Daniel Golding
21 Oct, 2008

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

PS3 Review | It's World War Two, and surprisingly, it stands out from the pack.
We live in turbulent times. Economic crises come and go, and global warming lurks as a constant bogeyman for our entire future. Yet one thing is always certain. We will always have more World War Two videogames. The setting has, by this stage, well and truly established itself as a genre of its own - so much so that last year’s Call of Duty 4, in daring to set itself outside the boundaries of 1 September 1939 to 2 September 1945, came as a relief to many gamers. World War Two has seen everything, videogame-wise, from shooters to real-time strategies to flight simulators.

Brothers in Arms has been one of the more successful series in the genre, and largely because it’s different. Combining strategy with the ever-popular first-person shooter, with Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood, the series has been telling the stories of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. In Hell’s Highway, we have arrived at Operation Market Garden, the daring but ultimately completely failed attempt to capture the Netherlands and outflank industrial Germany.

The story is heavily dependent on player’s knowledge of the previous titles in the game, but that won’t stop you from seeing it as a major failing of the game. The voice-acting is all competent, the cut scenes are exciting, and the overall narrative engaging, if a little hackneyed. However, one key question has to be asked of the makers of Hell’s Highway: if they wanted to make a film, why did they make a videogame instead?

Is the cinematic flair best left to the cinema?

Is the cinematic flair best left to the cinema?
The first few cut scenes are interminably long. Okay, not Metal Gear Solid long, but it still takes more than five minutes to actually get into the action once the first training level has been completed. The biggest problem here is not necessarily that the cut scenes don’t add anything, or that they distract from the gameplay (both are valid criticisms, though not entirely true). It’s that this kind of thing has been done before in actual cinematic media. And it’s been done very well; namely, in HBO’s Band of Brothers TV series. Almost every cinematic aspect of the game has a counterpart in the Band of Brothers series, so it is a mystery as to why Brothers In Arms’s creators thought they would do well to translate it to videogame form, with the medium’s pitfalls of ghostly looking characters and odd disconnect between first-person play and cinematic cut scene. The game even has a similar theme to Michael Kamen’s memorable Band of Brothers melody, sharing the first five notes.

However, the number at the bottom of this review indicates that all is not lost with Band of Brothers, er, Brothers in Arms, and it isn’t. Comparisons aside, Brothers in Arms is actually a very strong World War Two videogame. This is because, as Eric Wolpaw suggests, games tell two stories: a story-story, and a gameplay-story. And in Brothers in Arms, we have an excellent, if not perfect gameplay-story.

This is the story of what war must be like. No, not the ‘we were brothers and we went through hell’ line that the game’s cut scenes would like you to believe, but instead a more experiential story that could only really be communicated through the medium of the videogame. This is what World War Two probably felt like, there, and then, without time to reflect on the horrors of the experience. Brothers in Arms is a lesson in mastering your fear and blocking out the hellish surroundings long enough to conceive and execute a plan to save your life.

Your team: the best part of Hell's Highway.

Your team: the best part of Hell's Highway.
Like its predecessors, Hell’s Highway is not a game playable in any Rambo-esque mindset. While most World War Two videogames consist of the player charging ahead and defeating as many enemies until his allies will follow (Call of Duty, I’m looking at you), the first thing you’ll want to do when the enemy is spotted in Brothers in Arms is take cover. The next thing you’ll want to do is not open fire with all you have, but consult your map. Geography is key in Hell’s Highway. Each battle is not so much a battle over bodies and lives as it is a battle over space and cover. Most of the time, players control two squads, and it’s the smart positioning of these men that will win and lose battles. Leaving your machine-gunner at the base of a hill while you and your assault team creep round from the side is a tactic that has to be learnt immediately in Hell’s Highway, lest you lose your head. Mentally marking out the best maneuvers is worth a lot more in this game than twitch accuracy.

This is where the game really shines. It’s implemented fantastically, and there is nothing so rewarding as setting your men up in a flanking move before ordering your bazooka troops to blow up the enemy encampment from the front. The cover system generally works very well, though there are a few instances where you won’t be able to see what you are shooting at through the switch to third-person. The suppression mechanic is also a great change from most World War Two shooters, with having enemies ducking for cover as important as actually landing the bullets. Round indicators appear above enemies, and indicate whether they are ready to flee or pop out and take a pot-shot. It works well, and provides a visual indicator of the status of the battle.

Unfortunately, and while improved markedly from previous Brothers in Arms games, the intelligence of both allies and enemies isn’t outstanding, and seeing your comrades repeatedly and mindlessly take a shot into a barrier ahead instead of moving a metre to the left to fire is as irritating as the enemy’s lack of tactics. Certainly, in contrast with previous games, Hell’s Highway’s enemies will respond to your movements and flee to more defensible ground, but more proactivity wouldn’t have gone astray. The game also occasionally, and regrettably, sends you on solo missions which aren’t nearly as successful as the squad-based gameplay is.

Geography and planning are more important than twitch shooting.

Geography and planning are more important than twitch shooting.
The amount of gore is interesting in Hell’s Highway, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But it’s all done with a point - World War Two should arguably not be remembered via faint-hearted means, and every kill-cam style moment of gratuitous gore brutally and almost crushingly reminds you of the destruction and death you cause. Some may complain, but we don’t believe this level of violence has been inserted for purely aesthetic reasons - anyone getting off on this stuff should seriously reevaluate the way they think about war.

The production values of the game are also a mixed bag. While some of the Dutch greenlands look terrific, dark areas and textures up close don't come up as well. Sound effects are of a very high quality and authenticity, and voice acting is good. The score is also good, if a touch overwrought and derivative. Online multiplayer is also included in the package, though it isn't a highlight. The single player experience is clearly the focus of Hell's Highway.

Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is a mixed attempt at something different for a war game. On the one hand, it’s a colossal failure as a storytelling vehicle, and merely serves to restate what has already been said in much better ways many times before. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating and ever-so-slightly morbid look at how battles are won and lost in the heat of the moment with tactics devised on the fly.
The Score
It's not essential playing, but Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway does offer an insightful and thoughtful take on the Second World War.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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5 years ago
This game series reminds me kind of sort of like a 3D version of Cannon Fodder, except without the fun and humour.
5 years ago
I'd give it a solid 8/10. Pretty good game. Not essential, but pretty damn good.
5 years ago
I did love this game - however found it to be quite short ... finished it in approx 8 hours...
I disagree with the review re the storytelling aspect - as a fan of band of Brothers - this was in the similar vein of storytelling which I enjoyed very much to say the least
8.5/10 for this from me...
5 years ago
I played the demo, was surprised how easily I slipped into it and was shooting nazis in no time. I'll give it a spin once I've finished every other game on my plate, so maybe 2012...
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  25/09/2008 (Confirmed)
Standard Retail Price:
  $109.95 AU
  UBI Soft
Year Made:

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