Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway starts with a very long intro cinematic. It got to the point where we seriously started to wonder if there was going to be a game or if we should microwave some popcorn. However, the intros does its job in setting up the story, which is a fictional account of a platoon of American soldiers helping each other through the hardships of war. While there's plenty of action, bloodshed and explosions to go around - the characters and the bond they share is one of the most compelling aspects of the game. This is a huge achievement considering that many first-person shooter games, especially ones set in World War II's European Theater, are starting to look very much alike.
Players take the role of Sgt. Baker, a squad leader fighting alongside his friends and fellow soldiers through the fallout of Operation Market Garden, a large scale plan to open a pathway that would allow armored units to cross into Germany through the Netherlands. However, the operation was a bust. Germany's best soldiers were in the area and launched a counter-offensive. Allied soldiers left to defend the passage into Germany nicknamed the area "Hell's Highway." The game starts with the story's ending, and players spend the game reliving the days that lead up the intro's events. Some plot aspects are revealed in bits and pieces through flashbacks, so players will need to pay close attention to the cut-scenes to get any sense of what's going on. The story is engaging enough to keep us interested, despite a few gameplay issues.
As squad leader, players will command soldiers to take cover and use their special weapons (heavy machine gun, bazooka, etc.) to strategically win campaign scenarios. Soldiers can take care of themselves for the most part, but getting through the game largely depends on giving orders. Both players and squads can lay down suppressive fire, which is tracked by a circular meter above enemies' heads. Squads can safely advance once the enemy is suppressed, giving players the opportunity to flank opponents and take them by surprise. This method also gives players the option to come up with a variety of different tactics for almost any given situation. Destructible cover also lets players think outside of the box. Wooden fences and desks can be easily destroyed, so players can kill any enemy soldiers hiding behind them. Unfortunately, the system is a victim of its own success. Not everything that's made out of wood or seems flimsy can be broken. One example is furniture. One of our grenades landed under a couch and killed the Nazi soldiers hiding behind it, but the couch itself remained completely bulletproof and intact.
Veteran PC gamers accustomed to standard first-person shooter controls will most like have to remap many of the keys. Hell's Highway uses the space bar is both the sprint key and the command to vault over cover. Unfortunately, the character doesn't automatically vault over cover when holding down the key to sprint, so players will have to master the art of letting go and quickly tapping the sprint key again as they reach low walls to continue moving without pause. Other counter-intuitive control decisions include mapping the zoom/iron sights/scope command to the middle mouse button, which also happens to be the scroll wheel needed to change weapons, leading to many accidents. Lastly, the shift key is defaulted to changing weapons. Remapping solves everything, but the issue is reminder that the game is ported over from the console version and not necessarily designed with PC controls in mind.
However, controls aren't the main problem. Things go smoothly once players remap the keys to their liking. The most annoying feature in Hell's Highway comes from its checkpoint save game system. Firstly, players can't go back and replay certain sequences unless it was their last checkpoint. The only other option is to replay the entire chapter completely. Secondly, the system is a little buggy and will occasionally reload you into the wrong spot. In one instance, we lost our heavy gunner in an attack and reloaded to the last checkpoint to do better, but we somehow ended up alone inside a church later in the game, not knowing how we got there or what we were supposed to do. This kind of thing happened twice during the course of playing Hell's Highway.
Despite these difficulties, Hell's Highway still provides an excellent single player experience. The game goes into slow motion and zooms in on enemy combatants when players get in a head shot, showing off the graphic blood spray. Whether or not giving players the chance to revel in their own well-aimed head shot undermines game's "Brutality of War" theme is debatable, but it's fun to watch. Enemies can also be dismembered by grenades and other explosions, which adds a lot of excitement and realism, but also makes the game border on a splatterfest kind of shooter.
We wished Hell's Highway had more multiplayer options than its single Conquest mode and six maps. This game could benefit greatly from a cooperative campaign. Otherwise, the only replay value comes from doing the whole campaign all over again except at a higher difficulty. The "Authentic" difficulty is only unlocked after players beat the game, which removes all HUD elements from the screen (including crosshairs) in addition to significantly boosting the enemy's skill. There are also a few extras, like finding all the Killroys (some graffiti painted on the walls of every level) and completing them. This feature is probably linked to the Xbox 360's Achievement system, but PC players won't get anything except the self-satisfaction of finding them.
If you're looking for a good story and a compelling single player experience, and don't mind a few shortcomings or playing through the World War II setting yet again, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is definitely worth the while.
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