Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway Review:
“I’ve watched all your suffering, as the battles raged higher…
Let me bid you farewell, every man has to die”
(Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits)
©2008 David Hilton:
I’d make a terrible squad commander. There I’ve admitted it.
ately I’ve been playing way too many gung-ho run and gun shooters and even Rainbow Six didn’t punish me as much as Hell’s Highway for my failures to properly command. Even though my squad mates would mysteriously (thankfully) resurrect themselves for the next mission, I still felt very much responsible each time I sent them to cover that was paper thin or on an impatient but futile charge at the enemy only to watch them crumple to the ground, dead or writhing in pain.
I was responsible, not some triggered event controlled by the game. And amazingly, I didn’t like feeling responsible for the demise of my play soldiers.
You see,Hell’s Highway is all about the emotional impact of war. This is the anti-Bad Company. That game was all about fun and explosions and you never got punished much for stupidity in the battlefield. Hell’s Highway is about the descent into the heart of darkness the squad commander Srg. Baker (you) undergoes as the war takes its toll. It is a more serious, more mature, more punishing approach to a war game.
I enjoyed the frivolity of Bad Company so much that when I saw how serious and dark this game was going to be I was worried it might take the fun out of shooters. There is room for both, though some may very well need to adjust to the more strategic elements of commanding a squad or two or even three against fairly intelligent AI with very little room for error.
Where I was concerned I might find the realism of war depicted too harshly to enjoy a game about it, I actually found that Hell’s Highway uses emotional impact to frame the battles you engage in and give you a better understanding of tactics and just how difficult war can be. It gave me a greater respect for those who go through this hell for real, and a thankfulness I’ve never had to do it. It also depicts, in a first for World War II games, the roller coaster ride for the civilians.
In cut scenes they help you with intelligence about the enemy, cheer you when you liberate them, and then suffer when the whole plan goes to hell. Baker is haunted by this almost as much as the losses of his own men.
Having said that, the game is nowhere near as confronting or realistic as a film like Saving Private Ryan, despite the move from typical bloodless ‘for glory and country’ World War II games to a slow-motion-limb-flying-gory-headshot realism. The game does depict the mental effects of war on Baker well using flashbacks, but listening to the melancholic Dire Straits song quoted above makes me feel just as much sympathy and sadness about war.
I simply don’t feel Baker’s cut-scened guilt; I only feel it when I’m in control and watch my men die due to my mistakes. Gaming characters and graphics simply don’t illustrate film-quality realism and so don’t have the same impact….yet.
The game opens with a rather confusing (especially to those who haven’t played any of the previous Brothers In Arms games before) series of flashbacks and you actually start the game ‘in medias res’ (or in the middle if you want me to be less arty farty).
I won’t spoil it beyond saying that you play as Baker’s character in charge of various squads from assault squads, MG squads, Base of Fire squads, to a handy and favoured bazooka squad, and even occasionally (and less enjoyably) a tank. The controls are a bit different to a lot of shooters, but you get used to it and you can also change them if you really don’t like them.
The squads mostly act intelligently, going where you tell them and finding cover to shoot back at the enemy. Sometimes though, they inexplicably ignore your commands and refuse to go some places, or go via a dangerous route that has you screaming at the TV in frustration as they get themselves killed.
The tactics of suppression and flanking (especially if you have the bazooka squad) is a lot of fun, but requires patience and thinking. You not only instruct your men where and when to go, you can also tell them who to shoot at. There is also an overly helpful top down map, but for me that takes away the challenge.
The enemy is suppressed when the circle above their heads goes white, meaning you can move second squad to another position at this time more safely. Red means they can take you out if you or your men leave cover. Mind you, sometimes when you stand near cover and press the cover button you can’t duck behind it and just stand stupidly while getting shot to death, listening to your team shout “Baker get to some cover!” Duh…I’m trying!
If you try and do a run and gun in this game you are simply suicidal, though there are times when you lose your squads and are alone that you will have to use the sprint button to get to cover without the benefit of men suppressing the enemy. These are mostly during the less fun indoor corridor sections.
