Saturday, 4 October 2008

Review: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-20
Publisher: Ubisoft

Got the t-shirt.

Literally. It came free with my copy of
Gearbox's latest tactical WW2 FPS; a game I've been pretty pumped for since... oh at least 2006! When it came in the mail it was one of those childish moments I seldom experience nowadays. Like a geek, I 'prepared' myself before settling in for a hardcore night of war gaming. How? By watching Saving Private Ryan and eating Pringles, of course.

I can't be bothered to type
Hell's Highway every time so from here on in this one's called Highway. I had a feeling Highway was going to do something special. Three years of development would surely ensure one hell of a game? You would think so, and you would be right to think so, for Highway delivers. There are a plethora of issues here though; most being minor, a few being major.

I'm going to be blunt here. Quite simply,
Highway is without doubt one of the finest FPS games I've ever played. It's also one of the very best WW2 era shooters put onto a disc. As war games go, this is a high point. However, it's a flawed game and some of its rougher elements are plain embarrassing for all concerned.

Highway is all about the single player experience. Forget the multiplayer. It's optionless, laggy, played by about 35 people, and blatantly just an afterthought. There is no party mode, clan system, or any sense that it's going to be a hit. It feels like the old days of online gaming and reminds me of early builds of Day of Defeat as opposed to a Cod 4 rival. This is a shame. I wasn't expecting a great deal from the team deathmatch mode but was hoping for co-op. Highway is just one of those games crying out to be played with a friend. Why it didn't make it into final code is a question I don't think anyone has a satisying answer for. The best I've heard is something about how 'we' are just not there yet as an industry. Well, surely we are? With Cod 5's 4 player co-op on the way and countless other games managing to include some form of co-op mode in recent years there basically just isn't an excuse. It was obviously on the cards at some stage of production but just never happened. Frankly, this is just embarresment number one.

If Highway had just been a generic romp of an FPS game I'd have been utterly pissed off with the fact the multiplayer side of things is just pants. The thing is this: what Highway does well it does so well that I, for one at least, can just forgive and forget. The experience this game puts you through feels like playing the very best bits of
Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Now I know that just sounds like a gaming cliche' nowadays, and I'll admit I've said that before about much older titles, but here I just cannot emphasise it enough. However, the bug/omission list goes on.

There are all sorts of blemishes with
Highway that could/should have been ironed out before release and considering the length of time it took to make, and countless delays, it just makes no sense that they exist. One particularly striking issue comes with the way your character's mouth doesn't move when he is yelling out a command to the squad. When in the third person cover view this is very noticeable and just takes away some of the sense of it being real and cinematic. All we needed was a mouth movement animation! Also, why can't you chose your kit before each stage? I wasn't impressed by the way this game assigns weapons to you. It's odd because you never get to use some guns, such as the Grease gun, at all. It's also rather bizarre how you can't pick up German stick grenades. They don't seem to be modeled at all. This is a shame as it would have been nice to have more than one type of explosive. I also wanted to try out the bazooka and .30 caliber MG for myself. There should also have been some form of melee attack, a rifle butt atleast.

There is no animation for attaching charges to Pak 88s either. You just hear a click to acknowledge the bomb is set. I died the first time I primed a field gun because I literally just didn't realise I'd done anything and didn't run for cover. I was also unimpressed by the way death of squadmates is handled. They never die! Instead, they fall and writhe in pain only to respawn at the start of a new checkpoint. The
Cod system should have been adopted here. I would liked to have seen some form of pool of reinforcements who run into the fray every time a soldier falls. A medic would have also been a decent inclusion, and a sniper team. Stuff like this would have made this an absolute masterpiece of a game as opposed to a very, very good one.

This brings me to another problem. Only in one level near the end do you get to play with a full squad at your disposal; being 3 teams of 3 guys. I wanted far more of this earlier on. However, the early stages were still stunning in every other respect and that's the thing about
Highway. Its successes are solid enough to negate the f*ck ups.

What Highway does is something no other war game, besides former
Brothers in Arms titles, has ever come close to: depicting combat for what it really is. Skirmishes can be long, drawn out affairs where you find yourself flushing enemies out of barns with grenades, pinning down an MG42 position with sustained covering fire, or even just getting so confused and battle weary that you lay low in the bushes and hope for a positive outcome. Blood spatters the ground where dead bodies rest in the grass and grenade explosions raze sandbag placements and create billowing craters in the earth.

