The Brothers in Arms series has always sat on the more niche side of gamers preferences, due to its blending of strategic, tactical gameplay fused with more traditional action features. Some gamers really don’t feel the team element in games and prefer to be that lonesome hero who rushes in and saves the day single handed to rapturous applause and praise. Well Brothers In Arms, as the name implies, has always offered both elements to the player, yet the onus and the way the game is best experienced is when utilising the game’s squad element. With Gearbox’s latest game in the series which sees a return of the characters from previous games, is the blending of squad based World War II action with your run of the mill shooter, enough to capture the hearts and minds of all gamers? Has Gearbox actually toned down the squad element in favour of accommodating the run and gun crowd, or is Brother in Arms: Hell’s Highway a breath of fresh air amongst a sea of copy cat gaming experiences on Xbox 360?
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway or BIA:HH as it will now be referred to as, tells the story of the US troops fighting in Holland during the latter part of WWII. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the story, because aside from the actual combat situations you get in and out of, this is a major factor of the game and I’m not going to spoil it for you here. Rest assured, the campaign that is based from operation Market Garden, will put you and your squad through your paces in an intricate and worthy story to keep you engaged from prologue to conclusion. The real essence of the game and what really makes BIA:HH stand out from the crowd of shooters is it’s tactical approach to combat. Think a slight variation on Ghost Recon’s combat style and you’ll be close to what is on offer here.
You control a character named Baker throughout the game, although at two points you’ll command a tank by another soldier. As Baker, you are pretty much free to move around as you please, although due to the heavy story based nature of the game means that you’ll be following a set path throughout. You’ll be gradually introduced to your rather lively squad and as the story progresses, you’ll be granted more men under your command. At the end of the game you’ll have three fire teams under your command which makes for a decent sized unit.
The basic premise of the combat and the inclusion of the squad mechanic, is that as a single unit you’re going to be the focus of the opposition in that they will rain bullets and whatever else down on you until you’re killed. The screen glows red and gets more intense the longer you are exposed. It’s to simulate the fact that if you keep your head stuck out for too long, you’re going to be an easy target. If you don’t find cover when the red screen is at its most intense, then you are killed. The game uses a cover system whereby you’ll be able to hide behind things like sandbags, fences and other inanimate objects, and pop out and shoot at opportune moments – which in turn reduces the red screen, allowing you to pop out and aim once more. Although some cover like wood can be easily destroyed, and so being careful of where you are is crucial to any fire-fight. On lower difficulty settings it’s quite easy to time your moments and take on the Germans pretty much single handed, however the command aspect and utilization of the squad becomes paramount to success when engaged with tougher opponents and situations. With your fire teams, you are able to issue them orders, such as move to a location (you use a cursor in real time and point to the desired location) where they will move and take the appropriate cover. You can then order them to fire on specific targets; again this is handled by using a cursor in real time which you hover over your desired targets. With the one fire team at your command, what usually happens is they will shoot at the targets continuously, forcing them to stay within cover and preventing them from exposing themselves too much (this is indicated by a red/grey icon above them). This means it becomes difficult for them to target you effectively and thus allows you to spend that little more time aiming to get a precision shot, or move around to another location to flank the buggers.
Flanking is a big part of the game and so with a fire team pinning down the opposition; the level design is such that there’s often an alternate route you can take to get the bead on dug in foes. Again, you’re able to branch off on your own, or take one of the teams under your command with you for some back up. It’s the positioning of your fire teams that really makes the difference with each encounter you face. As I already mentioned, it is possible to ignore the fire teams and treat the game just like any other shooter; the controls are the same in that you can zoom in, take cover, reload sprint and even hop over low objects. Yet you would be missing out on the core component of the game and losing the essence of being a squad leader. I found it pretty satisfying to send a bazooka unit one way and an assault team the other way, and have total control over who and where they were firing at from my comfort zone away from German sights. It’s this dual play style that is an interesting facet of the series and if you grasp it with both hands you’ll have a far richer gaming experience. There are times in the story where you’ll have no choice but to get your hands dirty, but for the most part, you can have some real fun seeing how well you can command your loyal followers. Luckily, checkpoints are pretty frequent which means if you do screw up, you won’t have to go back too far.
