Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway (Xbox 360) review
"It's the story of a group of men who just happen to be in in the middle of the world's most brutal war. It pulls no punches in sending them through hell."
A few years ago, the staple joke us cool reviewers could always fall back on was just how bloody overused World War II was for a video gaming backdrop. Though it started its slow decline at the start of our current generation of hardware, it didnít want to let go easy and tried to throw up one last hurrah before Modern Warfare: Me Too became the next big thing. It spat out one last solid Medal of Honor, pre dodgy reboot, and it offered up the third Brothers in Arms game, Hellís Highway.
Itís a shame the IP has been more or less forgotten since Hell's 2008 release (with the series even rumoured to head into campy Borderlands-like multiplayer FPSing) because the amount of work laid into the title is often staggering. Complaining hecklers long in memory will recall the amounts of promises lavished upon the game during development that went unaddressed, such as enemy forces trying to drag away and help their injured, or true-to-life gun swaying impeaching accuracy. And itís true: these things are missing. That sucks. But that the entire game is modelled almost exactly on the Dutch villages and battlefields that made up the little slice of allied failure that was Operation Market Garden? Thatís pretty awesome.
Quick history lesson, kids: Operation Market Garden was a hugely optimistic push by the allied forces to end the Second World War by Christmas 1944. The basic idea was to drop a large force in occupied Holland, take over a bunch of bridges, make Axis forces retreat back to Germany, then use the newly-won route to pour in support until victory, cakes and tiny flag waving erupted. It didnít really work; it was, in fact, Nazi Germanyís last big victory over the allies. They werenít able to gloat about it for long, but thatís a tangent for another time.
In the midst of this doomed battle, you take command of Matt Baker and his recon platoon in a surprisingly cerebral slice of warfare. Here, instead of fighting the obligatory one-man war, youíre a platoon leader not just by name, and have underlings to order towards a glorious death! Unless youíre more protective than me, in which case, youíll use them to provide covering fire, suppressing enemy positions allowing you or well-ordered chums to sneak around the targetís flank, and inconvenience them with bullets to their soft, unprotected underbelly.
Most levels come down to a series of objectives that you slowly inch yourself towards, scooting from points of cover while you hope your menís constant gunfire dissuades enemy interest. Sadly, a lot of these objectives stack up on themselves; for instance, youíll find yourself destroying a lot of heavy gun embankments where you have to clear an area of enemy support, and then plant a satchel charge. Usually, youíll have the full support of your team, but some areas do their best to make you feel more vulnerable. Manage to make it to one piece to an occupied church, and only you and one ally can sneak inside to try and smoke out a sniper. With your access to differing funnels of firepower effectively castrated, it's with a real sense of dread that you sneak between bullet-ploughed pews while gunman from the galleys take annoyingly accurate pot-shots at your head.
All-out battles with you controlling up to three fire-teams remain a chaotic blast. While most three-man squads are equipped with machine guns and hand grenades, the heavy weapons team can lug either a massive mounted machine gun or a bazooka around with them. Many battles therefore concern keeping them alive long enough to position correctly, then watching the world burn under their onslaught. These slogs get almost everything right: outside of open battle, your orders are whispered and your men creep into position. If they spot an enemy before you, theyíll tell you, hold their fire, and wait for orders. In the midst of battle, orders are yelled to carry over the gunfire, men scramble for cover, following your orders, but taking the shots and precautions necessary to get out of the situation alive.
The men even matter because, at its heart, Brothers in Arms titles are about advancing a story of camaraderie amongst soldiers. The men you command arenít faceless, soulless, bullet magnets existing solely to distract the enemy for a few seconds whilst you leg it to safety, but everyday people thrust into Hell. Gary Jasper is my favourite; heís named the Bazooka heís forced to lug around Stella in honour of the girl he left at home, and constantly complains about how he has to carry the heaviest load, balking at the suggestion that anyone else has it hard. Heís sarcastic, he's the first to make an inappropriate joke when the mood turns dark and, of course, it helps that he blows shit up for a living. None of these traits are forced down your throat; the platoons are just people and, assuming they stay alive long enough, youíll learn the subtle nuisances of their personalities if you're interested.
Some have a harder ride then others. Sure, some die; thatís rough, but Matt takes each death on a very personal level. He has for the previous two games, also, and Hellís Highway, set against a backdrop of wasted life, lingering failure and overwrought disaster, is where it all starts coming to a head. Hell's Highway comes equipped with a recap of the previous gameís bullet points (heh, bullet Ė get it?) and Matt has to battle to keep his slight grasp on reality throughout. He's haunted by the past and unrealistically demanding that everyone survive a campaign falling apart at the seams. Much like the war echoing around him, itís a battle heís losing.
Itís the focus thatís put on the little people fighting the war and the more tactical warfare you need engage in that makes the Brothers in Arms series feel so different from the uncountable legions that have strapped on jackboots and quick-marched in before it. Hellís Highway certainly glams the series up a little with slow-mo zoom-ins registering particularly gory or explosive deaths, and a little less emphasis has been lent to the technical foundations in order to accommodate some of the running and gunning. The latter point might sting long-time followers, but the lack of any real multiplayer support won't. It's not that kind of game; this is the story of Matt Baker, the men he has to watch die, and what his desperate attempts at keeping the rest of them alive is doing to him. I'm not going to pretend I didn't roll my eyes the next time I had to blow up another Howitzer, but I pressed on. I wanted to know what happened next.
Then the exodus hit and ol' WWII just wasn't hip anymore. I count that as quite the shame if it means that Barker's journey will never get its conclusion. It doesn't have multi-national conspiracies or satellite-guided missiles,and it certainly has no airports full of innocent bystanders, a semi assault rifle, and high hopes for pretentious payoffs. It's the story of a group of men who just happen to be in in the middle of the world's most brutal war. It pulls no punches in sending them through hell.
I'm not about to tell you that's not enough.
Staff review by Gary Hartley (August 24, 2012)
Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.
More Reviews by Gary Hartley [+]
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