Brothers In Arms: Hells Highway
Semi-invincible uber-soldiers do exist, we’re sure of it, but the great wars of the twentieth century weren’t won by a handful of supermen wearing the Star-Spangled Banner and a few chevrons. But if you’ve been neglecting your history and military tactics lessons in favour of FPS games, you may believe in an alternate version of WWII that unfolds in this way: apparently ordinary US soldier single-handedly takes on entire Nazi army, Nazi army turns its baleful attention to single soldier, soldier takes several bullets to vital areas yet still creams the Krauts and turns the tide of battle. Cue the celebratory cheers from local peasants and ineffectual comrades.
The latest Brothers In Arms game is much the same really, but with a major gameplay mechanic that distinguishes it from the crowd, though you’d never have guessed that from the opening cinematic. If you’re in love with Dirty Dozen WWII cinema, then you’ll enjoy the cut scenes of Hell’s Highway: they’re hammy-as-hell Hollywood with reasonable voice-acting and quite naff direction. But they set the stage for the game, and they’re entertaining… perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Gearbox’s third BIA game has a historical setting, of course, based around the British Operation Market Garden in September 1944, and focused upon a strip of Dutch land leading to Eindhoven known as ‘Hell’s Highway’. You take control of the fictional squad leader known as Matt Baker who appeared in Road To Hill 30 and Earned In Blood, who you can use to bark orders at the specialist squads that are assigned to you.
For a new player to the series, controlling both the main character in first-person and co-ordinating an attack sounds like a handful. But it’s actually fairly simple to pick up and, assuming you’re comfortable with first-person shooters, there’s a Tutorial mode spread across the first two scenarios, which provides an effective introduction to the mechanics. Squad commands are all dealt with from the default right mouse button and are context sensitive, so right-click near a pile of sandbags and the assault squad you’re initially furnished with will set up a machine gun nest. Right-click on an enemy and your squad will react accordingly by strafing his path with hot lead. It’s as simple as that, but it leads to surprisingly strategic gameplay.
As squad leader Matt Baker, it’s your job to make the critical plays to win each skirmish. German soldiers will move upon your position in waves and will actively seek out cover in the same way as you. They can be harder to dig out than an Amazonian tick, so the best way to rout or kill the enemy is for you to flank them while your assault squad lays down covering fire. This is known as suppressing fire, and in Casual and Veteran modes each soldier will have a suppression gauge represented by a dial. Left to their own devices, the Germans will take pot shots at you and advance upon your position with a level of effectiveness appropriate to the difficulty setting. Order your squad to give them a taste of their M1928 Thompson, however, and regardless of whether you hit them not, you’ll see the dial turn from red to grey, at which point their accuracy will take a nose-dive and they’ll be loathe to pop their heads up to take a shot quite so often.
You’re equipped with four weapons yourself, a combination of grenades, M1911 pistol, M1A1 sub-machine-gun and M1 Garand Rifle, though this varies from mission to mission, and you’re free to pick up (sometimes superior) weapon drops from fallen Germans. You can lay down suppressing fire yourself if you’re moving your squad from one position to the next, but in the face of multiple opponents you won’t be able to keep it up for long, and especially not if the rifle is your weapon of choice. The key to suppression is spitting out a ridiculous number of rounds per minute in the general direction of the enemy, which your squads are generally much better equipped to do. So, while the Germans are cowering behind a low wall or have ducked into a house, you must catch them unawares by flanking them and making the kill. That’s the theory anyway, and as long as you exercise a little patience, this tactic will work. You’ll just find it a lot trickier against the tougher opponents you’ll face in the higher difficulty settings, especially Authentic mode, where crosshair, suppression dial and a number of other standard indicators are turned off – to give you a feel for authentic WWII combat, we suppose.
Hell’s Highway isn’t an on-rails game, but you are pushed in a very linear fashion from one segment of the map to the next, with progression controlled by your objectives. Each wave of soldiers enter the stage in a prescriptive manner, too, often marching unawares in your ambush, but AI kicks in once they scatter. The Germans will retreat to more entrenched positions if the odds are overwhelming, or if you have them completely pinned down and they panic. Conversely, if you’re making a sow’s ear of it, they’ll break from cover and attempt to move forward for the kill. At Veteran level the AI appears to consider its cover options, too: wooden fences are fine against lads with pea shooters, but aren’t the most sensible choice when taking shelter from a GPMG spewing out over a thousand rounds per minute. Similarly, vehicles loaded with fuel can prove a fatal choice of cover in the face of overwhelming firepower and, once you have a bazooka squad at your beck and call, the Nazis aren’t even safe behind a sandbag blockage. However, the rate of fire for this heavy-duty piece of kit is probably more like one per minute, so it’s best used in conjunction with your assault squad.
