Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: October 7, 2008
It is with a heavy heart that I award Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway the score below. It could have — nay, should have — been better. Rather than push the franchise forward or even stack up to the competition, it falters a bit in playability while focusing squarely on pushing the audio and visual fronts to the max. I can't believe that I almost got my head shaved at the Penny Arcade Expo for a free copy.
This entry into the series tries to merge the Unreal Engine 3 with the classic squad-based WWII gameplay of the previous games into what should have been Rainbow Six Vegas set in war-torn 1940s Europe, but instead winds up feeling more clunky and linear than it ought to. Is it playable? Yes. Is it enjoyable and even kind of amazing at times? Sure, when it works. More than a few users (myself included) ran into problems with the game simply not working after a certain point, and to my knowledge, no patch has been released to address the issues, though some users have found workarounds. My particular situation seemed to involve the Nvidia/Ageia physics engine getting corrupted. Removing and reinstalling the game didn't even fix the issue (reinstalling over it doesn't work either; you have to uninstall first). Had it not occurred to me to fiddle with Ageia, this review would still be in pending.
The central story continues the horrific adventures of Matt Baker and his team, bringing new faces into the fold and killing off a few old ones along the way. The story and voice acting, as well as CG cut scenes, are some of the strongest parts of the games. It tugs at you when someone gets taken out in a cut scene, and despite the visual fidelity between gameplay and movies, it's still strange switching from being Baker to simply watching him act out his scenes in third-person between missions. Still, if you got this for the story, you won't be disappointed.
Visuals and sound effects are also pretty well done, especially the music. As mentioned before, the game is UE3-powered, and is up there visually with Unreal Tournament 3, Gears of War and the Rainbow Six Vegas games, with all the trademark blood, glow, and bump-mapping effects you've come to know. It seems as if almost every game nowadays is using that engine and starting to look/feel the same. BiA: HH is no different.
The laundry list of things that annoyed me with the game is rather long, I'm afraid. Gone is the situational awareness mode, replaced with a barebones 2-D map. It gets you where you're going, but without the intel and spying around corners that the old method offered, not to mention that you can't issue orders via the map. Also gone is the "Fall Out" option, where you could basically tell your guys to hold position wherever you were at the time. Fall In is still there, which rallies them to you, but now you have to manually assign them an order to move to right where they already are. More of the missions pit you alone now, taking away from the series trademark of squad interactions and tactical play and making it more of a standard, generic FPS. The squad is the game's bread and butter; take that away, and the control problems make the FPS elements feel even more dated, awkward and bland.
Replaced are the missions where you had a commandable tank as a member of your group. Now you are in charge of the tank itself, driving it around, steamrolling sandbagged MG nests and plugging shells into anyone and anything you see fit. It's not that either method is better than the other. It just seemed the old method of staying Matt Baker and playing entirely from his eyes was a bit more engrossing, and ordering a tank rather than piloting it yourself had some unique appeal. That's not to say it isn't fun smashing through the front lines and blasting bazooka troops. It's just different, and perhaps offering the choice to do it either way would have been nice.
It seems the AI has taken a step back as well, and the method of compensating for it makes no sense. I have a bazooka team trying to move up within range of an anti-aircraft gun so they can plug a rocket into it. Fine. I get them close enough, give the order, and instead of firing over the small wall they're taking cover behind, they fire right into the wall, killing a member of the team.
So I opt to clear the area and give them a completely clear shot at it by ordering them into the street and firing directly at the target. The order is given and they respond in the affirmative, but do nothing. I try it again, and still they stand there. I order them to go stand behind a truck while I try to figure out another way to handle this, and once behind the truck, they fire at the AA. In another instance, they fired the rocket right into the group of teammates taking cover on an emplacement in front of them, killing all three. Friendly fire!
Further, when trying to get your guys to move up, more often than not, they run right up the middle rather than moving from cover to cover, and they take casualties that totally should have been avoided if they had a brain in their collective heads. Rather than having to move to the wounded and administer first aid (as is common in most other games like this these days), the guy simply dies right there but is magically resurrected at the next checkpoint. It makes no sense and is kind of annoying.
Speaking of checkpoints, be prepared for the game to grind to a complete halt for a few seconds every time you reach one of those loading points where the next segment of the stage begins. I don't know if it's lazy optimization or what, but Vegas was able to load levels bigger than this with a lot more going on visually and not hiccup even once during play.
