Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Preview

"War is Hell"
-quotation found on white board inside Gearbox office

Flying into Dallas, the plane bucking back and forth through the cloud cover, I felt like I was heading into a war. "Somebody wake up Nick," the sergeant/flight attendant said, her monstrous afro swaying in the turbulence. I wasn't so much asleep as I was closing my eyes in silent prayer. The ready light above me blinked on with a soft tone. Up front I could see the rest of the squad checking their gear and preparing for the drop. The pilot warbled a brief announcement, letting us know that the weather at our LZ was a dry 80 degrees. Seat-backs and tray tables went up, luggage rolled out, and I made landfall. It was a short march from there to Gearbox Studios, where I had a hands-on look at the newest offering from their flagship series, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.

After a brief tour of Gearbox's secret laboratory--littered with toys, games, and soda pop machines--friendly producer Mike Wardwell was on hand to walk us through a demonstration of the Hell's Highway. After a short introduction, we were left staring at two squads of allied soldiers milling about in the middle of a calm city street. Hell was upon us, I guess.

Simply put, the quality of presentation in Hell's Highway is immediately impressive. Running on the Unreal Engine 3 (and, in this case, an Xbox 360), the world is polished in a way that wasn't possible in previous iterations of the series. Character models are predictably more detailed, with distinguishing facial features and authentic armament. Soft shadows are cast over their faces and bleed onto objects like walls and foliage. Rifles rapidly eject shell casings that arc through the air in a convincing blur. Parachutes billow in the distance, slowly gliding reinforcements down to the earth in silhouette. Every atmospheric detail is as immersive as you would expect given the series' track record in this department.

Readily apparent were many fundamental control changes to the series. Perhaps most noticeably, Hell's Highway smartly borrows from recent games that have made strides in third person/first person control schemes. While the player is pressed up against a cover position, leaping over that cover is achieved with the simple press of a button, as in Gears of War. You can also now zoom out while under cover, allowing you to view the battlefield from a wide angle while still being able to order commands to your squad mates, a la Rainbow Six: Vegas. In addition to these changes, weapon accuracy has been increased across the board, which results in a much less cumbersome experience overall.

Sgt. Baker will split off from his squad at certain points in the game for levels that are played entirely alone.

The core gameplay in Hell's Highway has remained relatively unchanged. Players will still need to suppress enemy positions using the suppression indicator, a circular meter which indicates the enemy's willingness to shoot back. Defeating the enemy is achieved by flanking or sniping, while at the same time using your squads as a distraction or an assault force. These squads can now come equipped with special weapons, such as bazookas or mortars. One bazooka squad was on display in the demonstration, blasting away at clock towers and enemy fortifications on command.

In Highway's most radical departure from tradition, Sgt. Baker will split off from his squad at certain points in the game for levels that are played entirely alone. Clearly influenced by Gears of War, the solo level shown may have been an outright homage to the "Mansion" section of Gears. Baker was ducking behind duvets and dishing out punishment from the second story of a large mansion. The wide angle view modes were especially useful in these hallway sections, as the player is quite vulnerable without a squad to cover him. In explaining the apparent betrayal of their squad-based ideology, the developers believe that not only will these sections provide an entertaining variety, but they will also serve to accentuate the usefulness of your squads when you eventually do reconnect with them.

"We only had 12 megs of RAM left over for the game code," the developers told me, expressing their previous frustration. "We felt like the technology was holding us back."
Graphics and controls aren't the only areas that will see improvement thanks to the newer hardware. With so much memory reserved for powering Brothers in Arms' graphics engine on last-generation systems, precious little was left over for key components such as enemy AI. "We only had 12 megs of RAM left over for the game code," the developers told me, expressing their previous frustration. "We felt like the technology was holding us back." With the increased resources, enemy soldiers will now move and flank intelligently when given the chance. Allied soldiers now automatically shift into varying "stances" which dictate how they will react to the enemy. If they are in a relaxed stance they might react more slowly when attacked, whereas a "stealth" stance will see your squad creeping up on the enemy before attacking. When the AI works, it all comes together to form a genuinely impressive package. When it doesn't, proud soldiers of the Third Reich are reduced to chasing their own tails in circles, like some kind of demented game of Ring Around the Rosie.