While any squad under your general command will follow a direct order you give them, they won’t fumble idly around if you forget to tell them what to do. They’ll stick to the same position and intelligently hug cover where they can and, if the enemy is within range, the supporting members of each squad will have a pop with an assortment of rifles and sub-machine-guns. In true Hollywood Yankee soldier style they’ll occasionally question the validity of your orders, too. If you’ve placed them in a position they consider to be inferior, radio operator Nathan Holden will make comments like, "I can’t reach Jerry from here," or, "Not exactly a good position, but it could work." If you have a close shave yourself then Pfc Mike Dawson (with the mysteriously British accent) will tell you, “You’re a lucky Yank, Baker,” and if you’re being too cautious, your squad will go as far as telling you to get the hell out there and flank the enemy. Such insubordination would never be tolerated in the British military…
Each scenario in itself comprises of around an hour of varied gameplay. You can experiment with your squad, taking up different positions in the ample amount of cover strewn over each battlefield, and you can test the effectiveness of each weapon type for one that suits your play style: if you prefer sub-machine-guns, the traditional flank and close for the kill will be the favourable approach, while you’ll want to maintain some distance and have some cover nearby if you prefer to use a rifle. Grenades are particularly effective in flushing Jerries out, so if your assault squad is nearby you can order suppressing fire upon them and use this tactic to mow them down.
Your objectives for each mission aren’t restricted to clearing soldiers from the area. Some missions require you lay explosive charges on 88s (88mm mounted artillery) or fuel trucks, or alternatively use your bazooka squad to blow them to hell. But usually they’re unapproachable before all the Germans have been killed. There are also some very nice touches that help spice the combat up, including interactive cinematics activated by pressing the ‘E’ key and the odd bullet-time sequence, which kicks in whenever you button a headshot or score a particularly successful grenade lob. It’s an especially satisfying moment that removes the HUD and zooms in on the unfortunates on the receiving end of your wrath, giving you an eyeful of anything from a relatively tame bloodbath to fully detachable limbs and body parts, courtesy of the Unreal Engine 3. Play Hell’s Highway for long enough, and you’re sure to see the top of a man’s head blown clean away and soldiers torn in half by the merciless staccato of the GPMG. Disable gore if you’re a shade weak in the stomach area, but it’s not half as fun without it.
However, you do get the feeling that you’re being pushed down a very narrow corridor most of the time. Scenarios have a pretty diverse setting from each other, ranging from green pastures to towns, clearing buildings with a powerful Base Of Fire squad. But you inevitably find yourself using similar tactics within the limited range of the set: the Germans and your squad exchange fire across a strip of land while you nip from sandbag barricade, to wall, to mortar crater, seeking out the alternate routes that flank the main German position. Along the outer edge of this corridor is an impenetrable wall that sometimes takes a more plausible form of a building, and at other times there’s nothing more than a gate to stop you wandering off into the bomb-shattered blue yonder. Acceptable, maybe, for a more casual console gaming audience, but not the standard we’d hope for from a PC game.
While AI is generally good, your brothers in arms tend to get tangled up when two squads converge in the same area, especially in more confined spaces. It results in them making sometimes-fatal errors, and we’ve even seen them take cover in front of a wall because the other squad takes up the space behind it. We’re pretty sure they didn’t teach that manoeuvre at West Point Military Academy in 1942. Fortunately, the well-furnished multiplayer game that enables you to fill your specialist squads up with human players more than makes up for the slightly lacking single-player AI.
Our only other criticism would be the visuals: deeply satisfying bullet-time, gore and tactical Gears Of War camera angles withstanding, we’ve seen the Unreal Engine put to better use than this. Even cranked up to the highest settings, textures and models look distinctly 2006, while Valve did a superior take on fire and explosions with Half-Life 2.
However, Hell’s Highway is very accessible and does have broad appeal. BIA fans will find it an improvement over the last instalment, and anyone that hasn’t played the series before could easily weather the linear play and find it a very refreshing change from the glut of stock first-person shooters currently available. Either way, Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway is a great time sink for anyone who enjoys a tactical, squad-based first-person shooter.