Brothers In Arms Hell's Highway
Our verdict on Gearbox Software's anticipated FPS.
360, PS3, PC
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Like a canny teabagger rolling a grenade under the treads of a tank, Ubisoft has slotted its third Brothers in Arms game right into the sweet spot between the Force Unleasheds of this world and that no-man's land of triple-A releases that is winter 2008. There's still NHL 2009 and Disney's mud-plugging debut Pure to contend with, but Brothers In Arms Hell's Highway has the guns 'n'ammo genre all to itself for a few crucial weeks.
Which is just as well really, because once you peel away the rain-coarsened skin textures, destructible picket fences and ever so slightly shrewder Nazi AI, Matt Baker's latest outing reveals itself to be a four-year-old World War II shooter. Fortunately for Ubisoft, it also happens to be a decent four-year-old World War II shooter - long past its prime, but still good for the odd blood-curdling Christmas yarn.
Speaking of yarns, this one knocks your socks off at first but is eventually hamstrung by its own ambitions. Redolent by turns of the glossy Band of Brothers TV series and Spielburg's influential Saving Private Ryan, Hell's Highway charts the airborne invasion of Nazi Germany through the eyes of the aforementioned (fictional) Baker, a Staff Sergeant with the US 101st Airborne Division. The cut scenes have been lovingly put together, whether they're whisking you between mawkish fraternal exchanges or showering the lens with gore and shrapnel, but the big picture just isn't there. Too often you're left grasping at straws, booted out the tail end of a flashback with nothing but a new gameplay objective and a confused sense of patriotism. It feels a bit wretched to knock Gearbox on this front, as the developer has evidently given a lot of time and sweat to the narrative, but hey, y'know, this is war after all. The voice-acting is sterling stuff, at least.
At the heart of this stirringly-trumpeted franchise are the much-rehearsed four 'F's - find, fix, flank and finish. As the increasingly harried Baker, you have command of a couple of three-man units, ranging from all-purpose Assault to specialised Machine Gun and Bazooka squads. The idea is to locate the wily Hun and have one squad pin him down with suppressing fire, while sending your remaining troops scuttling out to one side to catch the poor blighter half-cocked. Each enemy detachment has an abstract little pie chart floating above its position: once the chart turns completely grey, that squad is fully suppressed.
Aside from the odd, feeble tank escapade or solo interior jaunt, the entire game is structured around progressively tougher variations on this theme: once you've mastered the basics, Gearbox has you repeat the trick under distant sniper fire, or head-to-head with a light artillery piece. The default first person controls go against convention somewhat - you slip into iron-sights view by clicking right stick rather than holding a trigger - but once you've acclimatised they're solid enough. Less flexible players will be glad to know that Gearbox has stirred in alternative control schemes corresponding to popular templates. We found the "Tour of Duty" and "Ring World" layouts most intuitive - did you see what they did there?
You won't get far without the tactical map, defaulted to the back button, which furnishes you with a terrain overview together with the locations of allies, visible enemies, your next objective and "reconnaissance points." (The latter are essentially very bookish Easter Eggs - stand on one and hold X to unlock a real-life WWII recon report.) Hell's Highway makes definite strides over its predecessors in this regard: enemies and allies are hot-keyed to the face buttons, saving you the necessity of scrolling to find them, clutter is minimised, and the icons themselves are more conspicuous.
Actually ordering your men into the fray takes place in real-time, however, so you won't be able to sit back coolly and watch your tactics unfold from on high. Each squad is mapped to a D-pad direction. Holding left trigger brings up a cursor locked to the centre of your view; to send your gun-toting farmboys somewhere, you simply aim and release (cue some excellent dynamic vocals). Gearbox has side-stepped tedious menu-shuffling by making the cursor context-sensitive: slide it over a fortified emplacement, for instance, and it'll morph into a little bazooka symbol. Tapping D-pad down orders your men to bunch up at your heels.