Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Hands-On

Our first hands-on with Hell's Highway reveals signature Brothers in Arms gameplay with a handful of exciting new enhancements.

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Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
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In the crowded market of World War II-era first-person shooters, the Brothers in Arms series has carved a niche for itself on the technical strength of its squad-command mechanic and the emotional strength of its gritty, character-driven storyline. Last week we got a chance to play a not-quite-final build of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, and thus far it appears that developer Gearbox Software is sticking to its strengths. With the notable addition of new squad options, a slow-motion action camera, and vastly improved graphics, Hell's Highway is shaping up quite well.

The only thing that would make this scene prettier is a well-thrown grenade.
The only thing that would make this scene prettier is a well-thrown grenade.

The storyline follows the two protagonists from the previous Brothers in Arms games: Matt Baker (Road to Hill 30) and Joe Hartsock (Earned in Blood). At the beginning of the game, Gearbox treats us to a "Previously in Brothers in Arms..." segment designed to make sure that all players know the relevant series history. The central mission in Hell's Highway is to clear a stretch of road so that the Allies can move infantry and armor through to the front. When they discover that the area is saturated with elite German forces, they must fight to keep the narrow corridor from collapsing and preventing their retreat. As Baker and Hartsock struggle to keep themselves and their men alive, loose ends from the previous games will be tied up, and there will be no shortage of the dramatic and gut-wrenching plot turns for which the series is known.

The familiar mechanics of enemy suppression and squad command are back in full effect. Red circles above your foes indicate that they are on the attack, and laying down suppressing fire on them will quickly turn the circle gray. Suppressed enemies fire less often and less accurately, giving you time to maneuver yourself and your squad in relative safety. Squad commands are issued by pulling the left trigger and aiming to indicate your orders. Aiming at the ground will send your squad to that spot, and aiming at your foes will order your squad to hunker down and fire on the enemy. The familiar three-man assault squad can now be armed with a .30 caliber machine gun, and there's a new bazooka squad that promises to come in handy when, well, when is a bazooka not handy?

In a feature new to Hell's Highway, you or your squad can blow up any destructible cover that the enemy might be hiding behind. Wooden objects such as furniture, barrels, and fences can be obliterated with bullets or grenades (or bazookas), creating a wealth of new tactical opportunities. During our hands-on time, we destroyed tables to allow our squad unhindered passage to more solid cover, and grenaded an entire Nazi unit along with the white picket fence that they were taking cover behind. Grenade throwing has also been improved with the addition of a targeting radius that appears when you hold down the throw button, allowing for more accurate tosses.

Controlling your character works in much the same way as in previous Brothers in Arms games, with a few notable tweaks. Instead of merely ducking behind cover, you can now click the shoulder button to snap to the cover, or "dig in." Once dug in, you can fire around or over your cover by inclining the analog stick in the appropriate direction, and you can pop out by moving away from the cover or clicking the shoulder button again. There were a few times in our demo when we couldn't snap out or shoot around cover when we wanted to, but for the most part the mechanic felt well implemented. You can also sprint in a straight(ish) line, which is a handy new feature that makes advancing on suppressed Nazis or retreating out from behind a destroyed table a sight easier.

Bazooka squads make it hard out there for a Nazi.
Bazooka squads make it hard out there for a Nazi.

Should your cover be destroyed, you'll know you're in danger by the encroaching red haze on the corners of the screen. Gearbox was sure to point out that this was a risk indicator, not a damage indicator, because they said that in Brother in Arms, "Bullets are lethal." Fortunately, they are just as lethal for your foes, and when you pull off a particularly nasty kill, a new feature known as the action camera will engage. Time slows down, the view tightens on your enemies, and you see their deaths in exhilarating, gruesome detail. It's more akin to a live instant replay than to bullet time, given that it serves only to highlight a particularly skilled or deadly maneuver. On one occasion, we threw a grenade at the feet of two unsuspecting Germans, and right before the explosion the action camera kicked in. We watched in slow motion as their bodies flew into the air and three of their four legs detached at midthigh, landing a few yards away from their corpses. On another occasion, we sniped an enemy in the head, and the subsequent close-up showed skull and brain fragments exploding into the air. The action camera definitely livened up our play session, drawing hoots of grisly delight from spectators.

These macabre displays wouldn't be possible without the Unreal 3 Engine that powers Hell's Highway. Gearbox has been working on this game for more than two years, tweaking and customizing the engine all the while. The results are impressive, even in the unfinished build we played. The first level we played was set in a bombed-out hospital at night, where livid flames, drifting embers, and deep shadows created a grim, slightly eerie tone. Next, we watched a lengthy cutscene back at a British air-force base. The focus here was on character exposition through conversation and impressive facial detail. The stubbled, war-aged faces of the men were very expressive; clearly a lot of time has been spent to increase their ability to convey emotions through their expressions (and their peculiarly big eyeballs). The last level we played, Market Garden, found us fighting Germans in the Dutch countryside. Buildings, walls, and vehicles were richly textured, and the trees and grass looked verdant and alive. The Technicolor brightness seemed almost surreal, but the overall effect was beautiful and detailed.

We were able to confirm that Hell's Highway will include multiplayer modes, but all we know so far is that it will feature squad-based gameplay and dozens of player on each side . At present, the game looks impressive. The elements that have garnered praise for the series in the past are intact, and the new additions appear to be well-implemented enhancements. Check out the new trailer and screenshots to make your own first impressions, and keep an eye on GameSpot as we bring you more Brothers in Arms content as the August release approaches.

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