Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway Review
The FPS genre may be the most competitive in gaming today, which means if you come up even a little short, you will pale in comparison. This is what happened with Ubisoft’s latest installment in the Brothers in Arms series, which may appeal to the hardcore World War II enthusiast but can’t break through into the elite, finely honed category. Hell’s Highway does have a lot going for it, but at the end of the day, the graphical and gameplay glitches pile up, thereby forcing us to harp on the negatives and ultimately giving us a sense of incompleteness. We just couldn’t play for more than a half-hour without stumbling across a rather glaring flaw, and in retrospect, such drawbacks detracted from an otherwise entertaining experience. Furthermore, while it tries to blend team strategy with straight-up FPS action, we believe Gearbox should’ve just picked a style and went with it. As is, this is one game that could’ve used more polish and more time behind closed doors, despite a decent inherent fun factor.
Unfortunately, the graphics represent the low point of this particular production. While the particle effects and some of the character modeling can be impressive at times, the majority of this visual palette is both bland and lackluster. There are shimmering and aliasing issues during cut-scenes and times of hectic action, and while war is never supposed to be pretty, this is particularly subdued and muted. There are just too many browns and grays in our opinion, and there’s not enough detail in many of the backdrops that could’ve been quite effective. Honestly, we were hoping for something like Call of Duty, but instead, we get a title that skimps on the little things; the intricacies that separate the great from the merely average. And in contrast, the upcoming Call of Duty: World at War will probably show us what a WWII shooter should look like, so that’s more bad news for Brothers in Arms. It’s just a very erratic and unrefined graphical presentation, and for some reason, some of the character faces appeared downright creepy. Not good on the whole, but passable.
The sound is a lot better thanks to decent although uneven voice acting and some sharp battle effects. Too many of the different weapons sound too similar to one another, though, and many times, it seemed as if the battlefields were suspiciously quiet. One could argue that this added to the tension, but we just found it unrealistic and disconcerting. Still, a grenade exploding nearby and the cries of your teammates resonate nicely throughout your intense quest, and the soundtrack – as is typically the case in WWII shooters – is fitting and reminiscent of the time. Much like the graphics, we found the sound to be lacking in diversity and variety, but during periods of do-or-die action, this category rarely failed us. Although it goes unrecognized far too often, sound is crucial for any FPS, and it’s doubly crucial when we’re talking about a historic FPS like Brothers in Arms. For the most part, Gearbox got it right, but they just didn’t take the next step and provide us with a full, robust, well-rounded sound extravaganza; one where the player would say, “damn, this sounds awesome.” Yeah, that didn’t really happen, but it’s okay.
The very first thing you will notice in Hell’s Highway, especially if you set it to Veteran difficulty, is that realism and accuracy are at the core of the gameplay. Well, that was the clear intent of the developer, anyway. You can’t go gallivanting off without your teammates, pretending as if this is Unreal Tournament and acting like a one-man army, because this will result in a quick and unheralded death. Bullets hurt, and although we still have the fantasy recovery system – just hide for a bit and that bullet will somehow work its way out of your skin – you have to be patient and plan your attacks and defenses. This is the focal point of the game, so if you like the idea of taking control of a few squads and out-flanking and out-maneuvering those pesky Germans, than you might want to seriously consider a purchase. But we have to warn you: the shortcomings can come roaring up to smack you over the head, and you may regret the money you spent. We suppose it’s more a matter of personal preference and experience, though; if you don’t encounter all the hitches and mess-ups that we did, you’ll probably enjoy yourself more.
