The gaming industry has frequently strip mined the battlefields of World War II for content, but few of the titles released have covered the action or the tales of the soldiers in the field like Gearbox's Brothers in Arms series. Following the footsteps and drawing from the experiences of the actual 502nd Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division from World War II, the titles in the series have always delivered a glimpse at the men on the front lines, including their thoughts and fears in the midst of seemingly overwhelming odds. The latest installment of the game takes the men away from the fields and farms of France into one of World War II's most colossal failures for the allies. But while Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway maintains its solid story presentation and its traditional gameplay, technical issues hamper this title, keeping it from being an impressive or great shooter.
The story of Hell's Highway revolves around Operation Market Garden, a plan designed by Field Marshal Montgomery to end the war before Christmas of 1944 by capturing a highway through Holland and punching through enemy lines into the heart of Germany. While it was the largest airborne invasion in the history of the world, the Allies didn't know that Hitler's best soldiers and tank divisions were in the surrounding area. After initial success, the Nazis surrounded and crushed the Allied troops, leading to the last significant Nazi victory of the war. Hell's Highway is set against this backdrop of the war, telling the tale of Staff Sergeant Matt Baker and his squad as they try to survive the hazards of Holland that are constantly thrown their way.
The story is particularly trying for Baker, who was always an introspective character in the previous games. Often stoic and measured in his thought during down time in between missions, the weight of the war has obviously started to weigh heavily upon Baker. Much of his time throughout the game is spent thinking about (or perhaps remorsefully reflecting on) the deaths of many of the previous soldiers under his command. This stress and pressure seems to be manifesting itself in the early stages of shell shock, and there are even some moments where Baker's mental state is called into question by both himself and his squadmates. It's rare that you see a title handle material like this with sensitivity, care and respect, and Gearbox does a great job of taking this serious and life changing condition that affects many soldiers and depicting it realistically.
In fact, the story itself, which covers everything from the first few hours of Operation Market Garden through the ninth and final day of the mission when the Allies were forced to retreat, Hell's Highway tells an incredible tale. However, you don't have to know the story of the previous games in the series to catch up on the characters in the platoon (though you gain a better sense of how these men have developed if you do); the cinematics and flashbacks will fill in newcomers with more than enough info to explain the plot. Even better, the title provides a comprehensive history of the operation thanks to the in-game Recon Reports, giving a full sense of the magnitude of the mission and how flawed it eventually was. If you've seen HBO's Band of Brothers, Hell's Highway feels like a lost episode of the show, and has the sense of scale and cinematic grandeur that you'd expect from Hollywood.
As far as the standard gameplay mechanics are concerned, Hell's Highway plays out exactly like the previous titles in the game, so veterans of the series will have no problem dropping into a warzone and attacking the Nazis. In fact, you'll probably find that it's even easier to use your mouse to accurately pick off enemy soldiers. For beginners, however, you'll quickly learn that this title is a much more methodical shooter than you might be accustomed to. Simply running ahead and trying to blast anyone in sight is a quick way to get put in a body bag; instead, players will have to dig into cover, leaning out or popping up to take aim and blast the enemy from safety. You'll also have to effectively control individual teams, pinning down threats with suppressing fire from one location so that you or another squad can flank them and eliminate the enemy. There are three separate kinds of teams that you'll be able to direct, such as a fire team who are great for initially suppressing enemies, assault teams that are good for flanking attacks and special weapons squads, like machine gun or bazooka crews, who are ideal for eliminating entrenched enemies or platoons of enemies.
There are three separate kinds of teams that you'll be able to direct, such as a fire team who are great for initially suppressing enemies, assault teams that are good for flanking attacks and special weapons squads, like machine gun or bazooka crews, who are ideal for eliminating entrenched enemies or platoons of enemies.
Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each squad, as well as adequately using their skills to destroy enemies, is a key tactic of the game. The same can be said of the newly included destructible cover, which forces players to carefully consider what they've put themselves and their teams behind. For instance, objects like barrels, fences and sandbags can be chewed to pieces from machine gun fire, or blown to bits with well thrown grenades or bazooka rounds. By targeting and destroying these objects, players can control the battlefield by flushing soldiers out into the open, easily cutting them down with your fire. Blowing apart the cover of a machine gun nest or an entrenched squad with a rocket and clearing out the area with a burst of fire is extremely satisfying, and adds a great twist to the gameplay. This is particularly true when you realize that your soldiers are intelligent enough to open fire on soldiers if they perceive a threat to their location, although you'll have to command them to use any special weapons like a bazooka.
