The latest instalment in the Brothers In Arms franchise gives 360 & PS3 owners the most character driven shooter to date and will make you care about these men of the 101st Airborne just like any great WWII movie would.
In Staff Sergeant Matt Baker Gearbox Software have given us a truly memorable character who deserves to be recognised alongside heavyweights such as Marcus & Dom, Master Chief, Commander Shepard and Solid Snake. This is a man threatening to come apart at the seams, fighting for his sanity as the burden of guilt and loss and quite possibly caring a little too much for his men takes its toll. The story is about the relationships between Baker and his squad which are buckling under the weight of the seemingly insurmountable task asked of them. The entire presentation has a TV quality to it, from the "previously on" opening segment to the cut scenes between each level to the end cinematic where it is obvious that no man escaped unscathed. As equally impressive as the writing and acting is the squad based gameplay.
The first thing to notice is that this game is dripping with atmosphere; levels present very linear paths but the surrounding environments give the illusion of vast countryside creating a feeling that skirmishes involving your squad are just a small part of a massive offensive. The immersion continues through to the firefights themselves; your squads and the enemy will constantly shout instructions and rallying cries as they fire and manoeuvre around the environment. Weapons feel authentic, they are given just the right amount of accuracy to make firefights at anything other close quarters difficult. As for the sound just wait until you squeeze off a burst from your Thompson SMG. Just like Infinity Ward, Gearbox seems to have a very healthy respect for their subject matter.
The basic gameplay mechanic requires the use of cover fire to suppress an enemy allowing yourself or another squad to flank and finish off your assailants. Whenever an enemy squad is spotted a red icon will appear above their position, laying down suppressing fire will gradually turn it grey; once that is complete you will have a short time to order troops into an improved firing position. Some points in the game will see you in control of a bazooka squad, this allows for enemy positions such as wooden obstacles or sandbag emplacements to be destroyed along with any soldiers behind them. Unfortunately the opportunities for this tactic become less frequent as the campaign progresses; at the start of each level you cannot choose which or how many squads will be at your disposal.
The depiction of violence in the game is extremely graphic. Whenever a difficult headshot or 'spectacular' explosive kill is executed the camera will zoom in on the action to show either a brutally traumatised enemy cranium or an explosion forcing enemies flying through the air most often minus a limb or two complete with a protruding bone from the wound. This doesn't feel gratuitous however, just consistent with the horrors of war and the intensity of the battles raging before you.
The control scheme is easy to learn; only a brief tutorial is required to get the player up to speed. Unfortunately the execution can be a little difficult at times. Aiming and shooting of your weapons takes a little getting used to, but after awhile you will be pulling off headshots at a healthy distance. What doesn't work as smoothly is using grenades and selecting positions for a squad order; these are used by holding down either the RB or LT (360 controls) and then moving the analog stick. However the cursor you move has a tendency to stick at times and when you try to finesse its position it may move 20 feet away in the game world; also grenades don't always seem to land where you selected. Speaking of sticking, your character will also stick to cover and can sometimes be a tad unresponsive when you need to extricate in a hurry. Something not new to squad based shooters is frustrating team AI; most of the time your squad will get to the cover selected and dig in on the opposite side to the enemy but occasionally they will put themselves in harm's way or take an extremely dangerous route to reach their position. The first time one of your men becomes a casualty I guarantee you will genuinely feel like you have failed him and begin penning a letter to his mama. That is until the next checkpoint where he is miraculously back fighting at your side; this does have a tendency to break the immersion bubble and makes the game a little too easy. There are three difficulty levels; only two are available at first with completion of the harder Veteran mode unlocking Authentic which reduces HUD and makes enemies much more deadly. Unfortunately there are no Achievements for the harder difficulty which does reduce the replay factor somewhat, note to developers: always an achievement for completing on the hardest difficulty please.
There is only one other major detractor from the single player campaign and that is some missions where Baker has to go solo and the game becomes more of a generic FPS. A couple of these scenarios are excellent and dovetail nicely with the story; particularly the abandoned hospital scene is a haunting, tense affair and extremely memorable. But the remainder are in complete contradiction with the game's suppress and flank tactics; Baker for some reason ditches his squad and becomes Rambo emptying farmhouses filled with twenty or so Nazis.
Where the real letdown exists however is in the game's multiplayer; firstly there is no co-op whatsoever. For a squad based shooter that was in development as long as this game the decision to omit co-op is puzzling particularly when previous BIA titles have featured an objective based Skirmish mode. Its inclusion could have given some longevity to the title much like publisher Ubisoft's other squaddies GRAW and Rainbow Six Vegas. There is adversarial multiplayer however, and while it will not make anyone swear off Call of Duty 4 or Battlefield: Bad Company I did find it an enjoyable change of pace. It supports twenty player matches, although the biggest I encountered was 5 v 5; a full game of twenty could be quite exciting. The one gametype offered reminds me a little of Counterstrike, once downed you're out for the round. Some of these battles became quite tense encounters forcing you to truly think twice before exiting a building or rounding an exposed corner and encourage the player to utilise the cover mechanic. You'll probably have fun with this for a week or two before moving back to your favourite fix.
Any player enjoying squad tactics, quality first person shooters and great storytelling needs to play Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway. Only some minor areas lacking in polish and an anaemic multiplayer suite have prevented us awarding the maximum score here. It is a thrilling campaign with many memorable moments that will time and again have you drawing comparisons to Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The developers have likened the series to the original Star Wars trilogy with this instalment serving as The Empire Strikes Back. With that in mind I say bring on Return of the Jedi! With co-op please.