Dust off your medals of honor, duty is calling you to take up arms with your brothers once more. Despite the fact that most shooter fans have singlehandedly killed more Nazis in their gaming careers than were actually killed in all of World War II, the genre continues to go on strong. Typically, the Brothers in Arms games have been a hallmark of gritty WWII realism, and this instalment does nothing to tarnish that legacy. In fact, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is arguably the finest title in the franchise to date, despite a few missteps that stop the game from being the definitive WWII shooter.
While most WWII shooters have you running around shooting Nazis like you would pop-up targets, the BiA games have always focused more on actual squad tactics and a sense of realism. HH requires the player to methodically plan each step and firefight. When encountering an enemy, it is necessary to fix them in place with suppressing fire, and then flanking them from their exposed side for the easy kill. The game calls this approach the four F's which stands for fire, fix, flank, and finish. Even after three games, this approach to warfare has remained exhilarating, and HH will certainly test your four F's ability with a wide assortment of different urban and countryside scenarios. Knowing when an enemy team is suppressed is easy thanks to the suppressions meters above their heads. Red means they're not suppressed and grey means they are. This instalment is no different, even thought it takes a slightly different approach than its predecessors did.
In the last two games, you saw all the action entirely through the eyes of Sergeants Matt Baker or Joe "Red" Hartsock. While the game still follows their exploits, there is a much greater third person slant to the gameplay. In this regard, HH has taken a few cues from Ubisoft's Rainbow Six: Vegas series. Gameplay now seamlessly shifts from first person when walking about and aiming to a third person viewpoint when dug in behind cover. This change has both benefits and downfalls. When dug in behind cover, this view makes it easier to see your surroundings, and even zooms out further when issuing commands to your squad. While it makes the game a little more user friendly, this system also weakens the claustrophobic tension and intense realism that the strict first person viewpoint offered in the past titles. Also, when dug in behind cover you no longer look down your iron sights to aim. Rather, you simply zoom in with a set of cross hairs while maintaining the third person perspective. This is all well and good, except on the authentic difficulty, which does away with the crosshairs and suppression meters. Only being able to look down the iron sights of your rifle when not behind cover makes you an easy target for the Germans, and renders the authentic difficulty nearly impossible.
Also, the game has gone from a damage-based health system to a regenerating one. Some may like the change, some may not, but one thing's for sure, it makes the game a whole lot easier than it used to be. I personally wished that they kept the health system the way it was before, but your opinion may vary.
Thanks to some vicious enemy AI, the game will prove to be a challenge even on the medium difficulty. Your enemies will be using the same tactics as you such as trying to suppress your squad and flanking you. It also helps that they are all crack shots and even a few seconds out in the open means certain death for you.
Your squad is also quite able, but their AI is not quite as consistent as that of the Germans. They'll usually follow your instructions to the letter, but other times they'll run right into the line of fire instead of taking a safer route, or take cover on the wrong side of it. The biggest annoyance is when you have your squad following you after laying a satchel charge. If you have instructed your squad to stay on you, one or two will inevitably get blown up when the charge goes off, because they're too dumb to realise that standing near an explosive won't result in instant death. Whenever you're laying charges, make sure you've instructed your squad to hold a position a good distance away.
Throughout the game you'll be given command over various types of teams, including bazooka squads, base of fire teams, assault squads and machine gun squads. Every team is very useful in different situations, and it's up to you to figure out how to best use each team to their potential. Unfortunately, while you were able to command tanks as part of your squad in past games, the ability has been lost this time around. In any section involving a tank, you take direct control of the machine. The tank sections are at least a nice reprieve from the strategy in favour of simply blowing everything to kingdom come. As we all know, explosions are what make virtual war worth fighting.
The interface for issuing commands hasn't changed from the older games. Holding down the left trigger brings up a context sensitive command reticule. Point it at a location and your squad will move there. Point it at an enemy and your squad will commence suppressing fire. If your team is close enough, they'll start lobbing grenades. With your bazooka team, you can even instruct them to take out destructible cover.
In other regards, the controls are uniformly excellent. Aiming either from cover or from the iron sights is a snap, and never was there a moment I blamed death on the controls. Shifting from commands to your own actions is easy and intuitive.
HH offers a multiplayer mode, but to be honest, it's a pretty big disappointment. Gone is the awesome co-operative skirmish mode from the second instalment, and in its place we're given an objective based multiplayer mode that depends far too much on people playing the game right. Anyone who's expecting the average gamer on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network to play according to the rules clearly hasn't spent a lot of time online. Teams vote on a squad leader at the end of each round, and that squad leader can issue commands to the rest of the players. No one ever seems to listen to you when you're the squad leader, and runs off to do their own thing. Besides, who wants to take orders from some faceless guy online anyway? With a few like minded friends however, the multiplayer can still be fun.
As stated above, the game chronicles the further exploits of Matt Baker and fellow Sergeant Joe Hartsock as they make their way through Operation Market Garden. The game relies more heavily on cutscenes than the last games, and deals with more heady and mature themes than the last games. There are a few very cool plot twists, and in general the storyline is handled with style and grace that is unfortunately not all that common in our favourite pastime. The writing is almost always great and filled with believable characters and plot turns. However, the game is not very welcoming to newcomers, and the "previously on Brothers in Arms" segment at the beginning is likely not going to be enough to get newbies up to speed. Also, there are some occasional graphical glitches and awkward edits in some of the cutscenes which affect the emotional impact of the some of the cutscenes. The game ends on a pretty significant cliff hanger, and if my knowledge of World War II (via the Band of Brothers series) holds true, the next game will take place in the snow covered battlefields of Bastogne, Belgium, before wrapping up with the crossing of the Rhine River.
Aside from a few graphical glitches, HH features excellent presentation all around. The Unreal based graphics are gritty and realistic, with pretty detailed textures and good animation. There is also a neat cinematic gimmick that slows time down and zooms in whenever you blow up two or more Germans or make a sweet headshot. It's exciting for a while, but if it bothers you, it's easily turned off in the options. However, in a strange oversight, whenever Baker is dug into cover and an order is issued, his mouth and hands stay completely motionless. Aside from that little visual snafu, rest assured that this game will give your HDTV a good workout. The destructible environments and moving foliage in particular ooze quality and polish. The rain effects are some of the best I've ever seen.
On the audio front, HH is nothing short of sheer excellence. Everything from the quiet introspective moments to the deafening crashing of mortar fire, HH is a pure sonic assault that will make you proud of that surround sound setup. The uniformly outstanding voice acting completes the superb acoustic package. Only the repetitive nature of the commands sullies what would have otherwise been a perfect audio score.
I present a question to you, dear reader. If you're sick of World War II shooters, then that must mean you saw some value in the genre at some point. In that case, I implore you to give Hell's Highway a try. A thinking man's shooter, it just might rejuvenate your interest in the World War II genre. At worst, it will give you a good story and gameplay, not to mention a hefty challenge along the way.