Unfortunately, your teams are sometimes stupid when it comes to responding to commands maneuvering them to safety, which is one of the core gameplay mechanics. For example, you'll tell soldiers to run over in cover and dig in behind a low rock wall, intentionally placing the command ring behind the middle of the structure to ensure the safety of your troops. Unfortunately, instead of running under cover and crouching, your soldiers will sometimes run directly in front of enemy positions and leap over the wall, frequently getting turned into Swiss cheese. Even worse are the moments where you clearly direct them behind a wall and instead of digging in behind the wall, they dig in on the side
of the wall, again leaving themselves open to fire. This is a problem that has always existed within previous Brothers In Arms games, but you'd think that it would have been fixed by now.
Even stranger are the moments where you start to push forward by yourself on the battlefield, calling your soldiers to form up behind you, only to see a team that you know is at least thirty or forty yards behind you get warped up ahead of your position. In these situations, you'll find the teleporting squad running towards you, which makes absolutely no sense and also leaves these guys free to be blasted by enemies ahead of your location. How and why this works is completely unexplainable. Then again, this issue isn't solely held to your troops; the enemy AI will perform nonsensical actions as well. For the most part, they'll attempt to flank you, find cover and pour on a large amount of gunfire on your positions, making progress extremely difficult. However, there are times where the AI will simply stand in the open and disregard incoming gunfire or explosions, not moving a muscle until you get within an unspecified proximity that seems to trigger them coming to life.
There are two problems of this triggered response. The first is that it simply doesn't feel realistic at all, and takes you out of the atmosphere of the battlefield into an obvious simulation. The second -- and more serious issue -- is that the enemies will frequently shrug off this damage as if it never occurred, which feels extremely flawed. Like I said, it doesn't happen all of the time, but when it does, it stands out like a sore thumb. Also, as an aside -- what's with the guns aimed in one direction that manage to fire in a completely different one? You can watch as your bazooka team will aim true north and watch as the shell goes rocketing off northwest, or look at a Nazi machine gunner aiming at another squad, yet his bullets come flying in your direction. That's a weird visual glitch that seems tied to these AI issues...
You'll notice this especially during the solo sections of the game, where you no longer command a squad and instead act on your own. This is slightly understandable during the tank sections, where you act as a tank commander and his crew blasting your way through a section of battlefield. However, it's somewhat odd to witness Baker going off alone as much as he does in Hell's Highway. Considering that a large amount of the game emphasizes team tactics, Baker has a lot of moments where he runs through sections by himself, taking out soldiers or objectives. In a way, these solo segments make the game feel a lot more like "Brother In Arms: Baker's Odyssey. While there isn't anything explicitly wrong with these missions, it feels somewhat unrealistic to see a platoon commanding officer going solo on missions, especially the house-to-house fighting which was so deadly in some European towns.
Unlike the console experience, which had a ridiculous grain filter that made much of the visuals look muddy and unnatural, the visuals for the PC version of Hell's Highway are vastly improved. While there are still some pixilated shadows, they're much milder than those on the console, which were extremely distracting from the gameplay. Explosions look particularly good, and there are a number of sequences, particularly within cutscenes, where screens look much like that of a photograph taken from the war. One of the downsides is that some of the gory elements, like the head shots or the limbs being blown from bodies, look a bit cartoonish and unrealistic by comparison because the details are so sharp that these events look stylized. Particle effects during explosions as well as building details and rubble as you go through villages looks quite nice, and textures of grass or other environmental elements look much better, which is to be expected with much stronger video cards available on the market. Flame still looks a bit strange in the PC version, although it looks much better, and there is still slowdown, although is reduced. The other visual gripe is that there's a lot of render pop-in that will pop up and distract you from the battlefield experience.
That is particularly true within the multiplayer game, which just feels tagged on. Since most of the experience is truly contained within the single-player experience, you get the sense that having a battlefield with up to twenty players fighting it out across the limited maps in the game was just a mild nod to those players looking for a little extra, but it's somewhat disappointing. Your only objective is to raise or lower flags at two locations on the map, or eliminate the enemy squad, but the visuals in this mode feel as though they've been intentionally downgraded to allow for the twenty player cap.
The sound for Hell's Highway fortunately makes up for some of the visual downfalls of the game, with a score that feels pulled directly from a war film. Swelling orchestral pieces punctuate dramatic moments of the game, and you almost feel as though a composer was intentionally underscoring the action of the game to showcase the feats of Baker's squad. Lines delivered by these soldiers are quite nice as well, although they do tend to continually repeat the same phrases over and over, which has always been more of an instruction to you to help them out in the middle of battle. However, when you've just directed a squad to go for cover and you hear them yell out, "Why aren't we moving," when they're being fired on, it just feels like a bad disconnect of logic. The other dialogue in the game is pretty good however, from the guys asking the Germans why they're still fighting in the middle of a losing battle to calling out their ammo states. However, just to warn some parents, there is some adult language here. While you can turn it off, it does feel appropriate to the situations and the men in the midst of battle.
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