Genre: Historical Tactical Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: Q1 2007
Brothers in Arms is one of the great things to come out of the military game boom, and certainly one of the franchises that keeps driving massive demand for World War II shooters. This spring, the latest entry in the franchise, Hell's Highway, hits the XBox 360, PS3, and PC in full 720p high-resolution. This is the kind of game that will move 360s, make you think twice about the PS3, and send you shopping for a new top-of-the-line graphics card. Ubisoft displayed the 360 and PC versions most prominently, probably owing to the beta nature of the PS3 hardware. Hell's Highway carries on all of the great traditions of the Brothers in Arms titles: historical accuracy, an incredible sense of immersion, and truly powerful visuals driven by some of the greatest graphics in the medium.
Much of the demo was simply running gameplay footage, which was profoundly impressive even in the beta build we were viewing. We saw soldiers with bazookas taking out machine gun emplacements and tanks trying to roll over long stretches of German countryside. The version of the game we saw was running on Unreal Engine 3 with near-final lighting. Ragdoll physics were in full effect, allowing for some wicked flailing when soldiers stood too close to a bomb detonation. Gearbox's representative noted that the final build of the game would probably tone down the ragdoll physics a bit, to avoid any unintentional comedy. The final version would include some special engine elements creates specifically for Hell's Highway that will allow for super-realistically detailed textures and light reflection. The representative from Gearbox stated that the goal of Band of Brothers: Hell's Highway was to inspire as much of the rush and power of combat that can be experienced without actually being on the field. At least in terms of visual, Hell's Highway is already a complete success. The final version, with all of the rendering engine elements in place, is probably going to be awe-inspiring.
In Hell's Highway you primarily reprise the role of Sergeant Baker, now head of a recon team that's attached to Operative Market Garden, but also have the option of playing as other members of his squad. Market Garden is often overshadowed by more successful Allied operations like D-Day, but was actually the first Allied attempt to secure decisive victory in the European theater and the largest single airborne operation in history. This audacious plan called for securing a series of bridges in the German-controlled Netherlands with a bold advance by armored and airborne units. The plan was to use control of the bridges to make it possible to cross the Rhine and storm the armored column right into Berlin. If successful, Market Garden would've ended the war by Christmas, 1944.
Obviously, this was not the case, as chronicled in the classic film A Bridge Too Far. A failure of Allied intelligence meant that the operation's planners didn't know that Germany's most elite, hardened panzer divisions were stationed in the area to prevent something like Market Garden from being successful. After successfully seizing the Waal bridge, Allied forces began to lose ground and eventually were pushed into full retreat. Market Garden rapidly turned into the last major German victory of the war. For the player, this means their job as Sergeant Baker is going to evolve rapidly throughout the course of the Operation. Initially a victorious assault, soon Sergeant Baker will find himself struggling to keep his 101st paratrooper recon squadron together and as many men as possible alive during the bloody retreat. Since Baker now commands a recon team, players can expect to experience Market Garden from the front lines. If you've ever wondered what you'd do if you were a commanding officer suddenly faced with the most powerful Nazi counter-attack in history, well, this is game for you. Gearbox compared the game's story to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and what we saw captured a lot of that feeling of evil on the rise.
As with previous games in the Brothers in Arms series, Hell's Highway is based on meticulous research, including interviews with surviving soldiers who participated in Operation Market Garden and writers who are known experts on that particular aspect of World War II history. With the use of aerial reconnaissance photos taken as part of Allied preparations for Market Garden, Gearbox has accurately mapped 100% of the terrain involved. Since reconnaissance was conducted hourly, Gearbox even has an unprecedented wealth of information about how the Operation evolved and how it affected the Dutch countryside. Gearbox cited the interviews with Market Garden veterans as one of their most valuable resources in developing the game. While historically Market Garden is perceived as a great Allied defeat, Gearbox noted that most veterans regarded their involvement as a great victory and a heroic moment for America's armed forces. While they didn't storm Berlin, they did hold out for several days against the finest troops left in the German Army and they lived to tell the tale. Through Hell's Highway, Gearbox hopes to convey that sense of triumph and survival to the game's players.
What that means in hard gameplay terms is a major emphasis on interacting with the game's sophisticated AI. After the panzers break the initial Allied assault, players can expect mission objectives to change from offense to defense. Escort and rescue missions will be common, with the onus of protecting other soldiers in the 101st and civilians often on Sergeant Baker. Simple run-and-gun missions are going to be relatively sparse and rare. Building destruction will be a major element of gameplay, despite the fact that the player characters are ground forces.
While the emphasis of the demo was on the extensive single-player campaign, Brothers in Arms is still an FPS at heart, and the heart of FPS is multiplayer. Hell's Highway will of course have an extensive multiplayer experience on each of the platforms it appears on, promising 32 player simultaneous multiplayer matches even on the PS3 and 360. Instead of each player controlling an AI squad, players will instead be able to form squads with other human players for the first time in any Brothers in Arms title. These squads will act to take out opposing squads. For the 360, how well players serve their squads will likely figure in to matchmaking and leaderboard rankings.
Hell's Highway wasn't yet in playable form during the Ubisoft demo we saw, but it's already a highly anticipated title. With the strong reputation of the Brothers in Arms series to build off of and a continuing mania for WWII FPS-like shooters, Hell's Highway seems like an instant hit in the making. The only real question for fans is going to be which of the three versions of this title to get when it finally comes out. It says a lot about the power of video games as a medium when they can make fighting a losing battle sound so very exciting.
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