Gearbox, 2008
Video game review
Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway
Engaging characters. Squad mechanics are easy to learn and use. Impressive graphics. Feels more or less "authentic". Great, sympathetic main character.
Uneven story requires knowledge of past games. Could be system taxing.
Adds absolutely nothing to an already overcrowded genre


Somebody has clearly put a lot of thought into the writing behind this game. The characters are interesting, the descriptions are as clever as they are useful, and the dialogue is compelling. The writing behind this game goes above and beyond to enhance the gameplay experience.
Excellent graphicsExcellent graphics:

Who says there's nothing to be said for eye candy? Although the standards of graphic excellence are always moving forward, something about this game's graphical presentation really stands out. At the time this review was written, the graphics were top-notch, either in their class or in gaming altogether.
Compelling storyCompelling story:

This game clearly had a Tolstoy on staff. When you play it, you're not just pressing buttons or blowing things up, you're taking part in a creative endeavour just as rich and compelling as any novel or movie. The narrative is integral to the gameplay, and the result in a truly compelling experience.

Some parts of this game are ridiculously awesome, while others are just ridiculous. This note is for games that lack consistency--typically for games that are otherwise extremely good, but have weak points that mar the overall presentation. It might still be worth playing, but the range between the high points and the low ones is vast.
Linear gameplayLinear gameplay:

This game is so linear you could use it for a sobriety test. The designers have a particular way they want you to play it, and even if you can deviate from this course, it won't get you anywhere. Playing a game set on rails might be some people's cup of tea, but if it isn't yours, you might consider staying clear

This game knows the way to get to Carnegie Hall, and it's not about to let you forget it. You'll find yourself doing the same thing time after time after time. Many games have some element of repetition, but here's it's so bad it's hard to tell the ending of the game from the start. You're just always doing the same damned thing.

Brothers In Arms is a first person shooter set in World War II. So, you know, like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Wolfenstein, Battlefield: 1942, or Red Orchestra--to name the five I could think of immediately on a train, because trying to identify a computer game as "that first person shooter set in World War II" is an exercise along the lines of "that Lamborghini that's a fast car".

The twist that Brothers In Arms provides, and has since its first incarnation a few years ago, is that rather than being a lone soldier, you act as the leader of a small squad consisting of two (now occasionally three) fireteams. In this sense it becomes a tactical first person shooter like Rainbow Six, where success is as much--or more--contingent on commanding your men effectively as it is on doing the fighting yourself.

Most "tactical" or "strategic" games tend, when they say they are "tactical" or "strategic", to focus on one tactical gimmick and exploit the living fuck out of it, making them effectively puzzle games centered around how best to use this gimmick. For SWAT, for instance, this is "be restrained". For Rainbow Six, it is "be methodical". For Ghost Recon, "be aware of your enemy"; for Splinter Cell, "be inconspicuous", etc etc. In these games it is generally possible to play however the hell you want, but playing the game right means staying between the lines.

Brothers In Arms is no exception. This game's particular claim to fame is the "four fs" principle: Find, Fix, Flank, and Finish. Since you do not need to find the enemy in this game--they generally come to you--this effectively reduces to "suppress, surround, and shoot". The game's primary gimmick is suppression: when you are suppressed, you are less accurate, and when the enemy is suppressed they are scared shitless and cower like rabbits, only popping up occasionally to take wild and inaccurate potshots. The game helpfully provides an indicator to let you know when the enemy is suppressed.

Every battle thusly goes like this: you order your men to shoot at the enemy until they are suppressed, and then you sneak around and gun them down mercilessly. Or you order your other team to do this. Or, you snipe them with your M1 when they pop their heads up. Boom-boom-boom. It's not that hard, and this is the same mechanic that was used in the previous games, so veterans of the series should be familiar with it.

You and your men, so near as I can tell, can only take one shot before dying. This sounds unforgiving, and for your subordinates it is--and is partly why the game places such a premium on cover. When you are exposed to enemy fire, your screen steadily darkens and turns red until it is completely black at which point you die. So far as I know it is impossible to die before then, and you are guaranteed to die at this point, so it is basically a regenerative health system like Rainbow Six except with a silly name so it doesn't look like you automatically recover health. A weird conceit, but hey.

