Reviewed: October 16, 2008
Released: September 23, 2008
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway has been in production for so long I canít remember which E3 it was when I saw my first demonstration. Then we had the developersí diary and teaser movies. By the time the game actually arrived I was able to delete several gigabytes of pre-release footage from my 360 hard drive. Normally, when something takes this long to get released it seldom lives up to the hype and anticipation that has been growing over the years, but this third installment in the Brothers in Arms saga does not disappoint.
Once again we follow the men of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, more specifically, Staff Sergeant Matt Baker. Veterans of the series will remember Matt as the guy we first met while jumping out of a plane over France. We join up with Matt and his company in the later stages of WWII during Operation Market Garden, just four months after Operation Overlord and the events from the previous games.
With so many WWII games being made itís always a wonder when the designers can come up with fresh and interesting material. Hellís Highway tells a very important story from a very important part of the war while dealing with the emotional ordeals of the young men thrust into these battles. In addition to Baker we also get emotionally attached to other characters like Hartsock, Corrion, Jasper, Connor, Holden, Dawson, and Paddock just to name a few.
The game touches on posttraumatic stress disorder with Baker suffering from hallucinations and Hartsock bringing up Bakerís ability to lead after witnessing one of Bakerís ďepisodesĒ. There is a great interpersonal story that is interwoven between the numerous missions that make up the story mode of Hellís Highway.
Built on the Unreal 3 engine, this latest Brothers in Arms game features all sorts of realistic physics and visuals that bring the horrors of war to life including a new camera system that will capture your best kills in slow motion. Youíll even get achievement points for performing these slow-motion kills.
The core gameplay hasnít changed and is one of the reasons I like this series better than Call of Duty and other WWII games. Brothers in Arms continues to offer a level of strategy that is unavailable in those other titles. Yes, it is still a FPS, but you also have the ability and the necessity to use your men to suppress the enemy while you flank their position. Itís not just a gameplay gimmick; itís a real-world battle tactic and a mandatory one if you have any hopes of winning this game.
Using a clever and totally intuitive command system you can order your men into various positions, have them fire to suppress, or charge and attack an enemy position. Ideally, you want to suppress their fire while you sneak around to the side or the rear and catch the enemy off guard. You still have the ability to take cover behind objects, some of which are destructible, and lean out or over the top to fire on the enemy.
The situational awareness mode from the first game, where the 3D world zoomed out to an overhead view, is gone. You now have a simple tactical map that shows you, your men, the enemy, and any recon points. This makes it easy to plan your flanking routes and engage the enemy.
The AI for both your men and the enemy has been greatly improved. Sure, your men will die, or at least go down, but they will always bounce back for more. The only time anybody dies and stays dead is when the script calls for it, and there are plenty of emotional losses before the game is over. The enemy AI can be brutal depending on the difficulty level you choose. Even on the normal mode you can expect the enemy soldiers to be quite aggressive and execute tactical flanking techniques of their own and stay safely behind cover.
With better AI and more realistic difficulty comes a new health system that borrows on the Call of Duty franchise. As you take damage the screen goes red and you will quickly die unless you take immediate cover and recover your lost health. On the harder settings it only takes two or three shots to kill you.
Much of the game is played as a team effort but there are several levels where you will need to go solo, such as when you are put in command of a tank. There are far more of these solo missions than in past titles. It doesnít really hurt the game but it does start to blur the lines between this franchise and the competition.
I also enjoyed the way the story was presented where you start the game about halfway into the story then flashback for several missions then suddenly you find yourself back in the very hospital repeating the tutorial level, only this time with subtle changes.
Hellís Highway offers a fun multiplayer experience with support for up to 20 players on some impressively large and complex maps. Sadly, the game modes arenít that clever and ultimately, the online experience feels like it was tacked on to make the Xbox Live crowd happy. The worst part is that nobody seems to be playing online and with World at War just around the corner, Hell's Highway will likely become a ghost town within a month.
Graphically, Hellís Highway is a solid title but definitely a notch or two down from its next-gen competition. This game has been in development since the final days of the original Xbox and in some instances it actually looks like an Xbox title with a 360 facelift, but the game shines when and where it counts Ė animation and environments.
The troop movements are excellent and the design of the uniforms with all the little bits of gear dangling off the belts is great. The ragdoll physics will certainly generate some pleasing results from a skillfully tossed grenade and you can still snipe the helmet off a soldier. Special effects are rich and dynamic with particle effects and smoke and fire and plenty of destruction. Body damage is brutal with dismemberment and bloody carnage and you have to love those slow-motion kill cams.
The audio presentation is flawless with an emotionally compelling score that would be worthy of any Hollywood production. Musical cues punch up the drama of the cutscenes and get your adrenalin flowing for combat. The voice acting is equally as professional with quality readings by all the actors for all the parts, both in cutscenes and even mid-battle where you can hear your men calling for cover while they reload or requesting new orders.
Expect a good 8-12 hours to finish the story depending on a few factors, the first being your difficulty setting. You may also want to locate all of the recon locations and Kilroys hidden on each mission map. Recon points arenít that hard to find since they are actually shown on the map. You just have to go there and activate them. Kilroys are drawings soldiers put on walls and are much harder to find, often well off the beaten path.
There are 43 Achievements, most of which are earned in a single pass through the game. Others require a dedicated online effort, especially ones that challenge you to play the game once a day for 100 days or once a week for three months. And probably the most creative achievement is the one awarded for simply playing the game on September 17th. See you next year. Sadly, with such a lacking online component, many of this multiplayer achievements will be harder to earn. They just arenít that many people playing the game online.
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway does an fantastic job of bringing all the intensity of war to your Xbox with a great blend of FPS action and tactical leadership, all the while creating and weaving an emotional tale of comradery that only a group of men thrust into the horrors of war can share. It might not be the prettiest WWII game ever made but war isnít supposed to be pretty. The story and gameplay cannot be beat and thatís what counts.