“To be continued.”
Those are some unfortunate words right there. Unless the mobile game tie-ins are more plot significant than they seem, Hell’s Highway would be the last mainline game in the Brothers in Arms series. The franchise was doomed to end on a cliffhanger and, even worse, on a game that is painfully mediocre.
Following their campaign in France, Hell’s Highway takes protagonists Matt and Red to my homeland. They become part of Operation Market Garden and land in the occupied Netherlands to liberate the city of Eindhoven and the surrounding countryside.
The game’s missions all take place in and around the city, as the paratroopers cooperate with Dutch resistance to drive out the German occupiers. However, the story is more about Matt and his unit than The Netherlands and its liberation. Quite a problem, because Matt’s comrades are the least-developed aspect of the story.
There are twenty-or-so characters that all have a unique personality and interpersonal relations, but the game spends very little time on showing these off despite relying on your fondness for these characters to later pull off dramatic plot twists. The war claims its toll on Matt’s unit, with soldiers of all ranks and backgrounds dying or collapsing under the stress. Even Matt himself begins to suffer from survivor’s guilt and PTSD, which are interesting ideas executed poorly.
It’s a very dramatic storyline, but the drama is consistently weak and unearned. We are asked to weep for the death of soldiers who may have only starred in a single scene across the entire 10-hour campaign, if even that. Some characters died and I literally had no clue who they were, despite having played all games in the series and doing my best to try and memorize their large cast of characters.
Even when soldiers do receive a lot of attention, the game might just falter in the execution. The game begins in medias res with Matt consoling a dying comrade, which seems very significant and emotional. When you then get back to that scene later on and know just who that soldier is, it turns into the most preposterous chapter of the entire story.
Some scenes also just don’t make any sense whatsoever. Stick around at the end for some spoilers about those.
A major factor holding the game back is that it tries to retro-actively justify some of its new plot points by repeatedly flashing back to events from the original game. It’s absolutely obsessed with Leggett and his character arc throughout Road to Hill 30, recapping its events multiple times through the campaign and supplementing them with new details. I am not kidding when I say that about 50% of the story is dedicated to Leggett and the impact he had on Matt, which is all time that is taken away from the characters who are still alive and desperate for more development.
I enjoyed Leggett’s story in Road to Hill 30, but it has now been tainted by how obnoxiously Hell’s Highway keeps calling back to it while cramming supernatural wumbo-jumbo into a character arc that was wrapped up 3 years ago.
The game doesn’t fare much better in gameplay either. Hell’s Highway came out in a period where people were kind of done with World War 2 shooters and it did not rekindle the hype. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had come out a year earlier and it’s painful to compare the two.
Not much has changed since the last games. It’s the same mix of squad-based tactics and first-person shooting. The guns work well enough, offering a great assortment of period-appropriate arms that feel good to use. The M1 Garand is good for precise, mid-range firing while an MP40 shines in tight corridors; it’s what you’d expect from this kind of game. Matt is a fragile protagonist, however. Spend 3 seconds of out of cover during a firefight and you’ll likely get to restart from your last checkpoint.
Using your squadmates, you can suppress and flank enemies, or even pelt foes with grenades or rockets if you got the right teams with you. That is, if the AI is feeling cooperative. The game touts that your men are smart and will take cover themselves, but that’s about the only thing they can do themselves. You gotta tell them exactly where to go and, when you do, it’s a crapshoot if they’ll take a logical, safe route to their destination or if they’ll vault over cover and run straight into enemy fire to do a lap of the battlefield first. They also don’t always shoot back at enemies, even when instructed to do so, and when they do their accuracy is so bad you may as well have done it yourself.
Heck, for the final few missions, I was playing the game Rambo style and just left my squads behind somewhere.
Complicating the strategic gameplay further is that the game never breaks from its third-person perspective to accommodate it. Instead of commanding units from a map, you need to press a button and manually target where you want them to go or shoot, which means you have to run all around the battlefield to keep your guys on the move. If anything blocks your line of sight, you just can’t order your guys to use it, even if you know it’s there. The targeting is also finicky and easy to mess up, which also applies to grenades that are nearly impossible to throw right and pathetically weak when you do.
