First Impressions: Scream with the eagles one more time
Gearbox Software will once again draft players into the WWII-era 101st Airborne to fill the shoes of Sgt. Matt Baker in Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, the next-gen follow-up to the tactical shooters Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 and Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood. In the first two installments, players took on the role of an elite paratrooper during the first days of the 1944 D-Day invasion and led small teams across the Normandy countryside and into small towns. The games earned well-deserved critical acclaim for the way they combined the visceral experience of a shooter with an intellectual, tactical challenge that de-emphasized simple twitch skills. Hell's Highway will up the ante with a redesigned multiplayer component, expanded squad control, and a more immersive storyline, not to mention stunning graphical updates.
Hell's Highway follows the Screaming Eagles to a new battlefield: Holland in September of 1944, the site of the infamous Operation Market-Garden. Market-Garden was a joint British, Canadian, U.S. and Polish operation designed to move quickly across the Rhine and into Germany in the hopes of ending the war by the end of the year. It ended up a bitter fight that?with more than 17,000 dead and wounded?resulted in more Allied casualties than the Normandy invasion, with the lion's share borne by the British. Market-Garden remains the largest air operation of its kind in history, involving 5,000 fighter planes and 2,500 gliders that delivered some 35,000 men behind enemy lines. During the operation, the 101st was charged with defending a stretch of road essential to the movement of equipment and personnel. The Germans recognized the importance of the road and pounded it with armor and artillery as the paratroopers held on by the skin of their teeth. It wasn't long before the Eagles nicknamed this stretch of road ?Hell's Highway.?
Veteran players of the Brothers in Arms series know that they can count on Gearbox for its fidelity to these historical details. In the past, Gearbox developers have shown how they designed in-game buildings according to period photographs. They visited the battlefields depicted in the games and trained with the actual weapons they were trying to replicate. When gamers complained about the realism of the M1 Garand's loading system (Brother in Arms allows players to reload mid-clip while other WWII shooters do not), Gearbox responded with a videotape supporting their design and showing exactly how the Garand loads. This time out, the team promises that every engagement players fight in the game actually happened in real life. What's more, the maps in Hell's Highway are based on newly declassified aerial photographs taken by the British government during the battles, so the maps will potentially be authentic to the very day the battle was actually fought.
The series has also been known for its dedication to authentic period tactics with its ?find 'em, fix 'em, flank 'em, and finish 'em? doctrine. For the developers, the challenge is how to give this level of control without using an overly complicated set of controls, and the Brothers in Arms series solved this problem with a simple, even elegant solution. When the player selects a location, a context-sensitive marker determines whether it's hovering over a target for concentrated fire or a move destination. Hell's Highway will add to this simple scheme to give the player even more control over his squad. Gearbox is adding more complex orders like throwing grenades at a target, crouching to take advantage of cover, or sprinting to a new position. And the player will now have more to control with the addition of friendly mortar, machine gun and bazooka teams.
Historical accuracy and tactical gameplay have always been important to Brothers in Arms, but it's the engaging storytelling that completes the package. Hell's Highway promises to expand the relationship?and rivalry?between Matt Baker and ?Red? Hartsock. In Earned in Blood, players saw how hard it was for Hartsock to deal with the stress of combat and the deaths of his friends. Now, Baker has spent a good bit of time as squad leader, and this story will tackle how he handles the responsibilities of command and the repercussions of his earlier experiences.
Not only will we learn more about Baker and Hartsock, but story elements will be incorporated more fluidly into the gameplay. Gearbox has promised improved AI, but this doesn't just mean a better tactical experience. Improved AI this time out will mean that the characters behave more like human beings in-game, not just during the cutscenes. For instance, a soldier might stumble at an unexpected moment, and a buddy may stop to help him up. The enemy will be more human, too?helping one another out when they're hurt and so forth. And the inclusion of civilians only promises to add still more drama to the situation. In short, a lot of things about Hell's Highway promise to bring more of a human experience to computer gaming, something that's lacking in so many of the generic twitch-shooters out there.
This latest installment to the series will also deal with some of the gripes that players have voiced over the last few years. Some players will be happy to learn that the iron sights have been made much more accurate?the bullets seem to go right where you're aiming. Players familiar with the series will remember that earlier versions simulated the difficulties of aiming down the sights in battle conditions by allowing for a miss even when the sights seemed perfectly lined up. The sights do seem to retain a bit of the familiar sway, so don't think that it will be a simple shooter. The multiplayer aspect of the game is also back on the drawing board. Although hardcore fans loved the skirmish play added in Earned in Blood, multiplayer play never caught on in numbers that the game deserved. Like the single player campaign, players were given control of small teams and had the ability to use them tactically for flanking and suppression fire. Gearbox has yet to release any particulars, but they have declared that they have completely scrapped this old system and will rethink Brothers in Arms multiplayer from the ground up.
And finally, as if you didn't already know it, Hell's Highway will bring a major graphical update to the series. A look at the screenshots shows an amazing bump to the amount of detail in characters and scenery. The geek-oriented will want to know that the game promises real-time self-shadows for the character models, HDR and specular lighting, and an advanced lighting technique called ?subsurface scattering.? A high-end effect that until now has only appeared in Hollywood-type CGI, subsurface scattering simulates translucent surfaces like human skin by allowing some light to pass through the surface and then reflect back out, scattering the light to some degree. It's a wow technique that may be part of what gives an impressive richness and fullness to the faces in the video released so far.