The cover system from these other UE3 games has reappeared here, but it feels much clunkier than it does elsewhere. The animations of Baker peeking around corners or over the top often expose you to fire precious seconds before you can even return it, and these (and other) animations sometimes interrupt other commands (changing weapons, reloading, etc.), which adds to the greater problem of the controls just being less responsive than they should be. What's more, sometimes when you peek out from behind a corner, your enormous helmeted melon blocks your entire view of the action. Sigh.
Logical inconsistencies abound in the environments as well. You can vault over some objects but not others, and there's nothing to indicate which are which until you've moved all the way over to them, amidst incoming enemy fire. Another headache for me was the inability to look around, turn or strafe while running. This makes it difficult to assess and/or react to your changing environment as it's all happening. Say you're running to cover (which is often destructible), and it gets blown up on route, but you spy something else nearby that would suffice. You have to stop running, turn, then start running again, and hope you don't have to tweak the path along the way again. Yet another inconsistency involves which objects tanks can and cannot drive through. In cut scenes, they can plow through anything. In reality, they can maybe run over sandbags and a few fence posts, but everything else stops them dead in their tracks.
The fact that it supports controllers (the Xbox 360 for Windows controller among others) and that I played a bit on the PS3 as well, the experience was likely designed for consoles first, and ported to PC afterward, much the way several other UE3 games have been. It suffers a little for this, as it's now geared to be faster-paced, more linear and less tactical, but the irony of it is that, when trying to play it with a controller on the PC (a Logitech Dual Action), the controller mappings wouldn't all work properly, no matter what I did. In particular, mapping forward and backward movement was always reversed, no matter how I set it. I tried using PS2 and PS3 controllers with it, but it wouldn't even acknowledge them, though they were working fine in the Windows game controller utility.
Playing on a console would also forego some of the technical issues. It's obviously been optimized to run on those predefined, universal configurations, and squeezing it onto the PC with any kind of performance quality can be tricky. By that, I mean that the exact same hardware configuration that can run Vegas 2 at 1280x1024 with high details struggles with BiA: HH at the same settings. I ended up turning down the resolution to 800x600 to get the frame rate out of the teens, though raising or lowering texture, shadow and other details didn't seem to make a lick of difference, performance-wise.
Installing the game itself wasn't too terribly difficult. You need the disc in the drive the first time you run it, and it presumably does an online check (via SecuROM), but after that, it never asked for the disc again. Frankly, this method works well for me. Crysis Warhead did a similar thing, and not having to keep the disc out all the time to play an installed game just makes sense. I know some people have personal issues with DRM, and while I'm not a huge fan of it, this seems like the least intrusive method, gives me what I want (no disc play), and keeps things running like they should be. However, on first start-up, the game did crash back to desktop. Could that be part of the DRM getting in the way? Maybe, I can't say for sure.
So what else should you know? Grenade throwing is screwy at best; half the time you'll get it dead on, and other times it'll be a mile off. Your body obscures your view when peeking around corners. The Dig In (cover) command doesn't work on some surfaces where it seems like it should. The sprint key only works going forward, leaving backpedaling a one-speed affair. What's more, the sprint key moves you forward whether you're actually moving forward or not. It works entirely on its own. Controls in general are too stiff and unresponsive. You can take weapons mid-mission, but they're all gone when the next one starts (I'd love to take that sniper rifle from the church with me). There are texture problems occasionally; when you change settings and go back into the game, a Holland native looked like he was a radioactive pimp, since his clothes were textured all wrong (or not at all, I can't tell). Enemies are just as stupid as your guys, and often won't counter-flank or do anything clever or creative to stop your progress.
With all that said, could multiplayer redeem it? Not in this case. You get a smattering of maps — a half dozen or so — and one mode, a sort of attack-and-defend scenario with very little flexibility in terms of options. After you've played it once or twice, I expect you'll be ready to move on to something else. Without a map editor or expanded modes, it really doesn't have a lot of life in it. The single-player is where it's at, and isn't surprising, given the story-driven nature of the series. However, online co-op would have helped the game a good deal and would've been in keeping with the game structure otherwise.
All told, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is not a great game, but it's not terrible either, though it certainly has its share of flaws. There are some technical problems and crash bugs that need ironed out (especially for ATI users, from the sound of it), and the feel and responsiveness of the controls could have been better. The AI is lacking, but those special slow-motion moments when you score a particularly nasty headshot or a grenade blows a guy into thirds are rewarding and add to the cinematic feel. It's a poignant story hampered with some aging gameplay mechanics. In an already crowded genre, the gimmicks and familiarities are really only going to appeal to series stalwarts. Unfortunately for the Brothers in Arms saga, there are better, more polished games to be had out there right now, and it may get forgotten for not being all that it could be.
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