Some days I feel this war is never going to end. Every time I think my tour of duty is coming to its end, along comes another assignment to guide the Greatest Generation through another World War II game. While it has become cliché to rail against the proliferation of World War II themed first person shooters, clichés exist for a reason – born of repetitive thoughts and actions. So, at this stage in the game, each successive Axis and Allies adventure needs to bring something new to the forefront – or at the very least, offer a different perspective of the action. These are the marching orders that Gearbox, the developers behind the Brothers in Arms series, take as their lead in the creation of their latest title, Hell’s Highway.
Hell’s Highway positions your squad in the Northern European theater – specifically Holland for the infamous Operation Market Garden campaign – a massive air-led assault that was designed to end the war by Christmas 1944. Market Garden has been featured in other titles before, most notably the Medal of Honor series, but it makes a welcome setting for this latest Brothers in Arms game. With this series’ reliance on squad based gameplay and the wide open fields that dot much of Market Garden’s skirmishes – the two elements come together to provide a great backdrop against which Brothers’ unique brand of strategic first person warfare is waged.
The Brothers in Arms series started on the last generation of consoles, making appearances on the original Xbox as well as the PS2. The success of Road to Hill 60 led to a quick sequel a year later with the release of Earned in Blood. Aside from its strategic bent, the Brothers series is interesting in that it is one of the few World War II themed shooters to feature characters and stories that continue from one game to the next. Veterans of the series will be happy to see that Hell’s Highway grabs the baton and runs with, providing a more in-depth examination of the squad members you’ve grown up fighting alongside. Newcomers to the series may take a little while getting their bearings straight, especially given the great deal of attention paid to the game’s story, but enough information is eventually revealed through the narrative to give you a sense of this squad and their history together.
While the game plays like a traditional first person shooter, the reliance on squad commands is paramount to successfully pushing further into enemy territory. Depending on the situation, your character may be given control of one to two squads to assist with your attack. These squads come with three distinct load-outs: Assault Teams who tote rifles and smaller arms (similar to your character), Heavy Machine Gun squads that are ideal for laying down suppressing fire and the Bazooka troops who can be called upon to take down enemy encampments, heavy cover or the larger artillery and enemy tanks. The game will typically provide you with the squads necessary to overcome a particular level’s obstacles although it is at your discretion as to when and how to employ them. That said, most players will find they won’t make it very far without leveraging the strengths of their support squads.
Most of the campaign maps feature multiple routes to the objectives. A map screen will provide the player with a decent overview of their immediate surroundings. The trick is to identify a good point to position your support squad as well as a flanking route. Once your support team is in place and given the command to fire on the enemy, the player usually finds themselves running the flank in a bid to take the enemy by surprise. Finding the correct routes almost becomes a puzzle in itself – while you could blast away at the enemy’s cover all day in hopes that they finally poke their heads out, a proper mix of suppression and flanking will lead to swift success.
Along the way, players will hunt secret Recon points that once found will provide some extra intel on the map and the history of that particular location. Finding these recon points are also key to some of the game’s Achievement Points (on the 360 build). In addition, the developers have sprinkled hidden “Killroy Was Here” graffiti which will also unlock additional points. Players can choose to hunt these extras down or simply ignore them.
You’ll certainly have your hands full with the task at hand as Brothers sends you and your squad through eight huge maps – each containing upwards of eight unique objectives. While the focus of the game is on properly managing your squad, at times the player will be separated and forced to journey solo behind enemy lines leading to some tense set-pieces. In addition, control will occasionally switch to a tank unit charged with taking down some of the heavier armaments in your way. All of these varied components come together to give you a better picture of the full-scale effort employed in this theater of war.
On the multiplayer front, the game ships with an online objective based mode where two squads battle each other to take control of flags on each side of the map – sort of a cross between the Territories and Capture the Flag variants found in so many online shooters. The game support up to 20 players, split 10 on each side.
So, should you sign up for another call of duty or sit this one out?
Brothers in Arms looks decent but shooters like Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War have really raised the bar in the last few years. Brothers in Arms is built on the Unreal 3 engine (as is Gears which seems to get better mileage out of it) and that engine is starting to show its age here – especially with some of the blocky models employed for household furnishings as well as some washed out textures. One thing the engine does very well is render faces (as evidenced in the aforementioned Gears). As this title puts a great deal of emphasis on its mature and emotional storyline, its imperative that the characters look human and for the most part, the visuals in the cut-scenes and animations on the characters sells the illusion. Many of the battles are fought in the Dutch countryside and the engine renders this wide-open farmland with lush detail. When the battle eventually moves to the various towns and battered cityscapes, the engine shows its wear with a few too many cookie-cutter houses. Smoke and particle effects are capable but after seeing the mammoth explosions on display in this summer’s Bad Company, the pyrotechnics in this title are a little lacking. It’s a good looking game but not as cutting edge as it would have been a couple years back.
