Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway
Baker tries his best to wake the boy, the child’s battered and bruised corpse unmoving on the road. Sombre strings play in the background. He doesn’t want to accept the loss; not least for the effort he had earlier made to save the now deceased. The personal attachment must be severed for Matt to continue, and he forces himself onwards with the realisation there’s nothing more he can do or could have done. This is war at its most grounded level.
The camera is again placed behind his eyes and I push forwards. Ordering the Base of Fire Squad to take cover behind the barrels and suppress the MG42, I dash to find a clear shot on the enemy. Crouch. Aim. Fire. Suddenly the camera breaks away from Baker and zooms to the target. Behind the dust and rubble I’m shown blood shooting from the remainder of the soldier’s head, the other half of his skull soaring into the air. A glistening crimson arc lashes against the nearby wall as the body flops dramatically over the sandbags in slow motion. This is war in all its glory.
Welcome to Operation Market Garden: in reality, an overambitious Allied attempt to push the Germans out of the Netherlands that resulted in a terrible loss of life over the period of just a few days. The version told in Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, though, is one rife with contradiction. To their credit, Gearbox Software have done a surprisingly competent job of capturing the atmosphere that must have been felt at the time. Some of the story work is understated in a manner that is very sobering, hammering home the human cost and tragedy that is the ugly and inevitable side effect of war. Neither choreography nor scripting is consistent and the scenes themselves are all too often overly protracted, but for every groan-inducing, sub-Hollywood pile of ham there’s a flash of down-to-earth genius rarely seen in video game storytelling. A commendable job has been done outside of the levels to communicate at least some of the horrors experienced in 1944 Europe, but once we are handed control – you know, the actual “videogame” part – it rather disappointingly lets itself down.
“Grit” is a word flung around with vigour this generation and is mainly the distillation of a trio of factors: the weight of control; visual feedback; overall tone. In some ways, Hell’s Highway is a very gritty game indeed – gritty in a positive way with regards to aforementioned realism of in-game events. It’s gritty in other ways too, but the tone of the play sections clashes badly with that of the story sequences. Gone is the considered sobriety and in its place is introduced a Gears of War pretender. Never mind that the mechanics and pace are an impractical compromise between the former and another Unreal stablemate Rainbow Six: Vegas, but we are handed a shooter that goes to great lengths to hide its successful emotional side. Limbs, chunks of brain matter and other assorted viscera are chucked at the screen by the designers, seemingly reveling the red mist that has clearly descended upon them to counteract the reserved nature of the non-gameplay sequences.
It’s an odd fit to say the least, and upon completion the disconnect becomes even more apparent. The final play section before the epic, gut-punching concluding scene is – wait for it – a tank section. Machine gun placements go bang, buildings crumble and soldiers are squashed by the vehicle’s considerable caterpillar tracks. It’s the epitome of Hell’s Highway’s haywire pacing and a poor lead-in to the coda. Awkwardness isn’t reserved for tone or structure, however, extending to areas of sound, graphics and gameplay. The robotic and unnatural but strangely limited cover system is an example; far too inflexible for proper utility but unavoidable unless you want to be cut to ribbons seconds into battle. Strategy is watered down, with only an effective trio of commands and squads that, however they’re deployed, have no discernible practical differences. Not that most environments are ever big enough to provide more than two routes between chokepoints, ensuring the same suppress-flank “tactic” is employed indefinitely.
Gameplay can be enjoyable but remains somewhat stilted. Weapons feel too inaccurate even in zoomed view, not helped by the fact they fill half of the screen – and any faith that your shots will connect is absent, so the essential cause and effect relationship between button press and on screen feedback is left unable to develop. It may be historically accurate, but when so many concessions to FPS tropes are already made it’s frustrating that one of such credence is passed over.
There’s nothing exceptional about the gunplay whatsoever, and tellingly its most unique aspects are failings. We’ve seen it done a thousand times before, and better. The suppression pie – which displays the morale of groups of opponents – is a generation old now, and the stunted tactics mean continued use of this trademark feature is wholly unnecessary. Variety in the firearms is nowhere to be found largely thanks to the overarching feeling of flimsiness in each, grenade throws are dictated by a distracting red circle and there’s no melee button to be found. Possibly the sole standout feature is the health system. If Baker is shot he’ll come very close to death, but his “health” can be drained by nearby shots in a similar way to the enemy’s morale. It lends some realism in a sensible way, but it’s amongst so many cack-handed and barely average design decisions that the effect of this is minimal. Hell’s Highway‘s physics are almost as random as shots, with some surfaces apparently made of polystyrene and others of an as yet undiscovered, unbreakable super-compound. The visuals are solid if unexceptional and the score is almost as schizophrenic as the product at large.
Films have successfully combined action and emotion in the past. Some would say that mutilation is part of the overall package, that it lends real weight to the message and complements the cut scenes in a meaningful way. In a linear narrative experience, this may be true. It’s already determined by the director, cinematography is carefully planned, shots can be done and redone many times, the actors don’t have to be artificially lip-synced, subtlety in body language and dialogue can be imparted and change what’s being communicated in an unforced manner, it’s edited, it’s not guided by the audience and, most importantly, it’s tasteful. Perhaps these are close to unachievable in the gaming medium, and Brothers in Arms holds an untenable position because of this. It can’t capture the nuance of real life, and that’s a problem. Nobody is suggesting that such a marriage of styles and boundary pushing storytelling shouldn’t be attempted in gaming, and in that Hell’s Highway is incredibly brave, but arguably any effort to be both an enjoyable first person shooter and stony-faced anti-war tale is doomed from the outset. Something must be compromised, it’s just a shame that in this case it happens to be the whole package.