Review: Brothers in Arms: Hells Highway (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway
Genre: WW2 Squad Shooter
Developer: Gearbox
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: September 23, 2008


I’ve made comments in past WW2 reviews that we’ve been playing and winning WW2 for a lot longer than there actually was a WW2. The truth is I’m not tired of playing games based in World War 2; I’m tired of playing bad games based in World War 2. A well thought out story and innovative levels will get me interested enough to strap on my M1 Garand and go hunting Nazis one more time. That’s why I was able to enjoy Call of Duty so much despite being so thoroughly tired of the Medal of Honor series. But then that got turned into a franchise and watered down enough to be released once a year. Like Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms is another game that has its roots in the Medal of Honor series, some of its developers having spent some time in the EA boot-camp. Shall we see if Hell’s Highway proves that going through hell is the only way to escape it, or will we be bogged down in the gnashing of teeth and searing of flesh?


Story:

Brothers in Arms tells the story of the 101st Airborne division. The first game told the story of the Normandy campaign. Hell’s Highway picks up the story during the ill fated Operation Market Garden campaign, which was the grand idea to win the German portion of the war by the end of 1944 by dropping paratroopers into Holland, presumably behind the German front lines, to secure a number of bridges and territory so that the Allies could land a proper armored force and have them drive straight to Berlin, with the Paratroopers dropping ahead of the main force all along the way.

Sadly the plan didn’t work the way it was intended, no thanks to poor Allied intelligence regarding the status of forces in Holland (Holland was where the Nazi’s had sent some of their most elite divisions for some recouperation) and also due to poor planning on the Allies part. It was, in short, an overly ambitious plan, and the boys from the 101st were stuck right in the middle of it.

While that is the overall setting for the story of the game, it’s really only background when talking about the actual story of Hell’s Highway. Unlike Medal of Honor, where you are just some random guy who gets drafted into the OSS, or Call of Duty where you are a different soldier depending on where you are in the game, Brothers in Arms tells an actual story worthy of your attention. This band of brothers is led by Sergeant Baker, a man troubled by a secret. He is the man you control during the game, and the story is told from his perspective, and as the game progresses he becomes more and more unstable as the secret weighs down on his conscience. The story in Hell’s Highway is so well developed there is even a sub story involving young soldier and Baker’s best friend in the outfit.

Control and Gameplay:

You are given all of this story so that you can care about the troops you command, because during the game you will be in control of up to 9 GIs. These soldiers are broken down into groups, or squads, of 3. Each squad is mapped to a direction on the D-Pad, with down being reserved for a rally on me command which only appears to work on individual squads one at a time.

So you are given these soldiers who will fight and die for you. And unlike past attempts in this genre, like Medal of Honor European Assault, your squads are actually almost competent. You order them to attack something and it will be attacked, if it meets the criteria set out for them by the programmers. This doesn’t mean they are perfect. You might order your men to attack from a certain position, and they can technically attack from that spot, but they won’t actually hit anything. And sometimes they may even say that they have no shot but will do nothing to fix that situation. Everything is left up to you. Fortunately your soldiers appear to have unlimited ammunition, so it’s not that crucial to place your soldiers correctly the first time. You can however find yourself accidentally sending your squads into enemy fire because you thought you were ordering them to a wall and the cursor moved all the way across the map without you realizing this. And your mistaken depth perception will have dire consequences for your soldiers, as neither they nor you can take more than a few rounds of enemy fire before dying.


You find out quite early on in the game that heroes are not welcome. Go charging into the line of enemy fire and you will most likely die. There is no life bar as such, instead the game chooses to take the Gears of War route by making your screen go various shades of red the closer to death you become. The game then does Gears one better by giving you two separate types of cover, “solid impossible to destroy” and “flimsy even a pistol can wipe it out”. Both have their uses but since your enemy likes to hide (and die) behind the flimsy kind, I suggest that you not make use of it for very long. You won’t be able to do otherwise. In fact when you combine the enemies choice of cover with your own soldiers unlimited ammunition, the game can be remarkably easy at times. If you have a bazooka team on the mission, just get to cover and order your bazooka team around the map blowing up enemies. It’s when you don’t have access to the high explosives that things get tricky.

