Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

A unique blend of battlefield tactics and first-person shooting make Hell's Highway more interesting than its familiar WWII trappings let on.

The significance of this gun won't be apparent to first-time Brothers in Arms players.
The significance of this gun won't be apparent to first-time Brothers in Arms players.
I'm as guilty as anyone for ragging on the ubiquity of World War II first-person shooters, but just because a game features an overly familiar setting doesn't make it a bad game as a matter of fact. Having not played any of the prior games in the series, I definitely came into Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway with expectations that this would just be yet another WWII first-person shooter, and was pleasantly surprised by the focus of the story and the unique and engaging squad tactics.

Squad dynamics are significant to Hell's Highway beyond just the gameplay, as the story of the game focuses almost entirely on the interpersonal relationships between your squad members. The game takes place during Operation Market Garden, but instead of grand and violent Saving Private Ryan set pieces, you get discord between officers, the burden of guilt over a soldier's death, and the resentment of being passed over for promotion. The game lays out its cinematic aspirations early on with a showy, Altman-esque tracking shot, and while there are some resonant moments, it's hindered by inconsistent voice work and characters that are difficult to distinguish visually.

The game also assumes that you've been following the Brothers in Arms series pretty closely, taking little time to introduce the characters or explain the events from past games, both of which end up playing significant roles in Hell's Highway. As a Brothers in Arms first-timer, I felt like I was watching the middle episode of a serialized TV series, though I think this structural choice for Hell's Highway might have actually worked to its advantage had the game come out closer to when developer Gearbox originally intended. The way it panned out, Hell's Highway is picking up the story three years after the last installment, which is less than ideal for episodic storytelling.

While I found the plotting in Hell's Highway a little uneven, the gameplay was incredibly engaging, largely because it's as much a strategy game as it is a first-person shooter. Playing as Staff Sgt. Matt Baker, you regularly command up to three squads of soldiers while simultaneously trying to take out some Nazis yourself. Trying to coordinate multiple groups of soldiers without getting your own ass shot off might sound daunting, but the game does an excellent job of acclimating you to its unique controls--which are themselves pretty intelligently designed--and the AI is actually pretty smart about not running headlong into obvious danger. When your men fall in battle, it's because of you, not iffy pathfinding.

Why shoot when others will do it for you?
Why shoot when others will do it for you?
Much emphasis is put on suppressing enemy forces with one squad, and then flanking them with another, a basic tactic that gets a lot of use over the course of the game, though with enough variation that it stays interesting. Your squads can have different specialties, such as a bazooka squad or an assault squad, and figuring out how best to use them in different situations is part of the fun.

One of my favorite things about Hell's Highway is the fact that you can spend as much time commanding your squads as you do actually shooting enemies yourself. I've played too many first-person shooters that feature AI-controlled companions who are little more than window-dressing, and I found having the option of getting through a skirmish without firing a shot myself to be incredibly satisfying. It's also the thing that makes Hell's Highway feel a little more authentic, since the inter-reliance of soldiers is a fundamental facet of military life.

The game peppers in sequences where you're on your own, away from your squads. While technically competent, these weren't my favorite parts of Hell's Highway. Even then, the game's pronounced cover system kept it from feeling too terribly generic. There are a few sequences where you get to take control of a tank, which is nice for the variety, but maybe not as much fun as wreaking havoc with a tank should be. Hell's Highway also features an online multiplayer component, but it's a fairly different experience from the single-player game, one that doesn't play to the strengths of the single-player game. You're still part of a squad, though real live squadmates simply aren't as dependable.

Hell's Highway is a World War II first-person shooter, but it's also a lot more than that. Gearbox doesn't nail every aspect of the execution, but it's unique enough to warrant a look, even if you think you're done with WWII.