Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
23rd Sep 2008 | 16:00
Hell's Highway. An apt name really, considering that Brothers in Arms 3 has been stranded in development No Man's Land for yonks. But now the Highway finally extends before us, is it really a route worth taking?
Well, this is very much familiar BIA territory. We're still floundering in Northern Europe (this time during Operation Market Garden), we're still hanging with the likes of Matt 'Smiler' Baker, Ginger Hartsock and the deceased Leggett - who also happens to be haunting Matt's fevered dreams like a bespectacled Jacob Marley and turning our hero into a bit of a nutjob. It's a very human tale of responsibility, guilt and redemption that never fails to resonate - while, at the same time, also being the biggest rip-off of Band of Brothers you're ever likely to see.
Tar Very Much
Trouble is, so much of the titular Hell's Highway feels like familiar, well-trodden asphalt. Despite the crowd-wowing E3 2006 footage, all of those innovations have since been done to death. The cover system is pure Rainbow Six: Vegas, the destructible scenery is... well, almost every other next gen shooter ever. Hell's Highway still succeeds because, in addition to its unique squad mechanics, it tells a scintillating story. But the brutal truth is, it all adds up to being Brothers in Arms 2.5, and nothing more.
Down to business then: let's try to focus on what BIA gets right. For one, the pastel, almost watercolour depiction of the Dutch killing fields is very basic, but beautiful. Meanwhile, the squad command system - such a revelation in 2005 - has survived the transition to next gen totally intact. But, then again, is that really a good thing?
After all, it's all too easy to be faffing around with command arrows while you and your hapless troops - who occasionally demonstrate precisely no common sense whatsoever - are being riddled with bullets. Case in point: you want them to hunker down behind a wall to take cover from a Nazi machine gunner, but they'll often dive over said wall and be instantaneously reduced to hunks of human bolognaise. Thankfully though, your brave boys'll be miraculously revived when you reach a checkpoint, which sort of ruins the whole 'human life is precious' vibe running through the cut-scenes.
While we're on the subject, it's impossible to talk about pathos without mentioning the massive incongruity within Hell's Highway. Put simply, this game is gore central. Lob a grenade into the midst of a Nazi patrol and you can expect to see legs, arms and heads torn from bodies, intestines exploding all over the shop. We won't lie - it's insanely gratifying, but it also sits uneasily with the sombre storyline. Best friend dying in comrades' arms one minute and slow-mo Nazi headshots the next? Hmm.
As a shooter, Hell's Highway doesn't quite cut the mustard (gas). Again, it's just got too much in common with its forbearers to compete with the CoD4s of this world nowadays - while the occasional bits where Baker is forced to go it alone just ram home how dated the mechanics are. Even the much vaunted destructible cover is a bit silly; a fence can be destroyed, but the stone wall right next to it remains stubbornly invulnerable no matter how much bazooka fire you pelt it with. Why then, are you going to send your troops to cower behind the wood? You're not.
Worse still, for every tentative step forward BIA makes, it takes an equally uncertain one back. Baker's new bazooka crew are a riot - it's mightily satisfying ordering them to blow a sniper ensconced in a church bell tower to kingdom come. Similarly, the machine gun crew are invaluable when it comes to mowing down larger groups of Nazis like ripe hay. Why though, has the tank attachment gotten the heave ho? Oh, it hasn't. In fact, it's been transformed into a series of standalone shoot-'em-up missions of dubious quality. Null points, Gearbox.
Vorsprung Deutsch Technik
Then there's the sheer linearity of the level design. Battlefields feel too restrained and restrictive for you to ever truly innovate when it comes to devising flanking and suppressing strategies - it's often way too obvious where you're expected to place each squad, making the game feel like one gigantic set piece rather than an organic test of your wits and leadership. We'd also have liked to have seen more Nazis flooding the screen at once; sometimes when Baker has a full complement of support teams it almost feels as if you've got more men at your disposal than the mighty German Reichswehr. It's all a bit unambitious, a bit... last gen.
But, enough negativity for the moment, because for all its failings we've still got a soft spot for Hell's Highway. Despite the similarity to its predecessors, it's crucial to remember than both Road to Hill 40 and Earned in Blood were very well received. Secondly, just because this entry doesn't push the envelope, it's still solid as a rock.
After all, while it's possible to play Hell's Highway like a straight-up shooter and have Baker pretend to be a one-man army, there's something almost... religious about acting the true leader and having your AI team-mates do all your dirty work for you. Watching them whoop as they report every fresh Nazi casualty is, bizarrely, more satisfying than taking the SOBs down yourself.
But, eventually, even the most hardened Brothers In Arms fanboys out there will more than likely get the feeling that this belated entry should have strived for so much more than this. Imagine wider battlefields, less constrained mechanics, a more comprehensive variety of commands... Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway could have aimed for the stars; instead it chose to simply shuffle its feet and stare fixedly at the floor. And that, despite what Sergeant Baker may claim, is the biggest tragedy of all.