A Notch above Most
World War II Shooters
There are two distinct things the Brothers in Arms series has always had going for it: its squad-focused gameplay and emphasis on an HBO, Band of Brothers-esque story. True to those two points, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway – the third entry in the series – continues this tradition, but fumbles in its transition from the last-gen to the current generation of consoles. Solid squad-based gameplay is still the cornerstone, but it’s degraded by clumsy single-player-only segments and a story that – while having a cinematic exterior – is emotionally hollow.
Putting you in the shoes of Matt Baker, a member of the 101st Airborne, the story follows the Division from Operation Market Garden to Hell’s Highway. For players that missed the first two games, there’s a “previously on” featurette that plays back events in a TV-style format. From a conceptual angle this is an interesting idea, but it backfires. Instead of saying, “Here are the characters you should care about and why,” in a genuine way, it reminds you that you’re viewing cutscenes from a game. There’s shot-after-shot of soldiers under heavy fire, epic war music, and talks about whether heroes are born or created. By the end of it, you’re not left with a sense of grounding in the characters, but the realization that you’re about to play a WWII video game.
One of the biggest problems of the narrative is its muddling of perspective and the lack of in-game consequence on characters. While Baker is the focal point of the story and many segments are told and shown from his perspective, a lot of the time the cutscenes will jump from character-to-character trying to give you a sample of another soldier’s mental state. Multiple perspectives could theoretically work, but given that you’re presented with such a small, vertical slice of each character, it’s hard to get attached to the soldiers. Also, since characters can die during missions and re-spawn, it feels like there’s no narrative consequence to how you lead your unit. Cutscenes become the arbiter of fate for your brothers – divvying out their predestination.
Don’t misinterpret narrative missteps for bad presentation – Brothers in Arms goes way beyond the effort of most WWII shooters to present its story and it should be commended for that. After watching the first proper cutscene, you realize that a capable director is at the helm. Forfeiting constant cuts for one continuous shot, the camera carefully moves through the camp, giving you an overview of the conditions of the soldiers and allowing you to catch several different conversations. Many WWII shooter developers wimp out on the gore factor, almost erasing it entirely or just adding a little bit of blood (probably in an attempt to net a lower ESRB rating and sell more units). The developers of Brothers in Arms realize that war is man-made hell and you’ll see it first hand – heads split open, torsos explode, and limbs tear off bodies. It never feels gratuitous, but complementary; you realize that your actions have extremely violent consequences.
Gameplay in Brothers in Arms can be split into two spheres: first-person action and squad command. You always have the option of simply running and gunning as Baker, but the real core of the game is revealed when you take a leadership position. You can have up to three squads at-a-time under your command, and these range from assault teams to bazooka-equipped groups. There are three orders you can give your teams: movement, attack, and suppressive fire. These are all mapped to the controller in a straightforward manner, and within minutes you’ll be leading your squads with relative ease. Like you, your squads can bind to cover and smartly adapt to the environment. If you point the movement icon near an object, the group will travel there and bind to cover, making sure to stay low, should there be enemy fire.
The thrust of the game’s strategy comes from the suppressive fire and cover-to-cover flow of battles. Enemy squads always have a dot above their heads that’s either red or gray. If it’s red, it means they’ll continually attack; if it’s gray, it means you’ve thrown even firepower in their direction for them to dig-in. Since you have cover, and because running out in the open is game over guaranteed, issuing the right commands to your team is a must. You may order a bazooka squad to destroy some destructible cover or throw a grenade to flush out a group and then let your assault team mow down the targets. Most of the time, you’ll be suppressing fire with one group while you move another slowly forward and then use the newly advanced team to provide cover fire for the previous squad. It makes for weighted gameplay – you feel like you’ve honestly fought for every inch of the battlefield.
Another element of strategy are the RTS-like mechanics. You have a map that provides a layout of the battlefield highlighting points of cover, objectives, and enemy locations. However, very little of it is available at the beginning of the level, leaving most of it shrouded in a fog of war. By climbing to vantage points on each level, you can scan ahead and get a leg up on the enemy. However, for all that strategy there is a compromise at play: if you lose any squad members, they’ll reappear, provided you get to the next checkpoint. Obviously, this was done because playing through whole missions again would be tedious and your squad is essential, but it comes off as strange when members literally pop out of nowhere once you pass over a predetermined line in the level.
The squad-based play is so solid that it makes the less stellar solo play stand out. Controlling Baker literally is a hit-or-miss affair. His shots constantly stray from the targeting reticule and, even if you wait for the cross hairs to zero-in, he still misses a good chunk of the time. So, when you have missions where you’re separated from your squad, you’ll find them to be a frustrating affair. Sometimes Baker will get stuck between two pieces of cover and instead of breaking away, he’ll just stay wedged, and you’ll have to mash on the controller to get him mobile again. Speaking of cover, the rules for its destructibility are strange. Wood tables will shatter, but you can’t shoot through a bed, and somehow a half-destroyed car will protect you from a massive tank round.
What keeps the squad-based play from making the game great is the mission structure. At first, it’s fun clearing out a town of Nazis, destroying tanks and placing satchel charges on 88s (a form of heavy artillery), but the fact that nearly every level has these same objectives makes it a grind. When you realize these are the same things you’ve been doing in WWII games since the original Medal of Honor, it just further compounds their staleness. Multiplayer gets little mention, mainly because it’s barely there to begin with. There’s only one mode (Capture the Flag) and it’s very run-of-the-mill. It feels more like a concession than a fleshed out mode, and it gives the impression that the markers wanted that multiplayer check mark on their box.
Gearbox has used the Unreal Engine 3 to good effect; the battlefields are massive and effects like fire ripping through buildings and rain soaking your troops really grab the eye. It’s a shame the rest of the graphical package doesn’t hold up. The framerate continually dips, never keeping a solid clip; texture draw-in is prevalent; and some areas just seem to be missing a basic level of detail. The level of care given to the voice acting is excellent, with the actors providing a solid performance, but, like the graphics, this package has its flaws; the score just won’t stick with you.
Even with its narrative stumblings and graphical issues, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a solid choice for those looking for a more cerebral approach to WWII shooters. Aspiration got the best of this title – it ultimately promises more than it delivers.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
There’s some large, impressive battlefields on display, complemented by great fire and water effects. It’s too bad the constant framerate dips and continual texture draw-in get in the way of enjoying what’s on display. 3.5 Control
Here’s a weird one: it’s easier to control your squad than the main character. Issuing commands to multiple units is a breeze, but Baker – the protagonist – will get stuck to cover and miss properly aligned shots. 3.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The star of the audio show is the voice acting. However, the score feels like the same music we’ve heard in countless other WWII shooters. 3.0 Play Value
The campaign pushes the story along at a nice pace, but the objectives – such as clearing out buildings and destroying artillery – get repetitive quickly. Forget about the multiplayer. Tossing players one mode (Capture the Flag) and nothing else gives the impression it was tacked on at the last minute. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.