Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Update

Gearbox is firing on all cylinders with its third World War II strategy action game, which we finally got to see in action, for real.

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Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
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Don't you just love those "target render" screenshots and videos that come out, containing an artist's rendition of what a game is supposed to look like after it's actually been completed? Yeah, we don't either. But we do love it when the developer can follow up one of those trailers months or a year later with a playable game that does look quite a bit like that overly polished artwork. That's what Gearbox Software has done with Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, for which it released one of those flashy, overly produced trailers at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. After getting an impressive guided demo of the game itself from Gearbox's head and enthusiastic mouthpiece Randy Pitchford, we're more than willing to forgive the developer a little smoke and mirrors early on.

Hell's Highway isn't radically changing the game over the last two Brothers in Arms games--it's just subtly refining the formula that has worked nicely twice before, and it looks a lot prettier. We saw a sample mission set in Zon, Holland, sometime during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden's massive paratrooper drop. The mission simply tasked the player with crossing a courtyard and gardens surrounding a manor house--though the pockets of German soldiers entrenched in the area made that task easier said than done. Hell's Highway's new addition of a secondary bazooka team made for some explosive results, however, as Pitchford commanded his two teams to advance, flank, and take cover--you know, all the sorts of activities that Brothers in Arms' hybrid action strategy gameplay is known for.

Gearbox is adding lots of little touches to the presentation of Hell's Highway to make it more exciting. One new camera effect came into play when Pitchford tossed a grenade over some sandbags that a German detachment was hiding behind. The action crawled to slow motion as the camera zoomed in on the position, and the grenade exploded to send one soldier flying helplessly skyward. Pitchford says these moments won't be scripted into each level; rather, the game uses a set of parameters to determine when to engage the effect, from the kind of ordnance you're deploying to the number of times you've seen the slow-mo camera already (because it would lose its impact through overuse, after all).

The developers will also use all that next-gen horsepower for more gameplay-relevant modifications to the BIA formula. Much of the cover in the game is highly destructible now, and when we say highly, we mean previously solid obstacles like wooden fences will now afford you about as much protection from your enemies' hot lead as a paper bag. The game's physics engine allows materials like wood to splinter and break apart very realistically as you spray them down with your tommy gun. This capability was illustrated especially well when some soldiers hid behind a wooden cart for cover, and later in the demo when Pitchford used a mounted machine gun from a windowsill to utterly demolish a tall piece of sculpture located in the house's front grounds.

It seems that the game will lean more heavily on story this time around than in the past, given the insertion of in-game cutscenes that we saw during our demo. We're not exactly sure where the scenes fit into the overall plot arc, but once inside the house, the action paused to cut back to a number of flashbacks, and then toward the end of the mission we saw a slightly disturbing image of a previously seen character that we figure had to be the product of some battlefield delusion.

As we mentioned, Gearbox has pretty well met the visual bar it set for itself last year, from what we can tell. (Check out the trailer up top to get a better idea of how the game is coming along graphically.) To be fair, the game was running on a PC with unspecified but no doubt beefy graphics hardware. Pitchford admitted that the detail level may be scaled back slightly on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but the team is working to make all three games as technically similar as possible. The game will ship for both Windows XP and Vista, but it's undecided as yet if the latter version will support advanced Live for Windows features such as achievements.

We expect to see more of Hell's Highway at E3--including, hopefully, a demo we can get our hands on ourselves--so we'll bring you further impressions in July.

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