Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway Review - 09/10/2008

They are brothers, they have arms. Now watch them get blown off.

Here we are again. Another FPS set in WWII. Have the last few years taught us nothing? Actually, they have, and with that knowledge under his belt Randy Pitchford and the team at Gearbox Software return to familiar territory wielding some fresh ideas.

Like the best soldiers, the Brothers in Arms series just doesn’t know how to quit. Starting life on the Xbox with Road to Hill 30, Sgt. Matt Baker and his squad have recreated many famous WWII-era battles on a number of machines including the PC, DS and even N-Gage. The reason for such lastability lies in a novel and authentic core game mechanic. While titles such as Hour of Victory as well as EA’s dithering Medal of Honour series seem to have worn the traditional run-n-gun gameplay down to the ground through sequels that were fundamentally unchanged from the one that set the mould all the way back on the Playstation, Brothers in Arms’ mix of the tactical and visceral has commercial and critical success truly flanked.

Chalk its achievements so far down to military advisor Col. John Antel. Without him, clueless developers would no doubt still assume the second world war was played out by a handful of super-charged Americans with magical medikits, recoilless weaponry and the token silly-voiced Brit (the war needed light-relief, after all). Luckily, Gearbox has such people on its payroll and the game is a lot better for it.

The ethos of the game is the same as before, steeped in historical accuracy.

The key principal you’ll utilise in each and every fight through Hell’s Highway is the flank. The only way to progress, much like soldiers did all those years ago, is by using one fire team to ‘fix’ German troops in their positions while you covertly sneak round the side and ‘finish’ them off. Inching your way through lush French countryside or clawing a hard-fought path through a rain-soaked village is given gravitas and punch this way, and rather than becoming a repetitive novelty the method matures throughout the game as you inevitably become quicker with the control scheme and smarter with your orders.

And you’ll need your smarts in the campaign; both to play the game and to appreciate the drama unfolding around each man and his gun. If you’ve never played a BiA game before, story-wise you’ve picked a hell of a sticky time to get involved. Though your main mission’s clear – secure a route known as ‘Hell’s Highway’ through German-occupied France and be home by Christmas, lengthy cut scenes where soldiers unfold tedious emotional baggage to each other slow up what would be a dramatic campaign in its own right. In particular, your man Sgt. Baker - a man fraught with visions of the men he’s lost under his command - comes off a tad more emo than commando, and instead of this giving the game emotional resonance as Gearbox would have hoped, it just feels stiff and uninteresting. Besides, if players wanted a fully-fledged war opera, Band of Brothers is available on DVD.

Hell's Highway, naturally.

Riveting street battles between your various different teams and the entrenched Germans are also disrupted when Baker embarks on solo excursions. This just isn’t Call of Duty, and the developer’s decision to treat the player like a teen with ADD by supplementing the core action, though good-natured, is misplaced. Treading your always painfully linear path through a Church, toyshop or hospital does offer you a chance to come in from the cold and admire Gearbox’s detailed, authentically war-torn interiors, (there is one absolutely scorching escape from a burning, quickly crumbling house midway through) but HH is inevitably at its best doing what it does best, not skirting around it.

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