A girl in a plain white dress swings from the rafters of the barn roof above, swaying in the wind; the soldiers who hung her there long gone. Such unexpected brutality makes you stop for a second and think. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is defined by moments like this, showing a level of maturity unmatched by its peers. It takes inspiration from the likes of Band of Brothers, but is brave enough to carve out its own story rather than duplicating someone else’s.
A brief history lesson
In September 1944, Allied forces launched the largest and most ambitious airborne assault in history. Operation Market Garden was designed to cut through German lines and pave the way for a quick end to the war by securing a series of bridges. In reality, the Axis forces were more numerous and in better condition than anticipated, resulting in more than 15,000 Allied casualties.Hell’s Highway follows paratrooper Matt Baker as he leads his squad through Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation in history. Rather than just setting the scene and letting you get on with it, the game goes out of its way to give you a reason to protect the men you fight with. Numerous and lengthy cut scenes weave a tale of bravery, guilt and sacrifice as Baker is troubled by past and present events. Much of the plot is a continuation from the previous games and although newcomers to the series may feel a little confused, none of the story is too difficult to grasp.
Once you’re thrown into battle, it’s apparent that little has changed in the gameplay department. Your task is to control between one and three squads of men, using realistic tactics to find, fix, flank and finish the enemy. Unlike many first-person shooters, Hell’s Highway is all too quick to punish players for reckless behaviour like running in the open toward an unsuppressed position. Each level plays out like a perilous puzzle as you try and work out how to manoeuvre your troops to outwit the Germans.
Like the previous games, Hell’s Highway doesn’t really feel like a first-person shooter in the traditional sense. You spend just as much time planning your next move as you do trying to pick off enemy soldiers. This may not sound like a lot of fun, but it’s a welcome change to think as you fight. The controls that allow you to move your squads are extremely intuitive; cycle through the available teams with one button, then hold a trigger to bring up the positioning reticule and release to send your team that way.
The alterations that Hell’s Highway introduces to the gameplay don’t change a great deal. Some levels include a bazooka squad, who can take out enemy tanks and anti-aircraft guns. Their weaponry also prove useful when you need to dislodge a stubborn enemy, since some cover is now destructible. Wooden fences will quickly disintegrate under heavy gunfire, leaving you looking for the next stone wall or earth bank. Baker can also now hide behind cover much like other games, then peek out to squeeze off a shot.
The game occasionally takes a break from its core mechanics and leaves you on your own to fight through abandoned buildings. These are a welcome inclusion, although some go on longer than perhaps is necessary. Hell’s Highway also lets you take control of a Firefly tank a couple of times, which also proves to be an enjoyable aside from the rest of the action. In the first game in the series, you could use a tank in the same way as a squad, but being able to directly control one is much more satisfying.
It’s easy to become engrossed in the unfolding battles, but Hell’s Highway quickly pulls you out of the moment with a few frustrating bugs. Scripted events don’t always work, grenade aiming is a little hap-hazard and the usually excellent AI sometimes loses its way.
The same can be said for the graphics, but to a lesser extent. The visuals aren’t the best you’ll see, but they do an excellent job of setting the scene and immersing you in the action. Holland is well realised and although each level has boundaries, they always feel part of the larger countryside or town.
Along with a few brutally realistic moments, Hell’s Highway enforces its vision of war with a fair amount of gore. Blood will fly from soldiers that get hit and if you manage a head shot, the so-called ‘action cam’, slows down time and zooms in to show your enemy’s face viciously recoil.
The game’s cut scenes feature well modelled characters and decent lip synching, but some textures load just after the camera pans over, resulting in a less detailed surface suddenly being replaced by a finer one. However, the story is often compelling enough for you to forgive these lapses.
The audio also does a superb job, particularly the sound effects. Bullets whistle by and gunfire roars overhead as your men scream at you to give them their next order. The voice acting in the cut scenes is decent and helps the story remain credible, while the musical score adds a cinematic touch to proceedings.
Hell’s Highway only includes a single multiplayer mode, which tasks two teams of up to ten players with taking each other’s territory. This may come as a disappointment for some, but the game’s replay value really lies in its excellent singleplayer, with many levels that are well worth playing through again. The epic final chapter is particularly memorable, as you guide three squads through an almost endless landscape of German positions.
While it lacks the graphical finesse and multiplayer modes of its peers, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway outshines them with a brutally honest portrayal of war and one that you won’t forget. Although a few bugs detract from the experience, it excels where it should, creating an atmosphere where its core gameplay mechanics can shine. For fans of the series and tactical shooters in general, this is a welcome addition and one that’s been well worth waiting for.
By Philip Morton