Brothers in Arms: Hell?s Highway, from the popular gang at Ubisoft and cooked up by the excellent team at Gearbox Software, travels some very well-used road, if you?ll pardon the pun. There have been historical first-person shooters set in the various theatres and battles of the second world war of every shape and size, and to be honest I was expecting ?more of the same? ? ?Yeah, another Call to the Honor of the Medal of the Duty of the whatever etc. etc.? So it?s a hell of a nice surprise when something like Brothers in Arms comes along and completely shakes me out of my jaded complacency, and shows me that a game set in such familiar territory can still be fresh, gorgeous, visually stunning and comfortable to play while still being challenging ? and with a feature-film-quality narrative that makes you want to move ahead in the game just to advance the story.
Brothers in Arms: Hell?s Highway is the third outing in the franchise for Xbox ? the first two releases in the series were Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, which introduced our main character Sgt. Matthew Baker, and centred around the story of landing at Normandy and the earliest days of the Allied invasion of Europe, and the second game, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, puts you in the shoes of one of Matthew Baker?s former corporals, Sgt. Joe ?Red? Hartsock. The newest game puts you back in Matthew Baker?s boots, and the story focuses on Operation Market Garden, an attempt by Allied forces inserted by air into Holland on September 17, 1944 several months after the Normandy invasion to sweep through Holland against entrenched German resistance in record time lest the Germans retreat and blow up every bridge behind them, leaving the country an impassable ruin crisscrossed with rivers and waterways. Unlike most historical first-person shooters, Brothers in Arms is not just set in a genuine theatre or setting of the war, but a strong emphasis on setting the gameplay in actual skirmishes and engagements documented in the invasion. The player is given background on how critical a given battle may be as well as the consequences of winning or losing it. As well, great efforts are made on the part of the designers to make your subordinates very real in many ways ? not just in the way characters are introduced through cinematics and such, but in their behaviour in game; the way they react to instructions, the responses they shout in combat, and their animation and movement in fighting.
The gameplay is a tweaked, improved version of the same play mechanics introduced in the first Brothers in Arms ? at first glance, the game appears to play as a straight-up first person shooter. The difference is that Brothers in Arms places you in command of one to two small specialized fire teams ? machine gun units and bazooka units, for example ? and the engagements in the game simply cannot be beaten without careful, strategic use of your units. Most of the fights in the game emphasize the need for flanking strategies, or the four ?F?s ? Find, Fix, Flank, and Finish. Once an enemy has been spotted, he must be ?fixed? or suppressed ? one team lays down fire on the enemy to force him to stay pinned, while yourself or your second unit move alongside or in behind the enemy in a flanking manouver to finish off the enemy.
The controls for the squad management in the game are delightfully intuitive, with the D-pad used to select units and a very simple point-the-curser to send your squads to a point in the field or to direct their fire on a target. The challenge lies in that the AI is actually very intelligent, and enemy soldiers under fire will look for routes of escape, attempt to move position on the battlefield, and are wary and watchful for flanking tactics. As well, the enemy soldiers use the same tactics on you and your men ? these aren?t dumb wooden mannequins you?re fighting out their. Find yourself under enemy fire and you will quickly die, so you will have to move yourself and your men to cover, from which you?ll find aiming and shooting more difficult, as incoming enemy fire affects the aiming of your weapon, making snapshots and distracting fire necessary. Going to an ?iron sights? aiming mode to try and get my accuracy back under fire was harrowing ? you are squinting down the barrel of your rifle while people are shooting at you, trying to maintain your poise and catch your breath, and the dirt and mud from the bullet hits are flecking your screen. This, over the constant clatter of gunfire and the shouting in both English and German, made the experience to be a pretty vivid painting of what the experience might have been like ? except of course that in my video game there is much less at stake and the consequences of failure are much less dire.
The game dispenses with the old ?health bar and armor bar? system of tracking the player?s health ? the game simply has your screen darken to a dangerous red when you are threatened (under fire, or just in danger of being shot for standing like a dolt out in a field) and after you move to safety the screen returns to normal. Another improvement in the game is the use of sticking cover ? when the player moves to an object that can be hidden behind, or moves to a door or wallway to shoot around, the camera pulls back to a third person perspective for better situational awareness. I had a little trouble with this at first since the button to stick or unstick from cover was the bumper button NOT behind used for throwing grenades, so a few times I found myself wanting to jump up from cover and run for safety only to drop a grenade in front of my nose. As well, I encountered a bug once or twice that wouldn?t let me step back from cover and I found myself stuck inside the cover, but it was very rare.