These sections feel more like Medal of Honor Frontline from way back (ie. stock shooter stuff) with the exception of the scary hospital level which is much more atmospheric and enjoyable on your own feeling vulnerable. Why your squads can’t go indoors and work Rainbow Six-like, is unknown. They simply join you when you leave the building.
There are plenty of checkpoint saves, which is handy, as you die very easily. Your screen goes red very quickly to tell you that you are taking fire, and if you don’t heed the warning and take cover and instead push that last shot, you’re dead.
There is also a certain amount of destructibility in the game: fences get blown apart and so don’t make good cover and neither do church pews. Your tank and bazooka can blow holes in some of the buildings, but not nearly enough destructibility is allowed yet. Sure, I didn’t expect destructibility like in Bad Company (where the unfortunate compromise was that the interiors of buildings are generic, empty and boring), but this game did advertise itself as having a lot of destructibility.
Instead I found, with the exceptions above, the same strange ‘I can’t shoot through windows but I can shoot through wood’ and ‘I can destroy bottles but not street lamps’ level of illogic in so many other shooters.
The visuals are a mixed bag. Most of the game looks pretty good. The level with the city in flames (including streamers of flags formerly for celebration) is breathtaking. The levels fighting during a storm really looks and, coupled with great sound, feels like you are fighting in a storm.
You can look through a window and sometimes see battles raging outside, which means the interior doesn’t feel as segregated as in other games where interiors are cut off. When the sun is behind you your shadow looks great against the adjacent wall. Explosions look so much better than in Medal of Honor’s Airborne. Dust and insects in some levels also add to the environments you experience.
The visual catalogue of problems so often found in other shooters is here too though. There is way too much blurring, there are clipping issues, there is stuttering during game play, the guns don’t look that detailed, the cut scenes suffer from what looks like initial trouble focusing with the ‘camera’ and some shocking textures, and of course screen tearing (though this isn’t often).
Grass sticks up through dead sheep (yes I killed them…but they could have been Germans disguised like sheep…Haven’t you seen Top Secret with Val Kilmer?). There are floating guns, your men get stuck on scenery sometimes (I had one guy running on the spot as if on a treadmill against a telephone pole), and there were bodies’ legs sticking out of walls after being blown by an explosion. Going up stairs also looks very ‘jolty’.
The music is epic enough, but the sound effects are really special. The noise of explosions, the whispering by your team when they are sneaking, the screaming instructions during engagement from your troops and the Germans, the thunder during a storm, the fighting in the distance, the tank’s cannon, the ringing in your ears after a nearby explosion, all help immerse you in the game.
The levels though, are way too linear and the environments uninspiring for the most part. Sure you have a choice of cover and direction you can go within a map, but mostly this is very limited. In the future I’d like to see a combination of Brothers In Arms’ intelligent AI and strategic gameplay with MOH: Airborne’s open multi-route maps with player-controlled parachute drops.
This would make the ideal gameplay for WW2 games: you’d land with your men and really control the fight instead of being funneled through. You’d still have the intelligent game design that makes you think and organise your men but an even more open world to do it in. I’d love to do Adanti with my BIA squads.
Also, I realise this game covers one campaign (Operation Market Garden, which has been done before in a game unfortunately) for story reasons, but the environments do get a bit uninspiring without more diversity or a new theatre of war.
I’ve said it before: if you don’t limit yourself to American, British, and Russian missions then there have been a lot of places that the war has been fought. Poland during the German invasion? Greece? Yugoslavia? Norway (the Soviets attacked there)? The German Gothic Line in Northern Italy? Papua New Guinea with the Aussies and Fuzzy Wuzzie Angels.
There is online multiplayer, but I’m disappointed at the trend to abandon local system link multiplayer. I don’t think COD4 will be abandoned just yet either for this.
Hell’s Highway’s characters, story, and more strategic focus are what takes it beyond the ‘just another stock shooter’ label. Too often we are treated to shooters with gung-ho militaristic idiot characters and a game design that only provides shooting targets for you to run through.
However, without the story and strategic gameplay mechanic this game would have also struggled to make an impact. The more mature deeper context and devastation draws you in better than any previous war game, but the levels and tasks are simply not open or different enough to really hit the bulls-eye.
©2008 David Hilton: