Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway finally gets it right. What right, exactly? The story. Gearbox’s third entry into their innovative (I’m being serious here) tactical WW II shooter tells a gripping, emotionally resonant narrative that really might conjure tears from the more sensitive. There’s a weird trade-off that comes with this, though. For all the improvements in storytelling, the tactical gameplay that was so prominent in the first two games is significantly downplayed. The game attempts to find a compromise between straight shooter and authentic squad-based tactics, but the results are somewhat mixed. Still, Hell’s Highway is by far my favorite out of the three and almost all of that is attributed to its excellent and heart-wrenching tale of Matt Baker’s road through the hellish fires of war.
The first two Brothers in Arms covered the initial invasion of Normandy, but Hell’s Highway jumps several months into the war and starts right before Operation Market Garden. This ambitious plan had one singular goal in mind – end the war with one, massive strike right into the German heartland. If you’ve read up on the outcome of this operation, you will know Baker and his men are in for a lot of pain and emotional duress.
That’s why Hell’s Highway is so powerful from purely a story perspective. Baker’s emotional trauma is handled expertly as he slowly starts to crack, because of the losses that start piling up. This isn’t just Baker’s story, though; his men also get some nice character development. Soldiers like Red and Corrion play significant roles in Hell’s Highway, and the emotional ties between Baker and the two creates some interesting drama. One instance in particular is absolutely gut-wrenching. Just thinking about it gets my eyes all watery.
Of course, execution of the narrative is critical, and Hell’s Highway handles it deftly. Cut scenes are long and compelling and contain superb cinematography and editing and develop characters. The writing still has a few cringe-worthy lines, but it’s generally great, and the voice-acting is nearly perfect, with the exception of a few soldiers. Compared to the first two games, Hell’s Highway is a revolution in storytelling. Compared to video games as a whole, Hell’s Highway is compelling drama, and it stands as one of the, if not the, best story in a World War II game, ever. It’s just that good.
The story is good enough to nearly make the game’s deficiencies irrelevant, but only nearly. The main problem child, and this a big one, is the gameplay. In general, Hell’s Highway is one, huge step back from what was established in Road to Hill 30 and expanded and honed to a fine point in Earned in Blood. Hell’s Highway tries to eschew a more action element into the game, while attempting to retain the fire and maneuver tactic that was so prevalent in the first two entries.
The series has always emphasized the four Fs: Find ‘em, Fix ‘em, Flank ‘em, and then Finish ‘em. It was such a core, fundamental tactic that was the crux of the gameplay and what really separated it from all the Medal of Honors and Call of Dutys. You had a two-man squad, one for suppressing and one for assault, and it worked brilliantly. Firefights required more than twitch shooting, and tactics were essential. Hell’s Highway drifts away from this.
How? Firstly, a full-blown cover system. It basically works like any cover system you’ve seen ever since Gears of War popularized it. It’s a fine gameplay element, but for a series that prides itself on authenticity, it’s strange that most of your time will be spent in a third-person perspective, because digging in to take cover is required to survive. Having so much situational awareness from this view is, well, bizarre for the game, because it just doesn’t seem like something that makes sense in terms of realism. A first-person cover system would have been a better choice and, if handled well, could’ve made such a gritty and authentic series that much more gritty and authentic.
The second problem is the fine-tuned aiming. Whereas the first two games made it tough to a draw a bead on a German, Hell’s Highway treats accuracy as any other shooter. If you’ve drawn your sights on the enemy, he’s dead once you pull the trigger. Again, for any other shooter, this is a basic, important gameplay element, but with Hell’s Highway, it further deemphasizes squad tactics. Combined with the cover system and the tuned aiming, the game starts to play a lot like Rainbow Six: Vegas or even, to a certain extent, Gears of War. The result? Hell’s Highway gets derivate.
Gearbox seems to be aware of this shift in gameplay priorities, because the level design is way more linear than what was present in the open-ended fields of Earned in Blood. Some areas have little to no room for any real flanking maneuvers, which either means you’re going to take pot shots or tell your bazooka team to wipe every single enemy off the battlefield. The AI on both sides is more than able of providing fun, tactical battles, but Gearbox doesn’t allow them to do on many occasions. Something even more shocking are the brief one-man missions, where you’re left without a squad. These take about around an hour of the game’s time and such wasted time it is, because these levels really do turn Hell’s Highway into another WWII-shooter and nothing more. Something even more shocking than that? One-man tank vehicle levels where you take control of a tank and blast through German armor all on your own. It’s ridiculous.
Still, there are indisputable improvements, like destructible cover. It is a fairly integral gameplay element, because weak cover, like wooden fences, can easily be destroyed, forcing you or the Germans to find a better position or die. The new health system is the same auto-regenerative system that’s used in 98% of all shooters, but it is presented in a realistic fashion. As more and more fire is concentrated on you, the screen turns into a harsh crimson, until a bullet finally makes its way into your internal organs. In essence, it’s the same health system we’ve seen hundreds of times, but the game presents it in a way that is sensible and does not betray the authenticity for which Hell’s Highway still strives.
Gearbox hasn’t said much about its multi-player, and it’s easy to see why. In theory, the multi-player sounds great: A squad leader takes control of his squad mates, who are also controlled by humans and hopefully takes whatever objective is present. It’s like an awesome co-op mode. The problem? No one listens to the squad leader. Mutiny and disregard of orders are common, as other players will have their own agendas. Hell’s Highway’s multi-player will and probably has found an audience of dedicated players willing to actually work togtether, but as a whole, the game’s multi-player is flawed because of the amount of trust Gearbox puts in the player. Can’t blame them for putting so much faith in us, I suppose, but it is what it is.
On the other hand, Gearbox has been touting Hell’s Highway’s graphics and justifiably so. Soldiers are extremely detailed, and the game isn’t afraid of getting a close-up of the character models during the cut-scenes, because boy, it is hard to not admire the finer details up close. Environments look great, especially those rare instances when weather effects are put to great use, but foliage doesn’t look so great, putting a damper on levels that are dense with it. The game makes nice use of color, especially in the latter levels, when a hue and tone of a level starts to represents the state of Baker and his men. Overall, Hell’s Highway is a great-looking game and probably could’ve been considered one of the best if it actually hit its first release date.
WW II games are generally known for having a strong audio component, and Hell’s Highway is definitely not the exception. The epic orchestral score rarely appears, but when it does, it sends chills – absolutely superb. Sound effects pack a punch, from rata-tat-tat from your Thompson to a shell-shocking AA round. Voice-acting is generally great, with the exception of Courtland, who sounds way too wooden and green. Audio issues are technical in nature, the most obvious being squad mates repeating the same voice clips. Problems aside, Hell’s Highway has a very strong audio component.
Clocking in at around 10 hours, Hell’s Highway provides tons of drama but brings with it some new gameplay elements that don’t mesh with the series philosophy. Admittedly as a straight shooter, Hell’s Highway is competent – and sometimes great – in this regard. Most of my problems stemmed from how Hell’s Highway was drifting toward something more shooter-centric, because that wasn’t what the series was always about. Seeing Hell’s Highway as just another, well, game, it’s a well-built shooter with some interesting squad mechanics that are useful from time to time. Now that Baker’s story is reaching the tail-end of the war, it’ll be interesting to see how the dramatic shift in setting will affect the next game. Until then, any fan of the series should pick up Hell’s Highway without hesitation, even if the gameplay won’t play out as expected.