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We go back on the road to war with our brothers in the 101st Airborne Division to find out how war has ravaged them since 2005...
If Medal of Honour: Frontline was the Saving Private Ryan of videogames and Call of Duty the Enemy at the Gates, then Brothers in Arms is surely TV's Band of Brothers. With two previous BiA games now to build upon, Hell's Highway's extensive (and at times over indulgent) cut-scenes have a distinctly episodic feel, extrapolating on the characters from previous games as well as the storylines that surround them. While the previous two games focused on World War II's Operation Overlord, Hell's Highway takes place during the latter Operation Market Garden and the invasion of the Netherlands by the Allies.
Similarly to Earned in Blood and Road to Hill 30, Hell's Highway puts the FPS emphasis on strategy. This now happens almost entirely through the FPS interface, with little if any strategic importance being placed upon the map (other than waypoints and objectives). It's a strange decision to downplay the level map's importance this time around, especially as its RTS elements worked so well in the previous games. As a result, there's no longer a separation between strategy and gunplay, leading to a game world that's cluttered with constant decision making responsibilities.
Commands are issued to your teams with the left trigger. This brings up a reticule that can be dragged around the environment, telling your squads to either take cover in a certain position or fire on it (the icon is context sensitive to different objects and soldiers). It works well enough as long as you want your teams to remain close, but directing them further away than 10 or 20 metres in the game world gets a bit fiddly, particularly as the reticule doesn't move over walls or through tight spaces particularly well. The same can be said of a similar reticule system for throwing grenades, creating problems when you want to lob one over cover or through a window for example.
As with the previous BiA games, there's only one route to sure-fire success, which is paradoxically taking two routes through a map. Flanking is the name of the game, using one of your teams to pin down enemies through the main channel of fire and then finding an alternate route around the side of this channel to take the pinned down Nazis by surprise. A few variations on this are thrown into the gameplay as things progress, such as 88 artillery guns that need to have charges placed on their rear ends, but it's the same principle at heart. It's all very well having the odd flanking moment in an FPS game, but basing most of the action on this tactic does become tiresome pretty quickly.
When you're not flanking, you'll spend most of your time pinned down in cover. This soon dissolves into a FPS game of whack-a-mole, ducking in and out of cover as your adversaries do the same and waiting until the opportune moment to nail a headshot. If the AI in Hell's Highway had been a little bit more dynamic then this cover system could have worked quite well, with Nazis constantly pressing your position so that fire fights don't turn into a stalemate. This is something that games like Gears of War do very well, with the Locust Horde always advancing on you and flanking where possible. Hell's Highway's enemy NPC's are pretty static though, remaining nested behind sandbags or walls in a pretty scripted manner until you manage to dig them out.
The AI's faults don't end here though, as pretty much all of the sections we encountered seemed to have degradingly noticeable scripting. A couple of the areas we passed through were just painfully obvious ambush set-pieces. The Nazis didn't notice us, even though we were standing up in the clear light of day a few feet from them, until we passed a certain point in the environment that triggered them to burst into action. The ambush moments were pretty useful for tallying up some kills before the monotonous whack-a-mole standoff began, but having them so obviously served up on a platter takes away from the reward of nailing them unfortunately.
So, it's repetitive a tedious, but this monotony falls into Groundhog Day proportions due to the game's health system. As with the previous games, the health mechanic is quite unforgiving (to ensure that gamers flank and use cover), but this also means you end up dying quite a lot. Even taking a couple of hits can send you to the edge of Hell's Highway's bleed-out health system, which leaves you twiddling your thumbs in cover while the red dissipates from your screen. As a result, completing some sections does require a few attempts on occasion, but when you're faced with such unchanging AI scripting on each attempt you'll soon become frustrated. Completing these areas becomes less a challenge of finding an intelligent solution, and more a case of simply finding the right cover points and knowing where the next squad of Nazis will come from.
Hell's Highway also throws the odd level into the game where its protagonist, Sergeant Matt Baker, is left by himself without the usual support of a couple of three man squads. Sometimes he'll be followed by just one soldier, but there are even occasions where Baker is left completely stranded. These just don't work at all with the previously mentioned cover and health systems. Gearbox has gone out of its way to put the emphasis on strategy and squad commands, so why the developer decided to take them away on some levels while leaving you with the same assortment of entrenched Nazis is beyond us.
The use of Epic's Unreal Engine 3 in Hell's Highway is average at times and worse at others. Character models come out as they should do with the UE3 technology, but the textures on some of the environment's buildings and objects can be pretty underwhelming. It's a mixed bag in this sense, although we did find the game's gore technology to be a little over the top for a World War II game. Occasionally, a well placed grenade or crack-shot would send the game into a zoomed in slow-mo of the resulting death/deaths. We saw limbs blasted off with a snapped bone protruding from the wound, or even a dead body with half of its head missing. There's a clear line of respect when you're dealing with real-world conflicts in a computer game, and Gearbox has definitely over-stepped it on this occasion.
As a World War II game, Hell's Highway offers the usual mediocre classical score for its backing music, which is bland and forgettable across the board (we've actually already forgotten it). However, the voice chatter system between Sergeant Baker and the rest of his troops is actually quite advanced. You'll issue commands to your squad in Hell's Highway more than the vast majority of other squad shooters, but considering this we didn't spot too much repetition in the chatter system's lines of dialogue and, at the very least, it didn't become grating.