After playing through a brief tutorial and learning the basics, you will hit the European countryside and undertake a variety of missions. The controls work well and if you’re not happy with the Standard layout, you can try a number of different schemes by selecting them in the Options menu. One of the more important aspects of the control is the ability to “Dig In,” which is basically taking cover behind something safe by pressing L1. You can lean near a wall, crouch below a low wall or object, and after exhibiting a bit of patience, you can pop out and take your shot. You can’t just spray away; the realism comes into play and your aim must be true. Unfortunately, your enemies seem to have perfect pinpoint accuracy so you’ll likely waste plenty of shots simply because you can’t stay out in the open for more than a few seconds at a time. Furthermore, it was sometimes hard to tell if you had hit anything, as only the obvious headshots would tell you the mark was down. Of course, when the gameplay slows and shows you the gory headshot in all its horrific, bloody detail, you’ll realize your timing and accuracy was worth the effort required.
Yeah, there’s some definite gore involved, here. If you toss a grenade just right, you’ll be treated to another slow-mo sequence that shows the enemy flying upwards from the blast, limbs severed and blood spurting. That was plenty satisfying, but it wasn’t quite enough to keep the intensity at an acceptable level. After a while, instead of facing another onslaught of Germans with determined enthusiasm, we just got bored of trying to find flanking positions for any squads under our control. It’s not overly difficult; you simply hold L2, point to a spot, and release to order the squad to that position. You will have different squads under your command, and you can switch between the groups simply by pressing the Circle button. The good news is that each squad has its strengths and weaknesses; the Assault team, for example, is ideal for suppressing Germans. “Suppressing” is a word that you should become familiar with, too; when the symbol above an enemy’s head is red, he hasn’t been suppressed and can inflict serious damage. But if you pin him down enough, that symbol turns white and then he’s suddenly nowhere near as effective.
So essentially, your goal is to position your men appropriately, survey the landscape and the enemy forces using your Tactical Map, and simply attempt to push through German lines using both strategy and accuracy. Your allies aren’t stupid and if you’re suddenly ambushed, they will take cover without your orders. They’ll also take down enemy soldiers with useful frequency, although we were still annoyed that our foes were almost always more accurate than any ally. We don’t think much of the enemy AI, though – despite their marksmanship ability – as many times the last one or two Germans would just sit there and wait for death. Where is he…? Oh, he’s over there, just looking at me. Hmm… Then there are some collision detection issues as we were confident our aim was correct but no bullet ever hit the target, and tossing a grenade was easy, but it was sometimes tough to see exactly where the explosive would land. Zooming in for better aim by pressing the R3 button is a must, but as we said before, you often don’t have enough time for this type of thing. We had to rely on our team more than we wanted to, although we suppose this is another subjective complaint.
As for the story, it just seemed strangely paced, with forced dialogue and some confusing early scenes that didn’t effectively drag us into the plot. They just don’t do anywhere near enough with this aspect of the game, but at least there’s plenty to do out in the field. You can only carry one weapon at a time, which we found restrictive even for a simulated shooter, but by now, we’re pretty well familiar with the assortment of WWII weaponry. There was nothing surprising, but we figure that with a focus on issuing commands as the leader, Gearbox took some of the focus off standard FPS traits. Position, fire upon, ambush, and dig in to your heart’s content; if you’re a fan of military tactics and, at the same time, goin’ off on your own to inflict major pain every now and then, Hell’s Highway could be for you. But the technical glitches are just plain irritating, as there’s a lack of general fluidity and smoothness throughout. The online play offers up to 32 players on a map at any given time, but with something like SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Confrontation out there, it’s tough to recommend Ubisoft’s title for multiplayer fun.
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a decent WWII FPS that fails to separate itself from the pack but still offers some relatively accessible and somewhat realistic entertainment. Issuing commands to your squads couldn’t be easier, your allies are effective (for the most part), movement and control is fine if a tad slow at times, and the emphasis on timing, tactics and patience makes for a satisfying experience. However, the enemy’s sharpshooting, quirky AI that can make certain encounters comical, technical hitches that mar the playback, and a rather disjointed story drag the game down. There are many options out there that are better but maybe if you’re a war buff, you can forgive the shortcomings. Otherwise, we can’t recommend dropping $60 for a game that just comes across as, hearkening back to the intro, incomplete.
11/12/2008 Ben Dutka