Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: September 23, 2008
Casting the player in the role of a one-man army spearheading the Allied invasion of Europe has become a familiar exercise among FPS fans who are dedicated to winning World War II. But Gearbox Software's Brothers in Arms series does what few others have in turning the player into an unexpected leader whose fellow soldiers decide whether or not they all survive to see the next battle. A quick trigger finger is still useful, but you won't last very long in keeping it.
Hell's Highway is the third chapter of the Brothers in Arms series as it follows fictional Sergeant Matt Baker into Operation Market Garden, a bold Allied invasion through the Netherlands whose success would "end the war by Christmas" in 1944, cutting the war short by several months, which we know didn't happen. That's just one of the things that Baker and his men will discover on their own as country roads turn into killing fields. A history degree isn't required to appreciate the narrative, but armchair historians might find that Gearbox's close attention to the material make it an engaging piece of the gameplay.
A short, but mandatory, install gives players a chance to read the manual and learn who they'll be fighting alongside of, but previous experience with the series isn't necessary, thanks to a short recap that starts the game. Starting the game felt as if I were dropped into the middle of HBO's excellent "Band of Brothers" miniseries. Every cut scene peeled back the demons of Baker's past and revealed the fears of his men, as well as whispers about a supposed curse following his gun. The refreshing mix of Hollywood-styled action and storytelling definitely kept my attention. Not everything is perfect — some scenes come off as a little too forced or rushed — but for an FPS, Gearbox's eye for crafting a strong story was more than I expected.
The voice actors know how to work their parts into each scene with solid dialogue and convincing performances, from Baker's barked orders to the Wehrmacht's defiant yells, although the battlefield chatter can quickly become repetitive. An orchestrated soundtrack performed by the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra and Choir provides a stirring score where it is needed, such as in the cut scenes, but most of the fighting will sway to the rhythm of bullets and bone-rattling explosions, with only the cries of Baker's men and the enemy as accompaniment.
The Unreal 3 engine drives Hell's Highway, and it performs well in Gearbox's hands in creating stunning scenes, such as the opening camera following jeeps across a field as Allied gliders come in overhead, or when the haunting hallways of a seemingly abandoned hospital are lit only by the moonlit sky and the burning city across the way. Detailed models distinguish each squad member from one another, although the texture work can be hit-and-miss in the field, with certain scenes looking fantastic until you get up close. Don't expect too much variation in the way of the enemy, either.
Enemy limbs will also occasionally get blown off, but it isn't a fragfest with gibs. As you would expect, much of this happens when a grenade hits someone, making it something of a bloody surprise for players. Destructible props are also found everywhere, as sandbag barriers are blown away with well-placed grenades, wooden fences are shot apart with bullets, and the occasional bell tower totaled, sniper included. It only works for certain things, though, which can make for several bizarre moments, such as when an 88mm shell fails to penetrate a row of barrels, the twisted wreckage of a truck shielding you, or the hay bale that you are hiding behind. Tanks apparently can't break through thin brick walls, either.
Hell's Highway uses the series' tried-and-true squad- and cover-based gameplay. Assigned anywhere from one to three squads of up to three men apiece, they will be far more useful to the player than the weapon he'll be carrying into combat. The first few missions ease the player into the "Four Fs": find the enemy, fix them through suppression fire, flank around to the side, and then finish them off. Each squad will also have specialties that will prove useful in certain situations. A machine gunner squad is ideal for suppressing an enemy behind cover, making them far less dangerous to approach and flank with an assault squad. A bazooka squad is useful for taking out enemies hiding behind sandbags, or in taking out enemy tanks that arrive late to spoil the party. Learning how to use each one to support the others is made easier thanks to the low learning curve for the controls, although your men can sometimes get confused if you order them too far ahead of you.
