Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway

I’ve been trying to do this write-up several times over. I’ve got a lot of complaints about the game, and I didn’t want this to degenerate into a long rant about it, because, despite these problems, I generally enjoyed the game, and was engaged by it. So let’s take some time here at the start to focus on the good:

The core concept is solid, and has been since the first Brothers in Arms game back in 2005. The formula hasn’t changed much in Hell’s Highway, but commanding squads to move from cover to cover, suppressing the enemy and gradually setting up a flank can be very rewarding. Being able to support the squads yourself using shooter-mechanics is even better. When it all works, the mechanics of the two genres complement each other, countering their traditional weaknesses. Being in first person brings you in to the action, rather than being removed from it as in an RTS. And having squads at your command resolves the “everything is focused solely on you” problem that shooters often have.

The difficulty felt pretty well calibrated for me when I played it on the default (lowest) level. It was challenging, and I felt like I had to be conservative with my resources, but once I got used to the game’s mechanics, I don’t recall ever feeling stuck on a checkpoint. On the other hand, I play a lot of games, and am pretty good at both shooters and strategy games, so this may be an indication that there should be an easy difficulty below the default one.

An Actual, Reliable, Useful Grenade-Targeting Indicator
It calculates bounces properly and everything. I’ve had so many experiences with indicators like this in other games where the aiming indicator will say my toss will be good, only to have the throw collide with something two inches away and stop dead. It’s a shame that the enemies don’t make a bit more effort to get out of their way, though.

After the jump, the litany of complaints:

The Cover System is Bad
More precisely, the cover system is cumbersome, and was awkwardly ported over from the PC. There’s a button dedicated to entering and exiting cover, instead of adding this functionality to the sprint/mantel button (as in Gears of War), which is bad because the game badly needs buttons for other things. There’s no clean, quick way to exit cover to the side, which is most frequently exited direction. The left-stick is used for peaking out from cover, as well as for moving along cover. What’s wrong with this? Well, in a typical usage scenario, you get behind cover, pivot the camera off to the side (let’s say, 30° right, for specificity) to get a look at where you’re going, and then slide to the right along the piece of cover. Or at least you try. Because, on a controller, the direction you’re naturally going to press on the left stick for this movement is going to be close to the up-right diagonal, because you’re used to movement being camera-relative. But, because peaking is on the left-stick too, if you end up pushing more up than right on the stick, which will happen lots, you’ll end up peaking and exposing yourself, instead of moving. It’s very disconcerting and it happened again and again to me. This makes more sense on a keyboard, where hitting the diagonal would require an extra key-press over the cardinal direction (“D” versus “W+D”), but on a controller, it doesn’t work. This could be solved either by interpreting a higher proportion of left-stick positions as movement requests instead of peaking requests, or, even better, but again using the Gears of War solution of having a dedicated peaking button. Note that this set-up also forces a slow transition between movement and peaking, and vice versa, since it encourages setting the left-stick back into the neutral position in the transition.

The Squad Command System is Imprecise
The camera stays very low while giving a command to a squad, which makes it hard to give commands precisely. The worst case scenario is moving a squad uphill to a piece of cover in-line with an enemy, but any time I gave a command to move forward I felt like I was at risk of dramatically overshooting and sending my squads charging straight into the enemies. This could easily be solved by panning the camera up and out when going in to command mode. The game clearly thinks you should have more situational awareness than just your first person view provides, given the map you can pull up at any time shows not only terrain but also troop positions, so I don’t think adding this functionality would dilute the game’s reality or anything. This camera problem has been present since the first game, and this is the issue that I’m most shocked has gone unaddressed in this new sequel.

The Core Gameplay is Monotonous
Find, Fix, Flank. Find, Fix, Flank. Over and over and over again. You’re almost never under time pressure. Despite some destructible cover, there’s always plenty of room to stick your squads in positions where they will be 100% safe indefinitely, so stalemates are frequent. You’re always inching forward, or defending a position. The enemies never try to dislodge you, or rush your position, or out-manoever you. It’s neat when you have a bazooka team, and so can dislodge the enemy, but then you find yourself battling finicky line-of-sight issues trying to get the team into the right position.

The Pace-Breakers are Terrible
Hell’s Highway is not a good shooter, in part because of the cover mechanics, in part because of the feel of the weapons, and the enemy AI. Solo segments, where you’re all of a sudden stripped of your squads only serve to emphasize this deficiency. It also feels absurd to be spontaneously abandoned by your troops when you enter a house. I will say that the segments where you’re alone, but hallucinating instead of shooting were neat, and fairly well done.

The tank segments are even worse. In the first game, as I recall, you got to command a tank as if it were one of your squads, and, in an interesting gameplay twist, it could function not just as a cannon, but as a mobile piece of cover. Here, you drive the tank yourself, without any squads backing you up. This degenerates into trying to snipe enemies from as far away as possible while inching forward. Not fun. There’s also a controller issue similar to the one in the cover system, where instead of analog movement, it’s only 8-way, with an abrupt transition from moving forward while turning, to turning in place.

The Narrative and Gameplay are Poorly Integrated
Coming out of a cutscene, I never had a good feel for what sort of situation I’d be in, or what squads I’d be commanding. This is especially bad since so many missions open up straight into combat. There’s a pre-mission cutscene about a sniper holed up in a church, but then you never come under fire from him during your approach. There’s another cutscene where one of your squad-mates is given responsibility for calling out artillery targets, but the artillery makes not appearance in the mission. These two are particular egregious, since they hint at interesting game-mechanics that could have been.

There’s also the issue of the pistol you carry around for the whole game, which you will use exactly once. It’s there for story-purposes, but having a third weapon to cycle past over and over again is obnoxious, especially since the game has the odd habit of re-ordering your weapons when you reload at a checkpoint.

The Storytelling is a Mess
Take a look at the opening cutscene. It gets a bit more coherent from there, but not a lot.

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