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Mixing squad based action with an involved and meaningful story makes Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway a unique World War Two shooter to play. With the emphasis on characters and plot rather than simply blasting through every Nazi soldier, the game had a weight and meaning not normally found in shooters. Even for newcomers to the series Hell's Highway shows that thought provoking narrative can be pulled off and mixed with intuitive combat controls. This is the most satisfying game of the series and one that surpasses all previous attempts in the genre.
It's easy to pour scorn on ‘yet another WW2 shooter' in today's videogame market. Ever since the first Medal of Honour was released we've had to put up with the same game being made over and over again. One franchise that's always tried to be a bit different is Brothers in Arms. Although an obvious extension of the Band of Brothers TV series, it aims to put the characters of your squad and friendship before the combat. In Hell's Highway I found that same sentiment carried on and given more depth than ever.
This third instalment of the series sees the game centre on one of the most audacious plans of WW2 - Operation Market Garden, which attempted to end the war before Christmas of 1944. As in the first game we're back in the shoes of Sgt. Matt Baker and the game kicks off with an impressive start.
The long, single take that introduced all the main characters in one go hit all the right nerves to draw me in.
After the first level I was treated to an extraordinary cut-scene that was more cinematic than I've seen before. The long, single take that introduced all the main characters in one go hit all the right nerves to draw me in. More than anything else it felt like the beginning of an epic film or mini-series.
Another positive is the squad management. It feels far more intuitive and natural than the older games and it soon became second nature to order my men to suppress, flank and assault. Although these mechanics never change throughout the game, and the levels are built more like puzzles than open-ended maps, it was still immensely satisfying out-thinking and out-flanking the Germans without actually firing a shot myself.
I could, of course, be a part of the action as much as I wanted to but as the game constantly focussed on working as a team any attempt to go solo left me dead in seconds. This built up a meaningful relationship with my squad-mates and I genuinely felt remorse when my orders resulted in one of them taking a bullet.
The reliance on my squad was made all the more evident when I had to go it alone. Most of these feel a little forced and unreal although it cleanses the palette after directing team mates for a few levels. With Brothers in Arms telling such an involved and military-authentic experience, it's a bit odd to suddenly have Matt Baker wander off on his own. It only serves to point out that Call of Duty does the single-soldier death machine game and Brothers in Arms does not.
However, this diversion is remedied by an outstanding level. Taking place in an abandoned hospital it's in dramatic contrast to the rest of the game. This level spooked me more than the first few hours of Bioshock with its lighting, the distant sound of shellfire and the growing sense of dread around every corner. Creeping around the abandoned wards gave me some really jumpy moments. As close as it comes to falling down the rabbit hole with the supernatural - it never felt unreal or out of place.
I really enjoyed the game's approach as it explored the more mental aspect of war and how the death of a comrade can affect a soldier in a dramatic way.
It's here I realised how exposed a single soldier is in war and highlights how ridiculous some other World War Two shooters are with their 'single hero saving the day' attitude. From this point the story gets a bit more esoteric with the appearance of a previous comrade haunting my character. Seeing his final few seconds from the previous game is either going to bring you out the experience completely or suck you in further.
I really enjoyed this approach as it explored the more mental aspect of war and how the death of a comrade can affect a soldier in a dramatic way. Having the enemy inside your own mind rather than the Nazi war machine is a welcome change and makes me hopeful for the direction of this series.
The game still falls down in certain areas with the core collection of characters never being able to die. Regenerating after every checkpoint reduces the weight of the combat and it's a shame this didn't carry over from the older games.
Minor flaws like this come with a game that's been delayed so many times, but its overall storyline is excellent and worth playing to the end. If you thought World War Two had been overdone then Brothers in Arms should show the gaming world that it hasn't. There are plenty of real stories left to tell and important issues to bring up. Just as long as the narrative wins over the combat then the series still has some wonderful potential.
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