Another gameplay element I particularly liked was the recon system ? players will find different points on the map that allow the battlefield to be reconnoitered ? say, a silo, or a tall building, or a windmill. The player will be given a sort of ?director?s view? of the battlefield, with the camera showing a few critical enemy positions, hinting as to how the battle should be played out by the player. As well, a reconned battlefield unlocks a vivid historical description available in ?pause? of the circumstances or events of the battle, giving it an even more urgent and lifelike context. For the completists out there, the game also has the feature of ?hidden packages? for players to find ? in this case, the historically accurate ?Kilroy Was Here? graffiti and etchings that soldiers would leave behind in a battlefield to show that they had been there first, and to show that friendly forces had come and gone and were up ahead.
Visually, the game is simply flat out astonishing ? a year ago, I thought we?d seen the upper limit of the Unreal 3 technology on the Xbox 360 in games like Mass Effect and Gears of War. It?s just such a great surprise when a game can come along on an existing engine and show me things that I didn?t think I would get to see in a video game. In a combination of both animation and graphics rendering, I found myself frozen and staring at one of my squad soldiers advancing slowly and cautiously through knee-high grass, creeping out from around a barn early on in the game, and both the realism of his movement and body language and the full shadow he cast upon the grass were striking. The game opens with a tutorial level in which you are advancing through a destroyed, abandoned hospital in the middle of the night during heavy combat in the city, and the destructive ruin of such a beautiful environment made the level a surrealistic nightmare. On a narrative note, the tutorial ended with a surprising, completely unexpected story climax that made the subsequent opening movie and credits all the more poignant and engaging. Graphically, the game is a large-scale upgrade over the Unreal 2-based prequel games, and the environmental effects, depth-of-field blurring during combat (engaged targets will be in sharp focus with a lifelike smudging of background or foreground elements) and lighting effects make for a game that is almost three parts movie to two parts game.
The audio in the game is also top drawer ? incidental combat chatter and cutscene dialogue are very well acted and not overacted or repetitious. The sincerity of the voice acting lent all the more realism to the subordinate and squad characters, giving all the more motive to fight a smart fight and bring your men out of an engagement alive. A good game can get ruined just from the element of hearing the enemy shout the same random bit of dialogue over and over again, in the same voice, and I never experienced this once during the game. The game features a guest appearance by retired Marine Corps. Capt. Dale Dye, who after an extensive career which included heavy combat exposure in Viet Nam went on to serve as a consultant to both Hollywood and later the game development community to keep a level of realism and authenticity in movie and game portrayals of both military life and combat. He?s lent his face and his voice to many films and games as well, and his presence in the game gives it even more credence. The gunfire and sound effects are not over-the-top action game fare but very clean and realistic, painting an acoustic picture behind the onscreen action that puts you in the action ? again, hearing the shouting and the gunfire, many times I?d find myself pinned behind cover thinking ?I?ve got to get out from behind this damned wall and get this done, so it?ll be quiet and safe again! I just want to hear quiet!? The music from Ed Lima and Duncan Watt is sombre and respectful, and will call Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan to ?s main call is the touted 20-player games possible, with the gameplay constructed around a seesawing acquisition and defense of territory between German and American forces, and my few games spent online have been satisfying, balanced, and easily set up with a good lobby system and a variety of soldier roles to play within a squad. For the gamerscore and achievement hounds, however, the game is a total treasure trove of unlockables ? in three nights? play I unlocked fully one quarter of the total available achievements and padded my score by a generous helping of points, with achievements awarded for steady progression through the game as well as for using tactics (?The Four F?s? is awarded for using your squads to effectively flank enemy soldiers twenty times in a game, for example, and a generous 45 point award ?Dig In!? is given for killing 25 enemies from the protection of cover. There's even a generous achievement for playing the game on the anniversary of September 17, but we'll have to wait a year to unlock that one.) All in all, this is one of those games where there is something for everyone who shows up.
It takes a lot of talent to take something old and make it new, and when visiting territory that?s as well travelled as Europe in the second world war, you really have to stand out from the crowd to knock a player?s socks off. Brothers In Arms: Hell?s Highway does this with pure polish, and is the most cinematic, strategic and yet playable wargame to come along in a few years. Whether you?re a history enthusiast that wants to play authentically recreated engagements of significant events in Holland following September 17, 1944, or whether you?re looking for a strong single player story-based shooter to loose yourself in for a week, or if you?re up for a squad-based combat game with some genuinely intelligent enemies to fight, this is definitely your bag. Pick up your rifle, get in line, and get into the fight.