In the third instalment in the Brothers in Arms series of tactical shooters, developers Gearbox lead us again on an emotionally charged journey down Hell’s Highway. Join Staff Sergeant Matt Baker as he leads his men on a violent, daring, and at times melancholy mission to bring an early end to World War Two.
In Hell’s Highway you take the part of Sgt. Baker as he leads his squads against the might of the German war machine. This time you're part of Operation Market Garden, the 1944 attempt by the First Allied Airborne Army, made up of U.S., British and Polish troops, to drop into the German-held Netherlands, open a path to the Rhine and ultimately into the German Heartland.
Operation Market Garden was ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful. The airborne (Market) part of the operation and the ground based Armoured and Infantry (Garden) Divisions in the end were unable to join forces and take advantage of the early success earned by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions' initial strike.
In its own way Hell's Highway has its own ambitions, but also falls that little bit short. At its heart is a gritty attempt to inject emotion into the gun-ho, death or glory attitude that usually embodies first person and tactical shooters. On the one hand the game spends a lot of time establishing character and motivation through the cut scenes, while at the same time trying to deliver the thrills and gameplay expected of a title effectively competing against the might of the Medal of Honor and Rainbow 6 series'.
On both counts, both emotion and game play, Hell's Highway has its successes. You control Sgt. Baker's movement and view with the analog sticks, while you fire your weapons and throw grenades with the right triggers. Pressing R3 will take you into sniper mode and L1 will make Baker take cover or 'dig in'’as the game puts it. Digging in allows you to regain health and is also the best place to plan and implement tactics.
As well as Baker you control up to three squads. These squads can be various combinations of assault, cover, bazooka or machine gunners. You select a group with the directional pad and then with the left trigger you can position them and select their target. The system is very simple and extremely effective. The AI is also pretty good and has a number of little touches that add nicely to the game's feel. Squad members interact and help each other, and also aren’t afraid to voice concerns about being ordered into poor positions. But they do follow orders even if it means getting cut to pieces running through the enemies' field of fire.
To counter such consequences the game emphasises the use of suppressing fire. Placing one squad in position to draw and return fire is essential while another squad can attempt to attack the enemies' flank. Subtleties come into play as the enemy AI counters by moving its troops into more defensible positions. Your tactics can also be modified with the use of the bazooka to destroy enemy armour or cover. Or, if you are lucky enough to find a sniper rifle, you can pick off the enemy from a distance.
The gameplay is effective and the missions vary nicely from methodical cover and advance tactics to hectic and intense fire fights. However, you are limited mostly to the weapons and squads you are given at the beginning of each mission and consequently there is the feeling that a single sniper rifle could win you every conflict instantly.
Between each mission is generally a fairly long and involved cut scene. It is obvious that a lot of effort has gone into the story side of the game. The opening draws heavily from the first two games in the series. It establishes a fairly involved and complex back story and sets up Matt Baker as a flawed action hero with serious issues involving guilt and duty.
The voice acting is good, but if you aren't familiar with the characters from the earlier games it can all get a bit confused about who is who even though this is an issue with virtually every World War Two war movie ever made. With everyone dressed the same, and covered in the same layer of dirt and blood, there is only so much the odd moustache or pair of glasses can do to separate characters.
That said the character models are well up to standard. Holland and Germany look great in full sunlight while the interiors are often dark and claustrophobic. The action cam kicks in nicely when your shells hit enemy armour or cover. Charred bodies and flames scatter the landscape and slow motion head shots deservedly earn the title a mature rating.
Unfortunately the couple of tank missions and the online component of the game are disappointing. The tank missions sound good but feel like an afterthought, while the online options are extremely limited.
Although war is hell, it has long been recognised as the prime setting to explore the frailties and triumphs of the human condition. But it also a good setting to rack up an enormous body count and blow stuff up - which is also good. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway ultimately is very satisfying on both counts, managing to deliver an emotional story and a big body count with lots of explosions.