There will also be moments when Baker will have to hold his own when confronted with mission objectives that separate him from the rest of his men. Players will notice that firing a machine gun at close range won't immediately kill an enemy, which can take some getting used to as the title tries to simulate how inaccurate weapons can be. Quickly learning how to make use of cover will keep Baker's head safe, and he can also lean over cover or around most any surface that you can click the L1 button against. Given how easy it is to become a target, it's a good thing that Hell's Highway makes use of the seemingly standard regenerating health system. The checkpoint system also keeps players from being set back too far. Most of the checkpoints are obvious, thanks to a big "Checkpoint" message flashing on the screen, but others are more subtle and give no notice of where they might be until someone from the Wehrmacht gets in a lucky shot and you pop back into the game. There are no manual saves here.
Fighting through the Netherlands will give Baker and his squads plenty of creatively deadly situations that they will be forced to fight through, whether it's intense night fighting with only tracers and the burning wreckage of trucks and tanks lighting the way, or in tackling an 88mm anti-tank gun that's covering the very street that you have to somehow get down. The enemy AI is pretty tenacious when it comes to repositioning itself or in taking cover, but sometimes a gun battle can easily degenerate into a session of whack-a-mole as you wait for an enemy to poke his helmet back up from his hiding spot. When a member of a team gets hurt, he's out until the mission is over; it depletes the effectiveness of your unit as a whole, leaving you to wonder whether or not he'll be back when the mission is over. Later on, Baker will pick up some armor, and the player will be made a tank driver to help clear out an area as a welcome stress reliever.
In addition to the action, players can discover Recon Points that unlock a little more history for what is going on, or Kilroy spots where they can graffiti themselves into history. There are also "moments," where holding down a button will shift the camera to view something happening elsewhere on-screen; it's awkward to use, since they can be easily missed. It probably would have been better to have these occur automatically instead of prompting the player. Players who might have missed a Recon Point or want to relive certain missions will be able to at any time, and after finishing your first tour of duty, an "Authentic" difficulty level will be unlocked to offer even more unforgiving conditions, such as working without a HUD or giving the Wehrmacht a lesson in sharpshooting. Other than that, there's not much else in the way of extras aside from multiplayer.
If multiplayer was all that you wanted from Hell's Highway, you might as well skip the game. Severe lag and dropped sessions were the order of the day, although it seemed to perform somewhat better with fewer gamers than the possible 20, which was odd considering Resistance's performance was as smooth as silk. Only one mode is available for play, a territory capture scenario where victory is determined by successfully raising your flag over the enemy's stronghold or by wiping out everyone on the other side. Players are assigned to squads similar to those in the single-player portion, and one is selected as the leader, although you can opt out of the role in the settings. There's also voice support in case someone wants to start singing or flushing the toilet through the PS3, just as they already do on Xbox Live. Otherwise, there's not much else waiting here, other than a lot of pointless frustration thanks to the spotty performance and a lack of any other gameplay options. At least there are a few maps to play through.
The main campaign also has a few unpolished issues of its own. The third-person camera can sometimes get caught up in claustrophobic quarters behind cover, scaling in until you can't see anything other than Baker's helmet or getting trapped inside a prop that might be behind him. I've also seen the AI on both sides occasionally get confused and run in chicken circles when it couldn't get past an obstacle. Props also drop out from thin air when entering a new area, and there is a degraded frame rate in certain cut scenes. The game also drops into slow motion at certain times to highlight a headshot, but while it does, the sound of gunfire doesn't slow down, so these moments feel gimmicky. You also don't get the option to keep the weapons that you find, so say goodbye to that scoped K98k or StG44 when the mission ends. Dropped enemy weapons usually get stuck on objects and appear to float on top of them, and one map didn't seem to be finished, as it featured an open hole in the background. Is it too much to ask for Baker's face to move when he barks out orders to his men?
Operation Market Garden may have failed to end the war early for the Allies, but Gearbox's newest entry in its Brothers in Arms series largely succeeds in delivering a gritty story in recounting the struggle through the eyes of its characters. Unfortunately, the rough edges can occasionally dampen the otherwise entertaining gameplay, and multiplayer issues keep this title a strictly solo experience over the 10 hours that it will take to complete it. The toll for traveling down Hell's Highway can still be worth the gamble for fans of the genre or as a worthwhile companion to your "Band of Brothers" DVD box set. Unless you're sick of WWII games in general, this tour of duty could be the weekend pass you've been waiting for.
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