The first two games in the Brothers in Arms series distinguished themselves among the crowd of WWII shooters on the strength of their smoothly integrated first-person squad control and gritty, moving portrayal of a band of Allied soldiers. Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway sticks to these strengths, and commanding your squads through Nazi-occupied territory is more thrilling than ever thanks to the vibrant, beautiful scenery and the brutal, exhilarating action. Sergeant Baker (your character) and his squad are all nuanced, sympathetic characters, though the story doesn't quite live up to the promise of its protagonists. Despite a few irregular beats, Hell's Highway is an exciting, intense shooter that is sure to quicken your pulse.
This go-around finds Sergeant Matt Baker and his crew carrying the memories of their fallen brothers and welcoming replacements into the fold. As they get set to drop into Holland as a part of the ambitious but doomed Operation Market-Garden, you meet the men whose lives you will be responsible for. The story isn't so much a narrative as it is an exploration of the relationships between soldiers; it's a mature look at the way bonds can be forged and broken in the emotional furnace of war. Through engaging cutscenes and lively battlefield communication, you'll find yourself developing an attachment to these characters. Many great moments, both comic and tragic, resonate with an admirable emotional clarity that unflinchingly evokes the turbid reality of war, where triumph and tragedy walk hand in hand.
Unfortunately, some of these potentially great moments will fall flat if you're not well acquainted with old characters like Leggett, Allen, and Garnett. Hell's Highway often tries to lean on emotional pillars created by traumas from the first two games (both released in 2005), but the "previously on Brothers in Arms" segment isn't solid enough to support these references, and the framework crumbles a bit as a result. As the game progresses you'll gain the knowledge needed to prop up these references; this makes a second play-through more appealing, but it's a shame this understanding isn't established earlier.
Once on the battlefield, your comrades become potent weapons at your command. Hell's Highway offers a tutorial on the proper way to manage your squads, and you'd best pay attention, since going it alone will get you into trouble in a hurry. Strategy boils down to firing on German positions to keep them suppressed, then flanking around to a better angle and finishing them off. Your men are capable soldiers and will shout advice at you if you seem to be stagnating. They will also do their fair share of killing but are still occasionally liable to run on the wrong side of a wall when ordered to a different position. It hurts to lose one of your men in battle, regardless of the fact that he'll be patched up at your next checkpoint. You are their commander and they are entrusting their lives to you, a weight expertly transferred to your shoulders by Sgt. Baker's cutscenes and voice-overs. Hell's Highway motivates you strategically and emotionally to be a smart leader, and it's surprisingly engaging to focus on something other than yourself in a first-person shooter.
Battles become even more complex as you take more squads under your command and incorporate machine gun and bazooka units. The former is excellent at suppressing enemies, while the latter can destroy sandbag barriers and elevated enemy positions in houses and towers (particularly awesome). As you get the hang of squad command, you'll begin wielding your men as extensions of yourself and moving through battlefields as an elite, coordinated unit. Taking apart and dispatching a field full of entrenched German units is immensely satisfying, and this feeling of power is what makes Brothers in Arms so rewarding.
Despite the focus on squad combat, Hell's Highway demands a strong individual performance from you. Oftentimes you'll be the lone flanking unit, and you'll have to shoot accurately and make smart use of cover to survive. There are also sections where you go it alone, and you'll have to be nimble to both suppress and flank the Nazis yourself. Fortunately, you are a crack shot and can hit half-exposed German helmets from a substantial distance if you can find enough time to pop your head out and aim down your sights. When you score a particularly impressive shot or throw a well-aimed grenade, the action camera will kick in to highlight your success. The camera will zoom in on the Germans and the action will slow down dramatically, treating you to a gory display of flying limbs, severed torsos, or burst skulls. It's a bit overblown, but you'll probably be too busy roaring triumphantly to care.
Realism is abundant throughout the game, though, thanks to the excellent audio and visual design. Each gun has a variety of unique sounds, and nearby explosions cause your ears to ring, drowning out all other battlefield noise. Bullets smack into cover you've hidden behind and whistle by your head disconcertingly, while tables and fences splinter and break in ways that both sound and look realistic. Your comrades are also quite detailed, though occasionally their facial textures will load a bit late, leaving you with a blurry, expressionless facsimile that can vitiate any emotional involvement you may feel. As you venture through the Dutch countryside and into more-populated zones, the landscape will change, but the superb level of detail will be constant throughout, only periodically marred by a lackluster texture or two. The different landscapes do have a certain sameness to them, as each tries to allow for squad-based tactics, but on the whole these battlefields provide fantastic arenas for combat.
There are a number of multiplayer maps as well, and each supports up to 20 combatants. Two teams face off in successive standard capture-the-territory contests, respawning only at the beginning of each round. The twist is that each squad member has a certain role, from squad leader to weapons specialist to tank operator. Squad leaders can call in aerial recon, while weapon specialists travel with protective squads and deal their own unique brand of destruction. Well populated matches are lively and intense, as fully-manned teams work together to stay alive, back each other up, and thwart their opponents. Add in a vocal squad leader, and there is ample potential for exciting battles. However, there are still plenty of lone wolves roaming about, and whether players will fully embrace the squad mentality remains to be seen.
What is certain now is that Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is another rousing entry in a great series. The beautiful landscapes complement the gritty combat, and thoughtful cinematic techniques breathe life into the engaging characters. Despite the somewhat spotty story and sundry oddities, Hell's Highway is a game you should consider playing twice. The unlockable "authentic" difficulty mode removes all the heads-up display elements and really allows the visual design to shine. The story resonates more powerfully because you know the characters well, and the renewed challenge ratchets up the intensity. With so many exciting elements, Hell's Highway provides ample motivation to don the Allied uniform once more.