It looks like we’re due for something of a World War 2 game renaissance this winter following the avalanche of apathy that had begun to greet the genre following massive over representation in the last few years.
There were only so many times we could parachute into Normandy or re-capture Stalingrad before the whole setting started to feel old and stale, and while the occasionally superlative game managed to make the setting seem fresh and entertaining again, with the arrival of the FPS juggernaut that was Call of Duty 4 we thought we’d seen the last of the World War 2 setting for a while at least.
Yet this year we’re seeing two popular FPS franchises once again returning to the summer of 1944, with Treyarch polishing up Call of Duty 5 and Gearbox parachuting in with Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Both developers are trying to show us that there’s still ammunition in this genre’s magazine yet, it seems.
For those who don’t know, BIA:HH follows on from the 2005 Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 which came as a real breath of fresh air to the FPS genre by championing authentic WW2 squad based tactics in place of the traditional run and gun one man army gameplay experience that’s typical of most shooters. Hell's Highway picks up the ongoing storyline of protagonist Sgt. Matt Baker and his squad of American Paratroopers where the first game left off with you and your squads this time heading into Nazi occupied Holland for the ill fated Operation Market Garden.
Click to enlarge - fighting at night is very atmospheric
While it’s easy to get jaded by the setting (and the game might as well be called Band of Brothers: The Video Game) you’d be foolish to write the game off just because you’ve seen the setting before. Hell's Highway delivers a rare blend of tactical gameplay that most shooters can't match – it's an experience where you’ll genuinely need to use that fleshy lump between your ears to succeed.
And not just to figure out the best way to get a grenade into that top window either – gameplay is dictated by the suppression and flanking of the enemy and you’ll need to think carefully about positioning your squads (you’ll be bossing around up to three throughout the game) and choosing your targets – try and storm positions alone a-la Call of Duty and you’ll be eating more dirt than a field full of worms.
Break from cover while under fire for more than a few seconds and the screen quickly becomes tinged with red as your danger level mounts before you’re finally shot dead. There are no health bars or med-packs here – one shot and it’s back to the last checkpoint, although an intuitive cover system means this won’t happen all that often as long as you don’t play like a thirteen year old fresh from Halo 3.
Click to enlarge - The flowing water effects are fantastic
Because cover and faux realism are so strongly woven into the gameplay, fighting the enemy is unlike any other FPS. When you first encounter a German squad, a red circle appears over their position indicating their current state of suppression and by ordering your squads to fire upon them the circle will gradually change from red to grey indicating their state of suppression.
Once Jerry is sufficiently cacking himself behind his wall, you can then safely order a squad to move up and flank their position, exposing them to fire before finishing them off. It’s all about the four Fs – Find ‘em, Fix ‘em, Flank ‘em and Finish ‘em.
Or at least that’s how it should be. The problem is that through either poor level design or engine limitations, it’s not always possible to flank enemy positions and so combat can become an exercise in suppressing the enemy with your squads and then inching one piece of cover closer at a time until you’re close enough to lob a few grenades into the German position.
This is pretty frustrating because when it works properly, the squad based gameplay is absolutely superb – taking cover, pinning the enemy and then cleverly shifting your assault squad into a good flank position to finish them off is a great feeling that requires a good mix of strategy and traditional FPS skills, and it’s a bit of a shame that it’s so often replaced by just fixing the enemy and then edging closer to finish them off.