BIA:HH relies heavily on its AI and for the most part, the team AI is pretty decent. They’ll do as they are told more often than not, and do a good job of getting into cover when ordered into a location. However, at times they are perhaps a little too obedient and will gladly run into the line of fire without a care in the world. The enemy AI is a different kettle of fish, and although the Germans will dig themselves in, alternating between popping out to shoot and ducking back under cover again. The focus seems to be on your player despite not being the biggest threat. There’s also a distinct lack of grenades being tossed about as this would have made the game that little more intense, with the air of unpredictability added. The combat seems very rigid, in that it almost follows a predetermined routine. The Germans will move around if their cover is destroyed or your fire team gets close, but for the most part, you’ll be aiming at distant enemies who like a fairground shooting attraction will offer themselves to your bullets in an on/off fashion.
The graphics are a mixed bag, because in some instances the game looks amazing, with some great lighting and attention to detail, especially on the character models. However, on closer inspection, you’ll find the graphics aren’t as great looking during actual play. Things like foliage that looks pre this generation and some textures that could have used a bit more spit and polish dampen the experience. Then there are things like the dreaded texture loading which happens frequently. I appreciate that this is a subjective issue, but it’s still something noticeable and has plagued games like Mass Effect also. For me it’s something that doesn’t really bother, however for many gamers this is an annoyance they would rather not be subjected to when paying £40 for a game.
On a brighter note, I really enjoyed the action camera moments, where the game would enter slow motion for a moment, to show off a particular well placed bullet to the head. I was on occasion tempted to shout out loud “Boom, headshot” although luckily I refrained from doing so, to save being embarrassed by my own “nerdyness”. These action moments had been hyped to show the gruesome reality of war, but really just reminded me of the old gib effects from games like Unreal. It’s over the top and probably so for dramatic effect, yet at the same time a welcome addition to spice things up and to remind you that you’re playing a video game.
The sound is of a high standard in terms of the actual combat, such as gun fire from the authentic weaponry of the period, to the ambient background sounds of war. However the voice acting felt pretty lame for the most part, with only a couple of instances that sounded believable and engaging enough. For a game so heavily based around characters and their story it’s disheartening when the audio doesn’t gel together with the action well enough. Some of the voice cast sounded wooden, as if no real feeling was placed in their performance, which is a shame because there are some decent moments of dialog.
The game’s single player can be beaten in a couple of days of relaxed paced gaming, There are 9 missions to battle through, and although of reasonable length, on the default setting, I found to be a tad too easy. I think most shooter vets will have an easy time of things. There are some hidden extras to find, such as the hidden Kilroys and recon points; yet these are optional extras that grant little other than an achievement and some background info on the market garden campaign. The game offers an additional Authentic difficulty to mess around with once the game has been beaten on default setting, and this provides a little more extended play as most of the HUD is removed, making combat a little more challenging.
BIA:HH offers a attack and defend multiplayer mode, which to be honest felt a little tacked on. With the huge numbers of online games now available to gamers across many games, unless your multiplayer is something really special, it’s not going to stand out at all. I got that feeling from BIA:HH multiplayer, and with zero points achievements associated with it, I doubt it’s going to prove a very popular mode once the game has been around for a few months.
The single player portion of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, is most certainly a respectable foray into the trials and tribulations of the US forces in WWII. Although the time period has been featured in a number of games already, the method of controlling fire teams is a welcome inclusion. I must say though, that whilst playing there was an distinct air of familiarity over proceedings, with my mind often wondering how many times have I stormed this church in other games and this street/field feels familiar. I honestly cannot remember the exact missions from the past games in the series, but I have a hunch that a lot of ideas have been borrowed from them, hence the familiarity. I like the idea that gamers can adopt their own play style and tackle the Germans as a lone hero or as a team, but for those gamers who are after another COD type experience might be a little disappointed with the relative slow pacing on offer. For gamers, looking for a tactical experience then, games like Rainbow Six Vegas and GRAW still offer the best moments on Xbox 360, but as an addition to their ranks, BIA: HH is certainly worthy of a place on the roster. If you like story driven shooters with a tactical edge then I’d say this game is well worth a look in, however if you are after a long experience that you’ll savour for years to come, then I doubt this game is going to offer you that.