Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway looks set to carve a niche for itself in the overcrowded World War II genre. But Ubisoft and Gearbox's insistence on qualifying its historical accuracy is becoming rather jarring. We were recently invited to central London to meet veterans of Operation Market Garden, the battle that features prominently in the game. The ex-servicemen offered their personal take on their involvement in the turning point of the second world war, which was both fascinating and moving to hear. The problem is that the game wants it both ways--it clearly wants to honour the soldiers, but it can't help glamourising the act of war itself.
Take the first level, for example, where we managed to score a headshot on an unlucky German. The camera moves from the first-person perspective toward a third-person view of your victim, at which point the directors of The Matrix take over and frame the blood-splattering, cranium-popping spectacle in painstaking slow-motion detail. On the second level, the same viewpoint is used to highlight the damage of a grenade as the explosion sent the limbs of two soldiers spiraling off in every angle.
If you're not surrounded by war vets, though, Hells Highway looks like it will be a more entertaining experience. The game has great cinematics with the obligatory Band of Brothers/Saving Private Ryan cinematography, while the excellent tutorial mission eases you into the game's cover-based combat system. It's heavily based on the "find, fix, flank, finish" combat style actually employed during the war, which means you have to pin your enemy down and then attack from a different angle to finish him off. You can use your teammates in either the fixing or flanking role, but you need to fire at the enemy until the red circle above his head turns gray to indicate he's been pinned down.
We got to fight alongside two different sets of teams during the first four levels--regular assault squads that use rifles and a bazooka squad for more explosive support. Both teams are easy to command--you hold down the left trigger to pull up a cursor and then point to where you want them to go. If you point at enemies, they'll start firing automatically, but if you try to send them somewhere dangerous, they'll automatically take cover and fend for themselves. On one occasion, our bazooka squad simply refused to pop out from around a corner to fire at our target, but otherwise, the system seemed to work just fine.
One standout feature is the destructible cover, which really comes into its own at the beginning of the fourth level. You can hide behind fences, but the wooden planks break apart under rifle fire, so you need to keep moving. Sandbags are a more solid defense, but they can be completely destroyed with a direct hit from rocket fire. There's no health system per se, but if you're out of cover your comrades will tell you you're in a vulnerable position, and the screen goes red if you become too exposed.
Adding to the violence we talked about earlier, Brothers in Arms features some fairly adult themes. Your AI teammates argue or bicker, and we even heard a couple of strong expletives in the cutscenes. While using a windmill as a lookout point, we saw a young farm girl being dragged into a barn. When we got back down to the ground and went to investigate, we saw how she'd been strung up by the German forces and left to die. There was also a moment when we headed into town to be greeted by a vicar, only to see him get shot by the advancing Germans shortly after.
The graphics in Hell's Highway are impressive, with faces that are visibly scarred from battle, as well as character models that are detailed right down to the dirty fingernails and scratched-up equipment. One of the coolest ideas was the achievements system, which is based on the Kilroy illustrations that real soldiers made in World War II. Bored American infantrymen inscribed drawings on the side of buildings to show that they'd been there, and you can earn achievement points by finding them hidden around the levels.
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway looks like an interesting new take on the FPS genre. The game has been in development for a while, during which time many other World War II shooters have made it to market. However, the cover dynamics and team play differentiate it from such series as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. We've also yet to see the multiplayer game, which we hope will add longevity to the single-player experience. The game is due for release on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on September 26.