Another 'historically accurate' WWII shooter is always going to meet groans from the video game press, backed up by accusations that it can offer nothing new to a genre already bled dry by identikit games.
Most gamers have even grown tired of dubious claims of originality by publishers desperate to convince people their product has something new to offer the military-based FPS. Recently we've had 'alternate WWII realities' and interchangeable characters with mixed abilities, but nothing has really done much in the genre's favour.
So what does the latest Brothers in Arms do to invigorate this battle-damaged genre? What are its bold claims and empty promises? Surprisingly, it makes none, instead quietly refining the genre by harnessing the increasingly obvious power of the next-gen consoles.
There is a clear emphasis on character and accuracy, which has of course been done before, but from the dialogue to the scripting it is obvious that great care has been put into making the team of men you fight alongside important. Rather than taking the cheerily sarcastic view of your men as disposable assets that Cannon Fodder took so many years ago, the rather more PC Hell's Highway concentrates on developing the characters of your fellow grunts. From the story of your bazooka man and his unusual relationship with his weapon named Stella, to the rather stunning expressions on your comrades' faces, every part of the new Brothers in Arms points to a concern with the human angle.
The historical approach too, is pushed to new levels. Not only are the missions based on the minute details of the infamous 1944 turning point operation codenamed Market Garden, but each war torn street and pock-marked battlefield is based on the very locations that the game visits virtually.
'While a slight wooden fence might offer your enemies cover from your line of sight, it will shatter into useless splinters of wood under a pounding from your machine gun...'
But what really does mark out Hell's Highway as a worthy addition to an overcrowded club of factual war games are the details of the gameplay mechanics. Small ideas that have been implemented look set to make this a very interesting game indeed. The cover your enemies hide behind, for example, has different levels of protection. While a slight wooden fence might offer your enemies cover from your line of sight, it will shatter into useless splinters of wood under a pounding from your machine gun, while sandbags will take all but the heftiest blast from Stella the bazooka. This dynamic scenery might not sound like a great improvement, but it definitely appears to add depth and visible drama to the feel of the levels, as it explodes around you.
The fully destructible scenery elements also offer a fairly heavy dose of realism, which is always important in any game with aspirations of documentary-style accuracy. A deserted cart shielding two enemies for example, will explode differently if you toss a grenade to its left or right. Adding a strategic angle, if you carefully lob your explosive under the wooden carriage, it will guide the small bomb's blast right into the feet of the unsuspecting Nazis, where previously a tiny invisible wall or invincible cart would have rendered your accuracy unimportant.
Another innovation is what apparently makes for a more realistic replacement for the health bar or regenerative health system pioneered by Halo. In Hell's Highway, most bullets will not hit you, instead flying past your head. Areas where you are at risk from close shaves with a slug of lead are marked with a tinge of red as you step into them, which lets you know you are under fire. You can of course risk moving further into these areas of the screen, but at any moment one or two bullets could swiftly end your mission. Though I've never been under real, live fire, it certainly makes sense that this system more accurately represents the way you would be repressed by covering fire on a battlefield.
As with the previous entrees in the Brothers in Arms series, pinning your enemies with your own suppressing fire is at the core of the gameplay. Using a 'point and place' system to position your squad-mates with your crosshair, you can easily set up flanks, ordering your allies to cover an enemy stronghold while you sneak round the back. A useful pie chart icon appears above enemy heads to indicate the percentage of suppression you are maintaining, and it appears that this very workable system remains unchanged from previous titles.
The game's AI also appears vastly improved. Enemies move and work together in a way that is fast becoming the standard for next-generation shooters, and your own team-mates whisper, crouch and work cover automatically when needed.
Most of the other changes apparent in the one level demo were cosmetic, though they certainly warrant a mention here. Everywhere you look on screen jostles for you attention with tiny details, from the trail of smoke left hanging in the air by empty bullet casings thrown from automatic weapons, to the rich textures of every surface inside and out. Other nice touches include the very well presented cut-scenes, which blend in seamlessly with the action, and feature flash backs to the previous games in the series, deftly tying the Brothers in Arms titles together.
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway might not do anything grand to reinvent its genre, but it is a refreshing change to come across a WWII game that doesn't bother making dubious claims about doing exactly that. If it really has just concentrated its energies on evolving into something more detailed than we have seen before, WWII and FPS fans should be in for a treat.