Back around the release of Final Fantasy XIII, I found myself with an expensive JRPG in my collection I had absolutely zero intent of finishing. I put like 20 hours into that game and it was my first taste of the Final Fantasy series; I really didn’t like it. When I went to complain about it on my forum of choice at the time, a reader suggested a trade and offered me Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Now that is a game I fell in love with, but I soon learned it was the last in a trilogy of titles, which left me somewhat confused with its story. Time to rectify that and look at Road to Hill 30, the first entry in the series and the first independent game developed by Gearbox Software.
Matthew Baker is the reluctant squad leader of a unit of paratroopers tasked with landing in occupied France and aiding the allied invasion. It’s his duty to lead these men to glory and get them back home alive and well; a duty that weighs heavily on his mind. The mission doesn’t even get time to get off the ground before his plane is shot down and Matt is separated from his equipment and soldiers.
The story strives to be a real war drama and frequently contrasts the victories of the invasion force against the personal sacrifice of the soldiers. Each member of Baker’s team is characterized and there is plenty of bickering and bantering going on that allows the chemistry between these characters to get a little attention. They get into an argument about comic book heroes while relaxing before a mission and cry out to each other during combat. Nice touches, but I would have liked to see more of it and have it better spaced apart. As it stands, you often see red flags crop up well ahead of time before one of the team-members bites the dust and, all too frequently, that occurs just after they got their big characterization moment out of the way.
What does help endear these characters is that you actively command them. Brothers in Arms bridges the gap between a tactical game and a shooter, putting you on the frontlines as Baker as he fights the Nazi occupiers while commanding his soldiers at the same time. By clicking the RBM your regular aiming turns into a command mode that displays a circle on the ground where you are looking. Release the button and Baker tells his boys to go there or shoot at that specific target, and you switch between your available units with the Shift key.
Brothers in Arms is a more challenging shooter than its contemporaries, so you do feel like you need your guys to make it through each level. You only get iron-sight aiming and even that isn’t 100% accurate. On top of that, Baker is a fragile man who goes down in seconds when under fire and there are no medkits or medics to regenerate your health with during a mission. You could take a beating at the start of a level and then have to carry on for 20 minutes while Baker is one stray hit away from dying. It’s really tough, though the game does give you the option to reload a checkpoint with your health restored if you die several times in a row.
The AI for your squad mates is quite alright. You point them at cover and they go there, and I only saw the AI take cover on the wrong side or stand in the open like a deer in the headlights like twice or thrice throughout the 8-hour game. They are a bit of a nuisance when it comes to firing and I often had to specifically instruct them to shoot at somebody or they’d just sit behind cover doing nothing. Only the tanks had pathfinding issues, which was nasty because you want to position them as precisely as possible to make sure the armor faces the right way and they aren’t in line of sight of any heavy weapons.
Putting such focus on squad-based combat does come with some issues. One mission suddenly introduced an enemy mortar team that instantly wiped out an entire squad. You don’t regenerate health, but neither does your team. An accident like that or a pathfinding issue that leaves your team out in the open can instantly rob you of a valued team-mate. A logical consequence and perhaps even realistic, just a shame it leaves you with less interesting gameplay.
I also feel an opportunity was missed in regards to the challenge. When the story demands that certain characters die off, they are quickly replaced with generic soldiers so you still have as many people to command. I think it would have been interesting to present the hardship of the unit by gradually stripping away these units. As the team plunges deeper and deeper into occupied France and Nazi resistance grows stronger, more comrades die off and the survivors are forced to fight on with an increasingly steep disadvantage. This would require Gearbox to decouple mechanical complexity from the difficulty curve, however, and I can understand why they didn’t want to do something so risky for their first standalone game.
What does perplex me is their choice to make Baker a semi-silent protagonist. He monologues during between-level cutscenes, but his only spoken dialogue in gameplay are his commands. This makes him seem very weak and ineffectual, as he just stands around doing and saying nothing. His men are bickering and bullying one of their comrades and he doesn’t speak up at all. His friends die before his eyes and he doesn’t react until minutes later when you’ve finished up the mission.
It’s no Band of Brothers, that’s for sure, but I admire the attempt and it gets fairly close. The story had me interested despite its shortcomings and the gameplay was a lot of fun as well. Friendly AI carries a heavy stigma throughout gaming, yet here they handle themselves well and I could often resolve combat encounters through commands alone. They also succeeded in finding the right balance where you aren’t a perfect soldier yourself, but can still satisfyingly gun down Nazis without feeling too handicapped.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is an impressive game and its flaws did little to stifle the fun I had while playing it.