While your soldiers are barely functional, the Nazi war machine tugs along just fine. Its squads are coordinated, accurate, and even psychic. They always know where you are, relocating instantly when you get a flank on them, even when you haven’t revealed your position yet. They are so accurate, in fact, they can hit you even when no possible line-of-sight exists. At one point I snuck up to an MG nest and was caught off guard when the soldier manning it just fired backwards, through himself, to intercept my sneaky tactic. Heck, later on a tank pulled that same prank on me, firing a rocket that apparently came from its exhaust.
The game kept stretching out without ever adding anything to the gameplay, leaving it about as complex as its last-gen installments. There are gimmick segments where you use a sniper or drive a tank, fortunately replacing the horrible tank AI from the old games, but the basic gameplay is just an endless slew of cover-based combat encounters. Again, something people were getting very sick off throughout this generation of gaming.
The game’s presentation does elevate the title from a C-tier shooter to at least B-tier. The Dutch scenery is well-realized and I was impressed with the atmosphere of each level, and the accurate signs and posters in particular. The voice-acting is also nice, giving the characters a unique feel even when their stories & personalities never clicked with me, and the character models are quite good for the era as well. The game even introduces cinematic deathcams for when you land a great headshot or an explosion blasts a Nazi to bits.
I can admire that Hell’s Highway is trying and, to be honest, there were moments I enjoyed. It has a few good cutscenes and challenging shoot-outs, and I quite like the relationship between Matt and Earned in Blood protagonist Red. No melodramatic deaths or sad flashback can hold a candle to some of their best scenes. I just wish the game was more confident and polished. More unrealistically, I wish the series had been geared towards this kind-of story from the start, so Hell’s Highway didn’t have to bog itself down with retconning and recapping. I wish Hell’s Highway could have focused on making itself great.
It wasn’t meant to be. The series ended here, leaving Baker’s journey forever unfinished. Even though I had a bad time with Hell’s Highway, I still wish I could have seen this franchise conclude more gracefully.
Bonus complaints:, beware for spoilers
So about those scenes that don’t make any sense
- In the industrial level Matt and his squad step into an elevator and realize instantly they’ve walked into a trap, because Nazi reinforcements had just come from the same elevator. They prepare for a battle that would have made a fun, intense gameplay segment, but the Nazis just aren’t there for the ambush. They are in a different room, seemingly just to give you a fair chance.
- In that same level, Matt has to save a little Dutch boy called Pieter who stole his father’s gun to get vengeance on the Nazis. When Matt finds the boy, Pieter holds him at gunpoint and says he doesn’t know Matt, even though they met earlier and Pieter would obviously recognize an American uniform.
- During a river-crossing, Matt, Red, and their squads are charging straight into gunfire with no way to retaliate while also being bombed with artillery. We see several soldiers die and their chances of survival seem dire, but then gameplay resumes, the Nazis are dead, and your squads are at full health.
- Franky’s story is several layers of bizarre. He falls in love with a Dutch girl and wants to rescue her when Eindhoven is bombed by the Luftwaffe. Instead of taking her somewhere safe, he runs away from his squad deeper into a besieged Eindhoven and towards the Nazis. He then somehow ends up inside a hospital that’s already captured by Germans, but instead of protecting her he sends her away unarmed, leading to her being killed. Even when you then find him, he runs away claiming he’s still saving her, only to spontaneously turn up dead seconds later.
- Dawson picks a fight with Matt sometime later, claiming Matt was lying to them about Franky’s death when they run into a random soldier who stole Franky’s jacket. That jacket was last on the floor of a burning building, but even discarding the question of how it was found and how the squad happened to run into the exact man who took it, what does this prove? I have no clue what Dawson is trying to argue and the game cuts the discussion short, making for a puzzling and rather pointless scene.
- The game spends a huge chunk of time teasing a dark secret between Matt and Leggett that would have destroyed the entire unit if it was revealed. Dawson knows this and uses it to coerce Matt. The secret? Leggett had a fight with two comrades just before they died. All three of them were being petty and stupid, but I don’t see how this changes anything or why it’s considered a controversial secret, even long after all those involved died.