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Brother's in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

Brothers in Arms is one of the last remaining WWII game franchises, with the latest outing, Hell’s Highway, likely to be the last in the Brothers in Arms trilogy in general. As the series’ next-gen debut and a game that Ubisoft showcased three years ago at E3, Hell’s Highway had a lot of time and resources to get things right. By and large, the team at Gearbox Software did get things right, particularly with respect to the narrative and audio. But in spite of the extended development time — or perhaps because of it — Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway drops the ball in a few key areas, namely the squad mechanics and suppression system, resulting in a game that’s a fitting conclusion to the series but one that’s also an anticlimactic end.

Like the previous two games, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway follows the ongoing story of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II. In this latest outing, which is told essentially like a flashback, Sgt. Matt Baker and his squad are thrust into Operation Market Garden, one of the most disastrous Allied initiatives of WWII and a perfect place to end this emotional series. Faced with insurmountable odds and the emotional weight of the previous two games, Sgt. Baker and his men experience a bit more of an emotional roller coaster in Hell’s Highway, with a story that not only retells the story of Market Garden, but explores the evolution of Baker’s squad as human beings.

Hell’s Highway never forgets where it came from, which is one reason the game successfully delves into its characters’ emotions better than any other WWII shooter. However, because it leans so heavily on experiences in the first two titles, Hell’s Highway will also seem jarring to those who are jumping into the series for the first time, ultimately rendering the game much less emotional to series newbies than Ubisoft was hoping for. This leaves Hell’s Highway needing to stand out in an arguably tired WWII genre based on its gameplay alone. Unfortunately, it can’t.

To its credit, Brothers in Arms doesn’t rely entirely on the character-driven narrative; it also introduces some gameplay tweaks. The most notable — new squads and a new cover system — do spice things up a bit, but neither is particularly new or innovative. Maybe they were when Hell’s Highway was first shown three years ago, but not today.

The squad system introduced in the first Brothers in Arms is enhanced in Hell’s Highway by putting different types of soldiers at players’ fingertips. Now, Baker doesn’t just have access to assault teams, he also can command a fire team that’s great for providing suppressing fire and special-weapons teams such as bazooka or machine-gun teams, each of which are qualified to do away with entrenched enemies. In theory, anyway. In actuality, Hell’s Highway is much less like Rainbow Six than we’d hoped, as the new squads are almost never do much more than provide suppressing fire while Matt Baker goes off commando-style and does the killing thing. Heck, they don’t even obey basic commands that well, with squads often “taking cover” in the line of fire rather than behind a brick wall.

Good thing Sgt. Baker can take cover, which he can do now via a new cover mechanic called “digging in.” This mechanic is similar to the cover system in Rainbow Six: Vegas or Gears of War, as Baker can “attach” to a wall and aim at an enemy while still behind cover (which is now destructible). This cover mechanic can be a gameplay crutch at times, particularly at long distances, as some of the weapons have better range than they really should. When an enemy storms you, though, the cover system is anything but a crutch; it actually becomes a death trap. Unlike the aforementioned games whose cover systems are excellent, Hell’s Highway doesn’t let you “detach” quickly enough if an enemy charges, leaving Baker flailing about wildly as players struggle to get a bead on the incoming foe. The enemies seem to have a tendency to miss up close as well, so I suppose it’s a bit evened out, but that “balancing” feels more like a bad Band-Aid for a gushing gameplay wound.

Another gameplay crutch is the new suppression indicator, a meter that hovers over every enemy’s head to indicate whether he’s opening fire, reloading or suppressed behind cover. When the icon turns from red to gray, the enemy is suppressed and Baker (or one of his squads) can advance safely. This makes the game a bit too easy, though, because it devolves from a game based on reading the battlefield to a game based on reading little gray circles.

This is unfortunate from a gameplay perspective, but also from a graphics one as well, because Hell’s Highway has some great detail that often goes overlooked amid the game of “find the gray dots.” The character shadows and certain textures can seem a weak at times, but in almost all other regards the level of detail is remarkable, whether Baker’s inside a factory or doing battle on a massive field strewn with airplane wreckage. As a shooter releasing in 2008, it does lag behind the curve just a bit, but considering the game is essentially four years old (remember, it was a showcase game three E3s ago), it looks great. The audio, however, has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, particularly the voice acting. Hell’s Highway isn’t about to beat out Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty battle chatter, but when it comes to voice acting, it’s got the COD titles on the ropes.

Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway also includes a number of territory-based multiplayer maps, and on the PS3, the game supports up to 20 players. However, the gameplay is predicated on people actually working as a team, and as all online gamers know, that’s a big gamble. And, with Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2 coming soon to Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively, the chances of Hell’s Highway seeing a lot of online play time are slim.

Had Hell’s Highway released closer to its debut behind closed doors, Ubisoft would have clearly had a must-own title on its hands. With the game in development for so long, we had high hopes for it, even though we’ve been very public about our tiring of WWII shooters. After all, with that much time to polish the squad mechanics, AI and gameplay nuances, Gearbox would certainly have it nailed. Instead, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway feels like Gearbox got distracted somehow, letting some things drop through the cracks or, worse yet, tinkering with them too much simply because they had so much time to do so. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a perfectly capable shooter, but even though its historical detail is nothing short of astounding, the gameplay itself doesn’t do enough to justify a purchase in a fourth quarter filled with higher-profile shooters.

Check the prices for Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway for PS3 at Amazon.

Check the prices for Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway for Xbox 360 at Amazon.

Score: 7.5
Flawed squad mechanics and a crutch-like suppression system undo the game’s historical and voice-acting achievements.

— Jonas Allen

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