Combat just feels authentic. Sometimes you'll just see red and feel a burning desire to assault all guns blazing. It never works out though. You rely on the men around you, your squad, and the skill is ultimately in leading them through it. Here are a few things you simply MUST do in order to get the full experience with this game: 1) Turn off every on screen HUD element. 2) Crank that effects vol all the way up. 3) Set the controls for 'tour of duty' - the FPS controller layout God intended. 4) When it's unlocked, you owe it to yourself to play in the 'authentic' difficulty setting.

With these pointers in mind, you'll get to experience a true simulation of WW2 era squad based combat. This is not a game that has you single handedly defeat a reinforced armoured battalion. Nor is this a game that puts you in the shoes of some godlike hero of warfare. In fact, Sgt. Baker is in some ways an anti hero. You're a dried up soldier in no mood to do much besides get through it.

The story is adequate without being particularly memorable I would suggest. My biggest gripe was the way British troops were acknowledged but in that antiquated way certai
n Americans just can't leave alone. I do wish Gearbox had just accepted the fact years ago that games cannot mirror television when it comes to portraying character. The cutscenes are overly sentimental and seem to be aimed at a pro-war, go America, gun demographic that doesn't really exist anymore in any great number and probably are mostly just too busy watching re-runs of BoB to play games anyway. That or they're dug in deep in Afghanistan right now.

The battle dialogue that can be heard during gameplay between squad mates could have been better too. It's good and quite varied but I just wish it had been even more varied and, well, just done by much better voice artists. There is often a lack of emotion in the comments you hear and not enough swearing. It's that simple. I really wanted to hear yells of "this son of a bitch" and "fucking flank that bastard" during intense moments of swell. Occasionally you do hear some realistic dialogue but it's just not as integral as it could have been.

The last level of Highway is a big anti climax. It's another 'to be continued' moment. I can live with that though because I want far more of this game. A factor I struggled to accept at first was the way this game tries to go all mystical on us. The initial in medias res level is a poorly handled introduction to the game as it simply fails to do anything besides throw you straight into the combat without any sense of a build up to the action. Later, we are once again forced to play through a sort of dream-like sequence in an abandoned hospital. You are split up from your squad and end up wondering through hallways whilst marvelling at the impressive visuals. The atmosphere is fantastic and certainly rivals moments from fully fledged horror games such as Fear and Bioshock. However, it just felt a little out of place. This is a realistic war game. It tries to be more than that and just shouldn't.

The eastern village moments are few and far between compared to the constantly challenging and genuinely realistic scenes where you are in the thick of it. I wasn't that amazed by the tank combat though. It felt like
Medal of Honor, enter the evil nazi shooting gallery, territory. During scenes where you take on enemy tanks as infantry you also get the sense that realism goes out the window. For a game striving to be realistic there is no excuse for these old school moments where you defeat panzer tanks via satchels and rocket launchers instead of just avoiding them and calling in the P-51s.

So much that was promised simply hasn't made it into the game. For instance, enemies do not 'trip up' or help one another to safety if wounded. All of these elements simply failed to make it into final code. Also, civilians play no role whatsoever. There is also no true sense of comradeship with your men. I never once 'exchanged ammunition' for example. At its core, it's not much more than the previous
Brothers game. It just takes those original premises, such as the find, fix, flank, finish game mechanic, and gives them a serious overhaul.

Highway offers is a humble simulation of small scale skirmishes. No other game I have played comes close when it comes to just capturing that sense of real combat. Inclusions such as the action cam are simply brilliant. It slows down the action and zooms in on your well placed headshot or grenade hurl. Sometimes it can seem so real that you actually feel ill at ease with the results. The gore is grim and bloody.

Highway is a game I know I am going to play again and again. If it had co-op this would be an absolute high point in gaming. I'm not sure why it took so long to make, although I get the sense the PS3 may have been a seminal factor, but on the whole this is a brilliant game. When you're pinned down beside a log by enemy fire, hearing the whizzes of overpassing tracers and seeing the dirt hit your face, you will be about as close to war as you're ever going to get within the comfortable confines of your armchair.


+Fantastic visuals, sound, and atmosphere
+Genuinely realistic and tactical
+A WW2 game for the more mature gamer
+/-Which has no co-op mode
-What? No co op mode? Ya rly! No wai!
-Vomit inducing story

9.0 / 10
A seriously intense, realistic, and mature war game

by The Critical Alien
© 2008


Anonymous said...

good review. So many people said this game was average but as far as I was concerned it delivered what i wanted -- realism and mature content.

Anonymous said...

Cod 5 will be better - 4 player co-op!

GamesReview UK said...

Close the door behind you.