Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

It always seems that when developers sit down to work on a new first person shooter for the Xbox 360 they must think about doing something that's innovative and exciting rather than following the same tired old formula of which war to choose. Then, I imagine, they must reach a point at which it becomes way too much effort and then decide that World War Two still hasn't had every last drop of creativity squeezed out of it. Rather than drop innovation completely, they compromise and make the game ever so slightly different from what's already out there by adding a bit of tactical thinking to the mix – now it's just different enough so their game stands out but not too different that it can't ride on the coat tails of similar franchises. Thus, Brothers in Arms was born, but despite my negative outlook on the generic nature of combat shooters it does actually provide a few thrills.

Developed by Gearbox, the Brothers in Arms games have always tried to focus on the soldiers rather than the combat itself and the series takes great pride in telling us how these men lived through such horrific times. Stepping away from the normal run and gun tactics that you might have come to expect, these games instead focus on team work and storytelling to show how key events during the war were shaped by the men involved. It’s a novel idea and one that certainly provides a stronger sense of the relationships between squads who lived and died together. Despite that though the series has never lived up to the expectations of the gaming public and has seemingly been overshadowed by its more illustrious peers like Call of Duty.

Cover, suppression & flanking – all key to your success.

Easily the strongest part of the game is the story which is set against the backdrop of Operation Market Garden in 1944. The Allied plan to punch through into Germany and end the war in one fell swoop which backfired spectacularly, as they hadn’t realized that many of Hitler’s most experienced platoons were stationed in the vicinity of the highway they were trying to capture. Initial success soon turned to crippling defeat when the German’s got to grips with the incoming Allied troops leading to the last major Nazi victory. So from the off we know things are going to be grim, but it does set up a ‘backs to the wall’ scenario with the Allies doing all they can to escape certain doom.

You step into the weary boots of Staff Sergeant Matt Baker, who seems to spend a lot of time mourning his fallen comrades while trying to keep the current crop alive. At times you’d be forgiven for wondering what is going on, as events from the previous games are mentioned in such an off hand way that you are often left in the dark. Having not played those games I was left to fill in the blanks myself and it does seem a tad harsh to expect players to know how the squad had been shaped in previous conflicts. I’m sure returning players will welcome the nods to past exploits but it’s hardly welcoming to newcomers. That minor quibble aside though you’ll soon bond with your team and care about how the war is starting to impact on their lives (and maybe even their sanity). It deals with the war in an unusually sensitive and impressive way and is a far cry from the guts and glory story that frequents most other war titles.

For anyone familiar with Rainbow Six or even Full Spectrum Warrior, this game will feel a lot more accessible. Expecting to run headlong at the enemy and wipe them all out single-handedly will inevitably lead to certain death (yes, this happened to me) as the game is a lot more tactical than your average FPS. Instead you’re required to take advantage of every scrap of cover at your disposal and use your men to flank the foe while you distract them or vice versa. Considering certain types of cover can soon be reduced to rubble, you have to take down the enemy as quickly as possible while still keeping your men intact. You’re given command of a number of squads whose make up will vary depending on the situation you face, some teams excel at suppressing opposition troops while some just bypass the middle man and send a bazooka shell into the nearest hidey hole. Regardless of the men at your command it’s up to you to guide them effectively and use their talents to meet your objectives. Controlling your teams is pretty simple and you’ll soon get the hang of guiding them to where they’ll be most effective ... well almost. The only quibble here is one that seems to rear its head with alarming frequency in team based games like this, as sometimes the A.I. can be alarmingly stupid leading to your men running to the wrong side of specified cover or even not taking cover at all. Moments like these are incredibly frustrating and happen too often to be a minor annoyance.

When all else fails, blow stuff up.

It’s also worth noting that the enemy A.I. is hardly flawless either as it will sometimes stand around stupidly waiting for you to advance, or direct their fire at your team but somehow send a stream of bullets your way. Not to mention the fact you can sometimes be in cover with half your body still out in the open – and yet still be impervious to incoming fire. Strange glitches like these detract from the overall experience and really should have been sorted out. It’s also worth saying that despite the superb storyline, the actually game-play is of the rinse and repeat variety as you perform the same actions over and over again. It means that things soon become repetitive and you’ll just be going through the motions. Occasionally you will be required to go it solo but this just seems out of place rather than a welcome change of pace, after all this is a team based game so why shoehorn some solo levels into the mix? It feels more like a compromise to those people more used to relentless killing sprees rather than a valuable addition to the game.

