as a pure FPS, this game would've been somewhat dull, the cover system, mixed with suppressing fire, adds a fantastic war of attrition feel. You order your squads around with the right mouse button, switching between the assault and bazooka men with the Tab key.
Cover also reacts realistically to gunfire - a table will break apart under too many shots, and a grenade will shatter all but the most staunch of surfaces. This encourages you to intelligently use your bazooka commander to blow up enemies sheltered behind bulletproof cover One situation had me hiding while a bunch of Nazis used a thick fence for cover. We were at a stalemate - there were so many of them that I couldn't get a reliable shot off, so I ordered my assault squad to pin them down while my bazooka team lined up and shot a rocket into the fence. Three of the four men died instantly, the last losing most of his hiding spot and looking confused as placed a bullet in his brain.
Gears Of WWII
Drumming up enthusiasm for another European WWII campaign is a little difficult, but it's phenomenal how well Hell's Highway works. Unlike many squad games where your comrades feel like useless sidekicks, you come to rely on your men to suppress the enemy, blow up gun emplacements, or cover you as you try for a headshot.
The annoyance is the slightly overdone subject matter, but BIA covers this with a Band of Brothers-style TV veneer, complete with a "Previously on.." that opens the game. There are well-acted cutscenes, dramatic special effects (like blood and dirt spattering the camera) and even history lessons for those interested in seeing the reality behind the game.
And even then, for those who just want tc blow shit up, the combat feels more complete than any other WWII shooter. While Call of Duty: World at War may be promising a grittier war, BIA is fronting a rather more developed one You're not a one-man army, and after this, you might not want to play as one ever again.
Operation Market Garden
A grim premise for a World War II game
While it's easy to make a game about a successful mission, Operation Market Garden was famed for its bloodiness and the great losses - the Allies lost between 17,000 and 20,000 people over the nine-day operation. The offensive was aborted after the Allies failed to secure the bridge at Arnhem that crossed the Rhine - the infamous 'bridge too far'. While the Allies failed to cross the river they kept control of Hell's Highway, allowing them to retreat - albeit under continuous assault by German forces. Exactly how Gearbox manages to tell this story will be interesting, as - at the very least - it's going to be a harrowing time for our hero Staff Sergeant Baker. With tens of thousands of soldiers wounded and killed in the operation, we can only imagine this isn't going to be the most glorious war story ever.