There's something peculiarly puzzling about gore in video games. Like chocolates in a box of Roses it can come in so many types. Gore can be completely stylised and over the top, like in upcoming black and white Wii game Mad World, for example. Or gore might be gritty and shocking, like in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Gore works in video games because of the context it appears in. The gritty and realistic gore in GTA 4 works because the tone of the game is realistic and gritty. The stylised and over the top gore in Mad Word works because the game is a complete parody of violence itself. In both cases because of the context of the games that the gore appears in, it's fine, it fits, and it's frikin' cool.
In World War II squad-based tactical first-person shooter Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, the best BiA, and Gearbox Software, game to date, the gore doesn't fit. Limbs tear off, faces explode and guts spill out onto the lovely virtual Dutch grass more often than in a two-part Quentin Tarantino movie. That's fine. WWII was, without a doubt, an incredibly gory experience for every soldier involved.
The problem, however, lies with the Action Camera. Whenever you score a head shot, or blow some Germans up with a grenade for example, the camera will zoom in and the action will slow down, showing you in glorious detail exploding faces and flying limbs. You can turn the Action Camera off in the options settings, thus eradicating these Action Camera Moments, as they're called, from the entire experience. But the damage has been done, and the game clearly makes no apology for their inclusion. In the Xbox 360 version (the version tested), you even get a couple of Achievements for them.
The only reason we have a problem with the Action Camera is because of the context of the rest of the game. Hell's Highway is based on an actual WWII Allied offensive, called Operation Market Garden, which aimed to carve a route up through occupied Holland and into Berlin, thus ending the war before Christmas 1944. The game focuses on the experiences of a squad of soldiers from the US 101st Airborne division, and, again, of BiA stalwart Sergeant Matt Baker. The series has always had a Band of Brothers feel to it, and in this, the third BiA game, the camaraderie theme has been ramped up even further. As you make your way through the meaty 10 chapter campaign, the story, told through cut scenes, details Baker's descent towards insanity as the war, and the responsibility of leading his men, takes its toll.
It's well voice acted, the dialogue is authentic, the sound effects superb and the soundtrack Hollywood quality. It's a well thought out, intelligent, sombre and honest interactive entertainment treatment on the life of a WWII solider, as well as a somewhat emotional portrayal of comradeship in the face of unspeakable horror. But it's because the game has reached these mature heights that the Action Camera jars so much. It ends up feeling like a feature that's been forced upon the game by some marketing team desperate to appeal to the Soldier of Fortune brigade.
For many this won't be a concern. For many the historical accuracy, the story, and the two Recon points scattered throughout each map (which unlock mini history lessons that detail the specifics of the operation) will play second fiddle to the kick ass WWII action. Here, Hell's Highway doesn't disappoint. In fact the combat reinforces the historical accuracy Gearbox has shot for perfectly.
It's all about the four Fs - find, fix, flank and finish. This strategy, actually employed during WWII, is one you'll need to master if you're going to finish the campaign, even on the casual setting. Say, for example, you're faced head-on with a German assault squad that's buried deep within solid cover. You could spend all day wasting ammunition playing Whac-A-Mole (that is, stay out of cover and wait for enemy heads to pop out - a strategy that works well up to about half the way through the game, after which you'll be torn to pieces). But the game wants you to think about your environment and the squads at your disposal to progress. There's no run and gun here - try it and you'll last a few seconds.
First thing you want to do in any given combat scenario is find decent cover. By decent we mean something that's going to stop bullets. Machine gun fire will tear up wood, so fences won't keep you alive for long. A truck, or some barrels will do. From there, you need to go to work on the four Fs. First find. Pressing the back button on the Xbox pad brings up a map of the area, which shows potential cover, enemy positions and, crucially, flanking positions. Before you send your squads off to flank, however, you need to fix (suppress) the enemy. Every enemy has a small red circle hovering above his head. By firing on his position you slowly turn it silver - when done he's suppressed and scared to pop out and shoot at you. That's the perfect time to send your Assault team off to flank and, if all goes well, finish the Germans.
The control system will initially frustrate - we found ourselves zooming in with our rifle when we wanted to crouch and throwing our grenade when we wanted to snap to cover - a new Rainbow Six Vegas 2 style addition to the series. But you soon get the hang of it (and if you don't there are options for pre-set Halo, CoD and RB6 control set ups).
For a series that lives or dies by its AI, it's reassuring to find it impressively smart. There was the odd occasion where it fell down - there were one or two hilarious moments where Germans were stuck running in circles and a quite perplexing bug where a destroyed crate reformed itself in a constantly shifting mess of wood. But, on the whole, if your squad mates get killed it's usually because you've told them to move before suppressing every enemy, and not because they're being frustratingly dumb.
This might sound more like a FAQ than a review to you. But it's worth describing how the combat plays out, since that's what you'll be doing for 99.9 per cent of the game. Indeed one of our problems with Hell's Highway is the repetitiveness of the gameplay. The game is essentially a series of FFFF puzzles, set in various Dutch environments, that need to be solved in order to progress. There is some variation. There are one or two superb solo sections where you're separated from your squad. The abandoned hospital level is a particular, almost Bioshock-esque, highlight. And there's the odd utterly frustrating and completely unrealistic tank mission, where you play a British tank commander and tear up German armour and infantry as if you're Rambo himself, that feels about as removed from the main campaign as a level from Halo 3 would (the fact that the game ends rather limply with one of these missions is a bitter, anti-climactic pill to swallow). But on the whole the combat is so engaging, and rewarding, that you won't get bored.
The game's graphics don't really get going until about half way through the game. Up to that point the Unreal Engine 3 powered lush greens and browns of the Dutch countryside are nice enough to look at, but not spectacular. It's not until the sun goes down and you're fighting under moonlight, and, in one level, moonlight and the pouring rain, that the game excels in the graphics stakes. Again, it's worth pointing out the hospital level here - a wonderfully detailed and atmospheric environment where it's as entrancing to stare at every wall as it is to bear witness to the degradation of Baker's mental health. There's something strangely captivating about a burning car at night, especially when it's saving your life.
Ultimately Hell's Highway won't be for every first-person fan out there. The slower paced gameplay, emphasis on tactics and WWII setting might not appeal to players who only prefer run and gun style shooting, for example. But for those who do like the sound of it, there aren't many WWII shooters out there better than this (Call of Duty II springs to mind). It's a predominantly single-player experience, and, given that Gearbox hasn't uttered one word about the 20-player multiplayer component (something we haven't been able to test before the game's release) suggests it agrees with that particular verdict. We could point to a lack of a co-op function - the idea of having a mate control one of your squads sounds like a lot of fun - a feature many first-person games seem to have these days. But then that's not very Brothers in Arms. This is about Matt Baker, his guilt over the death of the soldiers under his command and his unshakeable courage when everyone else around him despairs. Splitting that story over two characters would dull the effect somewhat.
Bar the jarring Action Camera, there's not a lot wrong with Hell's Highway. Rather, there's a lot good with it. It's an intelligent game made by adults for adults. It'll have a hard time going up against Treyarch's Call of Duty: World at War this Christmas, of course. But, like Sergeant Baker himself, it's going to put up a damn good fight.