Mounting a machine gun

Yet even with some occasional bugs, the good far outweighed the bad in this early demo. Almost every object is destructible in Hell's Highway. Beyond the bodies--of which there were countless dozens--I saw everything from wooden carts to marble statues utterly decimated. Objects that can be used for cover can now also be destroyed, resulting in some fairly straightforward tactical options. Don't want to take your time sneaking in the back door all on your own? Just blow those sandbags to smithereens and make your own front entrance. The developers mentioned that they are still balancing the bazooka, debating between a fixed amount of ammunition and the pure joy of unlimited, unrestricted rocketeering.

"Just because I can," level designer Carl Shedd quipped, grinning as he rolled a grenade up to the edge of a sparkling white picket fence. Moments later the fence was reduced to kindling in an impressive display of physics that, to even the developers' surprise, caused no slow-down whatsoever. Shortly thereafter, Shedd tossed a grenade across an open yard and into the face of an unlucky German soldier. At that event the game finally slowed to a crawl, but not due to technical difficulties--Hell's Highway will feature a time-slowing effect that is triggered by the game in certain situations. Wardwell likened the effect to the Burnout series of games, where time often slows to feature a particularly juicy snapshot of physical carnage. Rather than flying sparks and crushed steel, German soldiers are tossed to and fro in a kind of slow-motion rag-doll ballet.

Shedd proceeded to make mincemeat out of a division of enemy troops from the safety of a window, with each scored hit producing a genuine "thwack" that is difficult to describe without sounding sadistic.
Brothers in Arms' forte has always been in replicating the gritty, realistic aesthetic of World War II productions like HBO's Band of Brothers. To that end, Gearbox has placed a premium on convincing sound fields, and Hell's Highway continues in that vein. Wardwell's speech was interrupted more than once by the constant snap, crackle, and pop of gunshots peppering a defensive position. After taking control of a .50 caliber machinegun, Shedd proceeded to make mincemeat out of a division of enemy troops from the safety of a window, with each scored hit producing a genuine "thwack" that is difficult to describe without sounding sadistic. The developers noted that not only can you use the turrets you find laying around, but you can now also pick them up and carry them with you, using them on other points of cover that you find.

One of the trademark features of Brothers in Arms is its storyline, which combines historical battles and settings with fictional characters and cutscenes. In one scene in the demonstration, Sgt. Baker finds a lone pair of glasses laying on a table during a break in the action, which triggers a macabre flashback sequence centered around a character's death from earlier in the series. Apparently Baker will be dealing with some mental trauma after having run through half of World War 2, and the game will reflect that with a seemingly surreal plot. Never the biggest fan of the series' attempts at engrossing historical fiction, I came away from the demonstration feeling optimistic about this new, darker shift in tone.

After Shedd had been all he could be, it was my turn at the controls. I always get a little giddy while in God-mode. Tearing through the demonstration level at high speed, the power completely gone to my head, I could sense that the tactical battlefield was not evolving in an intended fashion. They made excuses for me later. "That level is really set up for us, with timed spawns that we could anticipate. You were at a disadvantage." Shamed, yet enlightened, my play-through of Hell's Highway was at the very least eventful.

The game handles in much the same way as the original entries, but the new cover system allows for greater control over the character. This is very much appreciated when you have an enemy squad bearing down on your position and your fire team is playing cards behind a shrub. Encountering the same white picket fence that Shedd had dispatched earlier, I chose to hide behind it instead, wallowing in my fear. Unfortunately the Nazis had other ideas, and began to blow away the fence piece by piece, cutting each individual post down to a nub. An interesting effect, and one which consequently triggered another: if the player ever puts himself in the enemy's line of sight, the entire screen will turn a blood red in warning. This threat indicator was extremely helpful in letting me know just how futile it still is to run-and-gun through a Brothers in Arms game, despite the more action-focused additions.

Wardwell confided that Gearbox will likely release the software development kit with the PC version of the game, allowing players access to level building software, but that it is by no means guaranteed at this point. He also was careful to note that the multiplayer component is still heavily under development, but mentioned that it will break from the previous games in featuring all-human players in team and free-for-all scenarios.

Having only played the original Brothers in Arms, I didn't know what to expect going into this demonstration. Rather than reacting badly to the changes, which may at first seem geared toward mainstream players, I found them to be a logical and welcome addition to the series. With a solid list of improvements to an already acclaimed series, Hell's Highway has enormous potential if the developers can adequately polish the game by release.

Ubisoft Entertainment plans to ship Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway for PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 later this year.