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Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

Jesse_Costantino By:
PLAYERS 1- 20 
DEVELOPER Gearbox Software 
M Contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

What do these ratings mean?

“Waiter, I’d like a squad-based FPS, but could you hold the FPS, please?”

In Europe, meats are named for their cities of origin. A wiener, for example, is named for the Austrian city of Vienna (“Wien” in German), and bologna is from the Italian city of, well, Bologna. The developers of the latest Brothers in Arms title have decided to take that association a bit further. As soldier’s bodies suffer the indelicacies of battle throughout European cities and towns, you’ll watch closely as their limbs, heads, and torsos come to resemble chopped liver, ground beef, and sliced cured meats.

click to enlargeIt’s hard not to recognize the shock value at work as an easy way to regain gamers’ interests in the stale WWII shooter genre. The addition of slow-motion cameras and close-ups gives you a front-row seat to the bloody action as your squads lob grenades and fire bullets at groups of enemy soldiers from afar. Unfortunately, not only do these sequences not add anything to the familiar squad-based gameplay, but they also end up seeming unnecessarily gratuitous. It’s not that Hell’s Highway is any more or less violent than any other game, but it’s that you’re not the one directly causing the violence. Even a game like Manhunt incorporated the violence into the gameplay so that you weren’t simply watching it.

This isn’t to say that this game is all about violence. The vast majority of your time is spent strategizing the placement of the various squads at your disposal. The squad controls are intuitive and easy to use, and friendly A.I. is mostly competent. Your squads may run in the middle of enemy fire, but they’ll quickly seek out proper cover, and only occasionally do they take cover on the wrong side of a wall. The map screens read like textbook layouts of small scale battlefields, letting you strategize how best to maximize cover.

However, none of this disguises the fact that the entire game is built around one basic strategy: cover fire and flank. For pretty much the entire game, you’ll have a squad creating cover fire while another flanks to one side or the other. Cover and flank in a field. Cover and flank along a riverside. Cover and flank in a bombed out city. There are a few missions that mix things up by letting you go it alone through basic FPS sections, but otherwise, the entire game consists of that one basic squad strategy.

Since the squad controls are so easy to use, it can feel fantastic once you’ve gotten a solid feel for the cover and flank strategy. Adding to this is the great use of a cover fire meter that indicates how well each enemy squad is being suppressed by one of your squads’ attacks. If you or another squad needs to shift cover, you can easily tell when you’ll have the best chance of making it unscathed. And since your squad A.I. works so surprisingly well, they generally get to work cleaning up bad guys once you put them in a good flanking position.

click to enlargeUnfortunately, enemy A.I. isn’t anywhere near as impressive as your fellow Allied soldiers. Enemies generally won’t change positions, and instead just duck and peek from behind cover as if they were in a whack-a-mole game. It’s also not easy to tell what triggers enemies to your notipresence when you decide to flank along with one of your squads. Their arbitrary ability to notice you means that many sections of the game just come down to simple persistence and hoping that this time they won’t notice you.

Most damaging, however, are the basic FPS controls. Since so much of the game depends on squad controls, these squad sections are where the game shines. But since you’re also down in the dirt with your squads, you sometimes have to find cover and take out enemies yourself. From almost the very first moments of Hell’s Highway, you’ll sense that the individual FPS shooting isn’t up to snuff. The cover controls are a frustrating mess. One button gets you into cover. Left and right—regardless of the camera position—will move you along whatever you’ve taken cover behind. Up lets you peek out over cover, and down will break you from cover. It sounds simple enough until you realize how unnatural it is that movement is not camera-relative.

Shooting is an imprecise mess. Since you’re using older weapons, their precision isn’t nearly what it is in contemporary or futuristic shooters, but that aside, what registers as a hit on enemies doesn’t always make sense. Headshots—complete with bloody close-up—happen almost randomly. Even relatively close range shoot-outs can entail frustrating fights with your controller rather than with your on-screen enemies. And tossing grenades is awkward to the point of being almost totally pointless. Choosing your weapons can also be a chore since your only weapon selection option is a single button that cycles through all of them. It happens quickly, but it’s a clunky and unnecessary burden placed on what should be a very simple mechanic.

Online multiplayer in Hell’s Highway depends too much on your teammates adhering to their assigned roles. Friends are much more likely to do as they’re told, but strangers are a total crapshoot. At least in other similar multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2, the numbers are low enough and the roles are distinct enough that teammates have to rely on one another to win. The division of labor in Hell’s Highway isn’t nearly as distinct or interdependent, so all it takes are a couple of go-it-alone punks to bring the rest of the team down.

click to enlargeThis game has some graphical highs and some painful graphical lows. Environments range from the bucolic to the apocalyptic. Character models are less than ideal, especially visible in close-ups on characters’ faces. The aforementioned gory sequences aren’t particularly “good”-looking, even if they are graphically intense. There are also quite a few framerate stutters throughout.

Hell’s Highway also includes many cinematic sequences that give the game a strong film-like quality, but the story is told using such a jumbled timeline that it’s difficult to make sense of it. Add the fact that all the characters look practically identical, and it’s nearly impossible to make sense of it all. You can also find extra information pertinent to the history of the events hidden in each level, but all these do is confuse matters more.

At its heart, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a solid squad-based WWII combat game. Your squads do as their told and are even capable of doing some intelligent thinking for themselves. However, the game falters in its basic FPS controls. The core strategy doesn’t change much, and when it does, you sense the game’s weaknesses all the more. If you can’t wait for the next Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six game to get your tactical FPS fix, Hell’s Highway might satisfy your immediate thirst. For the rest of you, go shoot a BB gun at some leftover meatloaf. It’ll be a lot cheaper, more visceral, and hell of a lot more fun.
C+ Revolution report card
  • Intuitive squad controls
  • Surprisingly intelligent squad AI
  • Countered by daft enemy AI
  • Messy FPS controls
  • Unnecessarily convoluted storyline
  • Pointless slow-motion close-ups
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