Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: August 2008
Randy Pitchford, the president of Gearbox Software, believes pretty strongly in what he's doing. "Brothers in Arms isn't just a vehicle to make money," he said in San Francisco last Thursday. "We've really dug in here."
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is coming at a weird time for what turned into the World War II subgenre. After a couple of years where we as gamers were practically drowning in WWII shooters, ranging from exhaustively researched tactical games to circle-strafing shoot-'em-ups with only a tenuous relationship to reality, things had quieted down for a while. The Medal of Honor series is still vaguely scraping along, but most of the opportunists seem to have moved on to something else.
Even at the height of the genre, though, the WWII shooter was often basically a feel-good war movie, starring square-jawed, stubbly heroes as they battled faceless, nameless legions of unquestionably evil soldiers, complete with a bombastic and mournful orchestral soundtrack.
Hell's Highway, conversely, is playing by a different set of rules. In a subgenre that rarely has more plot than "those Germans need shooting," it's a character-driven story about life during wartime and the emotional relationships between soldiers. Though the subgenre often plays by action movie rules even when it's being ostensibly realistic, it's on the same level of relative lethality as your average Rainbow Six title, with suppressive fire and hard cover playing incredibly important roles. Instead of the Normandy invasion and the drive to Berlin, you'll be playing through one of the most crushing defeats the Allies suffered during the war.
You play as Matt Baker, who's been promoted to the leader of his squad following his previous CO's death. You begin the game in the ruins of a hospital, looking down at a dead American who doesn't know he's just failed to protect a woman from the Nazis. After a short run through the halls, dodging incursions from German soldiers, you find yourself in a ruined operating theater … where something weird happens.
Three days previously, you're one of the first soldiers on the ground at the beginning of Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated major incursion into Nazi-occupied Europe that was supposed to end the war by Christmas of 1944. Instead, it wound up being a killing ground for the Allies, as the Germans circled around behind the Allied soldiers' lines and cut them off, stranding them in enemy territory. The path Market Garden took was renamed "Hell's Highway" by the Allied soldiers that were caught on it.
Of course, Baker doesn't know that, or that he's about to lead the men he's grown to befriend over the course of the war into a meat grinder. He's also carrying a secret with him, concerning the deaths of two of his men, which may be enough to tear his platoon apart.
It's pretty melodramatic, yeah, especially because you usually don't expect any drama from this genre. Gearbox has worked hard to make this a story in its own right, instead of a vicarious war movie.
Brothers in Arms is also exhaustively researched, to the point where any character in the game with a rank higher than lieutenant is a real person who held that rank at that time during the war. Gearbox bought satellite photos from the British government, test-fired period firearms, hired WWII veterans, and — perhaps most importantly — got everything they disclosed about their game's plot and history analyzed by an extremely loyal and detail-oriented fan community.
The game can be played like a standard run-and-gun shooter if you really want to, but depending on the difficulty, it's either sort of a bad idea or a really bad idea. You usually have a couple of other troops at your command, who you can easily order to take up positions or attack.
You can have them direct suppressive fire at a given location, either forcing a German soldier to leave his cover, or buttoning him down so you can move safely. The game displays an on-screen icon indicating how easily an enemy could put a bullet in you, and the more fire you direct at his location, the more the icon changes color. When it's gray, it's safe for you to move.
This cover mechanic comes in handy because Brothers in Arms isn't shy about killing you if you step out at the wrong time. While you do regenerate health fairly rapidly if you're injured, you'll get cut in half pretty easily if you're not careful. Fortunately, the same applies to the Germans, and seriously, this is not a game that underplays the actual impact of a bullet on a human being. In the short time I spent with the game, I saw a pretty substantial amount of gore.
I'll admit, I walked into Ubisoft's demo with a chip on my shoulder. I'm really sick of World War II games, and I'm not shy about it. After talking about Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway with Pitchford and a few of the other developers, though, I have to respect the amount of homework they've done and time they've invested. If absolutely nothing else, they're genuinely devoted to their game, and the end product reflects that.
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