The best way for me to describe how you command your troops would be to say it’s a simplified version of Full Spectrum Warrior. You press a button to bring up the command cursor and then move that cursor across the screen to where you want your troops to go or to attack. They will find cover if you send them anywhere near cover. If you place them out in the open they will let you hear about it.

Even though the AI is a very good shot in the game, it can also be quite blind and stupid. There is one point in the game where you are supposed to ambush a patrol of German soldiers, and if you simply stand and fight you will die. But if you run along the field in plain view of them without firing on them, they won’t attack, and will instead keep walking until you are ensconced behind cover and already giving orders to your team to fire.

Graphics:

In a game subtitled “Hell’s Highway”, you come in expecting a certain variety to the scenery you are campaigning in, and here the level designers do not disappoint. From pitched battles in the middle of a town square during a pouring rain storm to pitched battles in the picturesque Dutch country side, you will encounter pitched battles all over the place. But the best looking stage in the game is easily, in my view, the one they named the game after, “Hell’s Highway”. The level has you fighting your way along a highway strewn with wreckage, set at night, with fires burning all over the place.


Combine this with a cast of characters who are all identifiable and who look almost photorealistic and you get a very good looking game. But the developers didn’t stop there. They decided that to really grab your attention they had to make the bullets you fire be as realistic as possible. Therefore, like The Force Unleashed before it, when you score an interesting kill (like say a head shot from a distance, or if you should happen to be succeed at dropping a grenade in between some Nazi troops) the camera will zoom in and show you a very graphic representation of what happened. In the case of a head shot the back of their head will explode, in the case of an grenade the enemy will be sent flying one way while some arms and legs may be sent flying a different way.

Sound:

There appears to be a playbook when it comes to World War 2 shooters where music is concerned. Take your setting and add a symphonic piece of music. Ring up the band and let them fly. Start the drums, start them marching. This game is no exception, and like most pieces in the genre it sounds fantastic. The voice acting too syncs up quite well with the story pieces, and during gameplay there is a lot of talking and yelling from your character and those of your troops. They aren’t shy about expressing their opinions, these Brothers in Arms. Enemy soldiers too talk, though honestly I really only noticed them when they were yelling at you or about you to their compatriots.

Replayability:

There are three levels of difficulty in the game, with the final difficulty level, Authentic, removing all of the visual cues, like ammunition supply and your targeting reticule. This greatly increases the difficulty level in terms of aiming your weapons, especially when you are firing from cover. How well you can adapt to that will determine how much you can replay this game in single player.

Fortunately there is also a multiplayer component to the game. Connecting to Xbox Live you can join in teams of up to 10 players on either the Allied or Axis side, and have at it on a number of maps. Your team will consist of up to three squads of three soldiers, commanded by a squad leader who will basically play the game in a manner similar to the single player campaign. He can order soldiers across the map, and also call in recon flights and airstrikes. While playing the game I didn’t really start to enjoy it until I started playing as a squad leader for some reason, and some of the options for selecting weapons could be better thought out. Having to navigate to your preferences in the options is a really poor way to make people change from being a specialist to being a standard GI. Same thing for being a tank crew person. In addition the tank is just a team killing machine, and that’s before you start firing the main gun. Indeed, unlike some games, this one is clearly dependant on a great connection, as any kind of lag at all really takes away from the experience. Lastly, it would have been really useful if I could get out of the tank some how. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but I didn’t find it in my time online.

Balance:

Depending on the weapons load out of your squads, the various levels can range from easy to hard, depending on how you deploy and use them. If you happen to have the bazooka team with you, the level will probably be much easier than if you only have the two kinds of rifle teams. Later in the game there are some levels where you really wish you still had your missile team with you, but of course they aren’t handy for some reason. Also on more of a weird note, you can lose squad members to enemy fire and then get to a checkpoint only to discover that your squads are all back to full strength, good as new.