It's also quite linear--the enemies are clearly set up for you to encounter squad after squad, and you'll find your path blocked if you want to try alternatives beyond just a few yards in either direction. And those--linear and repetitive--are the game mechanics. By themselves, they are fairly boring, and the game is fairly easy, except when it wants to be ridiculously hard--like throwing six Panthers at you. Conversely, there are a couple of missions in which you get command of a tank, and these are so easy they make pie look like string theory. As a game, it is therefore completely uninspiring.

Like Fear, however, or Bioshock, the game--while easy--is really just a vehicle for conveying a story. I shall be blunt, therefore: Brothers in Arms has perhaps the best story I have ever played. It is incredibly well acted, with sympathetic characters that you find yourself actually caring about and a protagonist whose steady faltering under the relentless onslaught of Market Garden is handled extremely well--it's disorienting, even maddening, just as it should be. Hell's Highway is a tour de force of storytelling, one of the pinnacles of the gaming industry. It deserve tremendous acclaim for this.

To be fair, there are parts that are uneven, as I said above. The story alternates between its best--when you are with your band of brothers--and its worst--when you are alone, fighting the war by yourself. One particular scene, set in an abandoned hospital, is particularly off: it is gorgeously rendered, with haunting music that sets your spine on edge, and the only illumination comes from moonlight. Wheelchairs twitch and move by themselves; lights flicker on and off. It is probably meant to carry with it the unnerving quiet of a momentarily still spot in the middle of a burning Amsterdam, and the sort of eerie quality that any cold, abandoned hospital has. But it doesn't feel haunting, it feels spooky--there is a difference. I kept waiting for a faceless girl to rush at me, and the Nazis who appeared instead were... to be honest, a bit jarring.

By and large, though, the story ties together well. Its intricacy may, however, be part of its downfall--to truly appreciate all the nuance, you have to be familiar with the series as a whole. If you are not, then certain things will whoosh you. In particular, a sequence involving a man named Leggett could come completely out of the blue had you not played the previous entries in the series, and it's not a small part of the story, either. Can you play without knowing anything about the previous games? Yes, but as this is a story-driven thing I think you're liable to get less out of it.

The game is also short--almost desperately so. Even including a couple of missions that will kick your ass so hard you wind up shitting through your nostrils, the game can be beaten in between six and eight hours. Ten, tops. It includes some hidden things you can hunt around for, for completion's sake, but this is actually quite retarded. Unlike, say, Assassin's Creed, Hell's Highway is not an open-ended game--it's very linear, and "find the hidden object" hunts just come off as contrived and unnecessary. They take you out of the flow of the story.

I'm not certain whether the length is a bad thing. On the one hand, at $50 bucks, an eight hour game runs you around the cost of a movie, which is not all that good these days. On the other hand, since it's not a surprise or suspense driven story, but a drama, you can play it over and over if you choose and it doesn't lose much in the retelling--just don't expect anything new out of it on the second go-around.

So I'm torn on Brothers In Arms. Technically, it's a great game--it's stable, for one, and smooth. The story is fantastically told and makes you want to keep playing--it's almost addictive, like Civ. But on the other hand, it has a huge, glaring problem: it simply doesn't add anything new to the genre, which is let's face it a path so heavily trod it's been paved into a six-lane freeway. There's nothing here that we haven't seen before--in some cases, again and again and again. Even the addition of the cover/suppression/flank system employed here just means the firefights take longer--and they're not even as cool to watch or take part in as those in, say, Rainbow Six: Vegas.

I guess my verdict is this: if you loved Saving Private Ryan, this game is definitely for you, right now. In fact, you probably already have it. If you like games with a compelling, wonderfully-crafted story, then pick this up--but wait until the first price drop. At $30, this would be an easy recommendation (at $20, it's a no-brainer). If you're just looking for a quick shoot-em-up, though, you can probably give it a pass.
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