The sights and sounds of war have never been so mixed either, with the highs of the soundtrack brought back to Earth by the graphical low points. The score is suitably dramatic and bullets get worryingly close for comfort, it feels like you’re part of any number of war movies and that can only be a good thing. Often you’ll know when things are about to get hairy as the music will rise as if in expectation. Sadly though it’s the visuals that let the side down as, despite the impressive slow motion effects when you score a head shot or grenade a number of enemies, things are pretty ropey on the whole. Explosions look suitably meaty and the ruined villages you fight your way through are also fairly nice to look at. The real problem comes with the flat textures present on most of the foliage and the annoying pop up that happens all too often. Coupled with the strange A.I. and the sometimes indifferent protection offered by cover, it soon becomes a bit much.

The aforementioned slow motion effects are also a sight to behold as headshots look satisfyingly brutal while the sight of a squad getting torn apart by a volley of grenades is joy to watch as limbs fly in all directions. The one problem the game may have though, is that it tends to happen too much and what was once a enjoyable novelty, becomes the same old repetitive scene, again and again.

As your squad grows so does the carnage.

Finally we come to the multiplayer aspect of the game which, for all intents and purposes, may as well not even be here. The maps on offer support up to twenty players but the options and variety never seem to justify that number. It also doesn’t help that the graphics further nose dive in order to support such a large amount of participants. It feels like yet another tagged on addition that was only put in there because it felt expected. While Xbox Live is a great service, it doesn’t exist to be used in EVERY game, perhaps the sooner some developers learn this fact, the better. As it is, you have the option of capturing flags or wiping out the other team and players are encouraged to fulfill a specific role within their unit, however, this doesn’t seem to have taken into account peoples ability to (how can I say this?) not be a ‘team player’, as in they bugger off and do what they like. Unless you have a like-minded team then you are going to lose patience very quickly.

The achievements here are a mixed bunch and the real surprise comes with the fact that the online offerings are all worth zero points. Some people will see this as a cheap shortcut but frankly it comes as somewhat of a relief as I’m tired of games putting in over the top achievements in a bid to get people online for months on end. If a game’s good enough then people will play it regardless and far too many developers put in shameless online achievements to prolong a games shelf life. The single player achievements can be grabbed in a single play-through as long as you take your time to find all of the hidden ‘collectibles’ scattered around. Giving certain orders and grabbing headshots and so forth also reap rewards. The major issue comes with the achievements requiring you to play for 7 days, once a week for three months and 100 days. Thankfully these don’t have to be consecutive but it’s still a major pain. Not to mention an achievement requiring you to play the game on September 17th – a novel idea but one that would require most people who bought the game at launch to hold onto it for a full year. Madness.

This is by no means a bad game and is even pretty damn good in places thanks to the squad system and strong story. However, it is just a bit too short and repetitive to really satisfy you and some parts of the game just feel tagged on to broaden the appeal, notably the solo sections and multiplayer. Hopefully this will be the starting point of a good series of 360 games but for now it’s slightly too bland to really warrant your attention. Rent it first and see if you enjoy yourself enough to justify a purchase.

The sounds of war are present and correct, almost uncomfortably so when bullets are zipping past your ear. Authentic weapons and some solid voice work make you feel firmly in the thick of the action.

Pretty decent on the whole but a few rough edges and inexplicable glitches let the side down in places. Not to mention the fact things take a further turn for the worse if you venture online, 20 players doesn't justify shoddiness.

A good team based shooter, along the same lines as Rainbow Six. Seems a bit dull at first but once you get into the swing of things you’ll be hooked. The team mechanics are easy to pick up and barring some annoying A.I work a treat.

A solid effort with great characters and a superb story, but it’s too short to really satisfy and I’m not sure you’d even go back for a second time. The online multiplayer is fun but until people lean to work properly in teams it just doesn’t really work as well as you would have hoped.

A good mix of single player tasks mixed in with exploration goals, plus all multiplayer achievements are worth zero which should please a few people. But their choice to make you play the game on 100 different days and keep it until September 17th for a full 1000 just seems badly thought out.

A good solo experience that is slightly held back by too much emphasis on the older games, a few other niggles also start to grate after a while and the whole game just doesn’t last long enough. It’s a good starting point for the franchise on the 360 though but it’s not going to displace the likes of COD 4 any time soon.

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