Speaking of checkpoints; At times I found myself thinking that the game could do with a couple more of them, as on occasion the game will present you with a difficult challenge pretty close to the next check point but no small amount of time away from last check point, and dying before you complete it naturally makes you trek through the entire level up till that point once again, where its not inconceivable that you will die again.

There are some issues within the game that make it harder than it needs to be at times, and it is often found while you are trying to get to cover. The game isn’t always willing to accept an item as something you can duck behind, and of course you don’t know this until it’s too late. Other times it isn’t even the entire object that is unacceptable, as maybe one edge of something isn’t useful but strangely another side of it just a foot or two away is perfectly fine. This can make for needless additional frustration.

Online is relatively balanced, with it’s smallish maps and evenly matched teams. The only thing that pushes the balance from even to uneven is when the offense gets a tank, but even then the maps don’t always hinge on what the tank does, you can easily counter what a tank does, and if it sits still long enough you can even drop an air-strike on it.

The difficulty really jumps when you move from Normal difficulty to Authentic. This is of course, somewhat natural since you are going from normal to hard, but it’s really more the lack of any visual clues, even when you are selecting your various squads, that makes it all the more difficult. I can’t imagine what some of the latter levels are like on Authentic. I just don’t want to picture them really.

Originality:

Well, we are once again set in World War 2. And this isn’t exactly a newly discovered campaign from WW2, so I can’t give it marks for that. I can say that it’s probably the best story I’ve ever witnessed in a WW2 game, as before now I’ve never even heard of a story in a WW2 game, so it gets points for that. I also don’t believe I’ve played a squad based WW2 game before, but this is a sequel so it’s clearly not the first. Even multiplayer isn’t exactly new, I’ve seen this type of game play before. Everything combined makes it an experience that came off as fresh for me, so I must at least give it credit there.

Addictiveness:

The more I played the multiplayer the more I enjoyed the multiplayer, so that must mean it has some addictive qualities. Single player is enjoyable but I’m not sure I can say that it’s addictive. Having played through it the one time I don’t think I see myself sitting down and playing through the campaign again. Had they made Authentic mode more user friendly (and I suppose, less authentic) it probably would go a long way to changing my mind, but as it is right now I’ve played it on the hardest level of difficulty I can where I am not going to get frustrated about having to use where my bullets land to judge how I am going to adjust my aim.


Appeal Factor:

If you enjoyed the Full Spectrum Warrior games you might find something to your liking here, as the game, while not as complex, certainly felt at times like that a game from that series. If you are a WW2 nut and simply have to play every game that comes out based in that time period, well then this one will be right up your alley. If you are a gamer like me who loves it when a game comes with a great story too, then this will certainly appeal, as this game seems to break new ground by actually providing a story in a genre deprived of it until now.

Miscellaneous:

Thinking back on the game play I did find it odd that not once was a grenade thrown my way by a German soldier. Not once. While I was driving around in the tank there were German rockets launched at me, but never did I even see a grenade thrown at me by my enemy. Perhaps that was so your precious eyes would never be subjected to seeing Sgt Baker’s arms and legs blown off. Perhaps, but I doubt we will ever know.

Additionally while I was playing online a number of people spoke of bugs in the game, but I encountered only the one, and that only lasted for a round. I’m not saying they aren’t there, but I can’t dock points from a game for bugs I didn’t encounter.

I’d also like to comment on the achievements, which I just found odd. Not what they chose to grant achievements for, but the decision to make some achievements worth nothing at all. I don’t see the point. Are they trying to say my achievement is worthless? Or did they simply already allot all of their 1000 points for the game and just didn’t care to go back and redistribute according to the amount of achievements?

Story: INCREDIBLE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: VERY GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ENJOYABLE
Balance: VERY GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: DECENT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary:

Unlike the campaign the game is based on, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is neither overly ambitious nor poorly planned and executed. Instead it is a solid game that deserves your attention. Yes it’s based on World War 2. But it doesn’t rely on clichés to advance the game and tells a very interesting story.

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