Having grown tired of the same old single player assault through a raging World War II battlefront, the squad-based tactics on display in this title came as a nice tonic for this weary soul. It’s not enough to just shuttle from Point A to Point B as Nazis pour forth from hidden ‘monster closets’ and triggered choke points (an infraction that even bedevils the vaunted Call of Duty series). The focus on strategic gameplay – with the player encouraged to study their surroundings and outline primary suppression spots and ancillary flanking maneuvers – adds a great deal to this game’s appeal. I know it’s a refinement of the game design evident throughout the series but so far it hasn’t gotten old as there’s always some new challenge forcing me to wrap my brain around it and come up with the right approach for victory. This game does a great job of letting you switch from grunt to field general and when you finally push past a trouble spot, there’s a great sense of satisfaction gleaned in having fine-tuned a winning strategy. To that end, no battle seemed small or insignificant and the game kept me engaged the whole way through.
One issue I have had in the past with squad-based games is that the control schemes tend to be a little too complex. This is an area the Tom Clancy games have struggled with in the past. Of course, it’s a Catch 22 as gamers want to control all facets of their squads yet with a finite number of buttons on a console game controller, the real estate can grow pretty tight. I think Gearbox did a good job of mapping these controls – giving the player quick and easy access to their players and his actions as well as three different squads. After a short tutorial, switching between the squads becomes second nature. The FPS controls handle the way most modern console shooters handle, so veterans of other titles should pick those up with ease. The only issue I had was with the limited vehicle segments – piloting that tank was a chore.
This area seems to be a given – if you’re developing a World War II based shooter, you better secure a Philharmonic Orchestra. The trend started with Michael Giacchino’s expert score for the original Medal of Honor and the bar was set. Brothers in Arms heeds the call and offers a dramatic soundtrack that really works to create mournful, evocative melodies that underscore the mature storyline that is developed. I’ve often felt that this series of games owes its greatest debt to HBO’s masterful miniseries, Band of Brothers – and this game really solidifies that connection with a score that pays tribute to that show much as its story echoes Band’s narrative. The two titles are completely unrelated but they do come across as kissing cousins.
While the music swept me up, the sound effects left me slightly deflated. The guns and explosions were a bit underwhelming, sounding a bit tinny to my ears. The voice work, on the other hand, is top notch. While the voice over cast is staffed largely with unknowns (the biggest name is Dale Dye, a frequent military advisor on these projects), they really sell their characters and add a great deal of emotion, humor, fear and fearlessness to their portrayals.
This was a tough one to call. At first, I found the artificial intelligence reacting swiftly to my actions, immediately diving for cover the second my squad made their intentions known. After a few skirmishes, it became clear that the scripting was fairly obvious – the bad guys could hide all day long until I successfully flanked them. I was also surprised to see that the enemies would rarely hunt for me, settling to hide behind cover and fire on my position until I died or found a way around them. The only times they would actively engage me was if they ran across me on their scripted travels to new cover.
Assuming you embrace the squad tactics and don’t try to go this one alone, Brothers in Arms is an entertaining but slightly underwhelming challenge. The game itself is not that difficult once you realize the key to victory is in the proper deployment of your support followed by flanking maneuvers. Defeat usually only came when I was careless or grew impatient and tried to rush an enemy entrenchment on my own. If you play the game the way it was designed to be played, you’ll find a nice workout for your brain that won’t overtax you or cause collateral damage in shattered controllers.
These days it seems every first person shooter ships with online multiplayer but that doesn’t mean they should. Gamers typically pick one or two favorite online games and skip the rest – preferring to wage war in Halo or Call of Duty until their sequel ships. To that end, developers should really rethink their approach and resources when designing multiplayer. If you are going to include it, you should have a gameplan (and the feature set) aimed at toppling the King of the Hill. That’s the problem with Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. It succeeds on the strength of its single player campaign but the bland, vanilla multiplayer that is completely devoid of multiple maps or game types just isn’t worth your attention. Unfortunately, this feature is just another bullet point on the back of the box.
In a dying subgenre, Brothers in Arms offers enough different and compelling game play to demand your time. The deft melding of traditional World War II flavored shooter action with more cerebral, squad-based tactics provides a solid campaign that retains your interest the whole way through. While the game doesn’t offer the greatest online experience, I think there is still a market for solid single-player campaigns, especially when they are this engaging. I was surprised by the deep and involving storyline however I think newcomers might be left scratching their heads for most of a narrative that depends upon and calls back to so many characters and events from prior games in the series. Eventually, the story threads do come together and if anything, this might prompt gamers to see out those other titles. This is a quality cinematic experience that is well worth returning for one more tour of duty.