Previews: The latest dirt on the virtual Market-Garden
The dust has barely settled on Ubidays 2008, and gamers the world over have gotten fresh and tantalizing looks at Ubisoft's upcoming lineup. Far Cry 2
is dropping jaws from London to L.A. The Soulcaliber
and Prince of Persia
franchises are both getting new, promising entries. For my money, though, the standout of the show was Gearbox Software's Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
, the third installment in the WWII tactical shooter series. The cornerstones of Brothers in Arms have always been historical accuracy, tactical combat, and a rich story experience, and the new game, set to release this August, will raise the bar on all three fronts.
If you read my earlier preview of the game
, you'll know that Hell's Highway reenacts the 101st Airborne's part in Operation Market-Garden, the Allies' last major defeat in WWII. You may not know that Gearbox Software historical director John Antal promises that every battle in Hell's Highway actually happened and that the developers walked the actual battlefields with WWII veterans. Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox brags that if you play the game and then visit the town where it takes place, you could ?act as a tour guide.? Historical accuracy is a given in BiA, and long-time fans of the series will know that the game even inspired a History Channel documentary about the D-Day invasion.
Brothers in Arms isn't just a documentary, though, and Hell's Highway is set to improve on the tactical gameplay of its predecessors. The Ubidays previews showed off some dramatic footage involving destructible environments. Not only can rifle bullets penetrate wood, it's now clear that heavier armament like bazookas can destroy heavier cover like sandbag walls, adding another element to the already-rich tactical action. Before taking cover, the player has to decide if the cover is sufficient. A couple of guys hunched down behind a wooden fence are easy prey to the .30-06 bullets of the M1 Garand. The new game will have a lean-around-corners feature, a first for the franchise. When the player hits a corner, the game moves into a 3rd person view, much like when the player manned a tripod-mounted machine gun in the first two games. From this view, the player can lean out and fire or give orders to the rest of the squad. Also like those earlier machine gun moments, the player can choose to play the corners in a first-person perspective.
As for the story side of things, Hell's Highway promises the same depth as earlier installments. Unlike other WWII franchises, Brothers in Arms has never been about one man winning the war. It's the story of a few guys in extreme situations and how it affects them. This time out, Baker has to deal with the decisions he makes that get friends killed, and he also lives with his experiences from the earlier games. While Hell's Highway uses a familiar cutscene system to tell its story, it adds several dynamic elements that give a more cinematic feel to the gameplay. For instance, when the player tosses a grenade into the midst of a few enemies, the game recognizes this and will slip into slow motion and zoom in close to the action, heightening the drama. The player's squad has four separate ?postures,? chosen automatically according to the situation. Sometimes they're relaxed, sometimes they're in a combat posture. Two postures in between, though, seem like the ones that will help set the mood in many situations: patrol and stealth. When there are enemies nearby, the soldiers automatically go into stealth posture, ducking and whispering so as not to alert the enemy to a coming attack.
One surprising and cool feature of Hell's Highway is that it will do away with the health bar and regenerative health. Instead, it has a danger indicator. If the player exposes himself to a dangerous area, that area lights up red, with deeper shades of red indicating greater danger. The greater the danger, the more bullets whiz by and the quicker that fatal shot can arrive. Ducking behind good cover eliminates the danger and keeps the player alive. There won't be any health packs or a health bar, and the result might just be a more realistic-feeling game.
A few other nice technical details promise to make Hell's Highway a great gaming experience. For one thing, there won't be load screens between levels?scenes pre-load themselves as players approach them so that the player moves seamlessly from one area to the next. And the player is actually a fully-realized character in the game world, as opposed to most shooters where the player is nothing but a camera and a floating gun. This means that the player casts a shadow and has to act in the same way as other characters. It's a detail, but it will be interesting to see how this feels in-game.