War is hell. That's a given. But war is also, increasingly, window-dressing: a thin historical veneer that allows developers to mine the past for easy brand recognition, while turning out arcade set-pieces that have little to do with the wider reality behind the uniforms.
Brothers in Arms has always been a bit different, however. Its emphasis on believable squad-based tactics will see you dead in the dirt if you try to run-and-gun your way through its carefully-weighted encounters. Equally, Gearbox, the games' developer, has always tried to bring a bit of genuine insight to the series' battlefields, closely following the history of real missions, while offering a glimpse into the lives of the people involved. It may not be The Sorrow and the Pity, but it's hardly Operation Darkness, either.
And with the long-awaited third game in the series about to hit the beach later this September, Matt Baker and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division finally make it to Operation Market Garden, one of the most grimly fascinating and bloody encounters of World War II.
Market Garden took place in the Netherlands in September of 1944, as an attempt to get Allied forces across the river Rhine and on towards Berlin. Using large-scale paratrooper drops to secure three key bridges for the British XXX Corps to then move through, it was an ambitious and creative bit of strategic thinking. It was also, ultimately, a failure, which saw thousands of soldiers dead, and the war dragging on well into 1945.
Most of Brother's in Arms: Hell's Highway is focused on the sharpest end of the action, with 101st Division fighting to keep the stretch of road towards Eindhoven open for XXX Corps' advance, battling against heavy Axis counter-attacks all the while. So far, so Wikipedia, but the series' emphasis on the soldiers themselves means it's uniquely placed to take this kind of history and bring it to life. A recent chance to sit down with the first few levels of the (now practically finished) game gave us the opportunity to check up on how Gearbox is squeezing such an elaborate chain of battles into the close-quarters dynamic of the franchise.
As the nickname suggests, Hell's Highway was not a particularly nice place to be, but while the game's title may invoke blood-soaked chaos, the opening levels, following the 101st shortly after they parachute in to Holland, paints a picture of small-scale skirmish-based warfare juxtaposed with bizarrely idyllic landscapes. Gunfights erupt in gentle farmland pastures, against backdrops of bright yellow crops and blue skies, which could almost have been pulled from the Wizard of Oz, were it not for the distinct lack of Munchkins. But the environment is far from mere set dressing: almost everything in the landscape has some kind of bearing on your available tactics, from the windmills, which offer strategic recon points, to the farmhouses, which are transformed into careful three-dimensional battle puzzles to be approached with caution.
And the Netherlands don't provide the only difference this time around. A first for the series, Hell's Highway has a fully-implemented cover system, with 'digging-in' allowing you to hunker down beside a wall or bluff, take shots from relative safety, and even vault over the top at the touch of a button. While it's clear that Gearbox has been taking notes from Gears of War (which itself took a fair amount from kill.switch), it's also brought its own emphasis to bear. The crucial thing to remember in Hell's Highway's world is exactly what it is you're hiding behind: a slatted fence may offer concealment from the enemy, but if you're spotted, it will be torn up by gunfire far more quickly than a stone wall would be. This dynamically-destructible environment adds yet another layer of tactical thinking to the game's maps, and it's an undeniable thrill to see your machineguns chew through fence posts and furniture, blasting splinters into the air and sending the enemy hurrying for a better spot.
Elsewhere, the game's squad-control elements have also been tweaked, with special weapon crews available for your command alongside more traditional fire and assault teams. Although it's initially still a bit fiddly getting your various groups assigned, in place, and tucked out of harm's way as the bullets start to fly, having a bazooka squad or a machinegun team to shred heavy cover or lay down intense suppressing fire opens up a range of new strategic possibilities alongside the traditional "hold and then flank" tactics of the earlier games, and the targeting system with its big blue cursor makes telling people where to go a fairly pain-free process once you get used to it.
Despite the alterations, the basic agenda remains the same, with the series' distinctive suppression meters and tactical map views present and correct. But while many encounters do still encourage the age-old flanking manoeuvre, the initial three chapters of the game we've played at least offer up a wide range of different arenas and scenarios to keep you on your toes, from an assault on a farmhouse under machinegun fire, which requires a slow advance and carefully-timed movements, to a frantic ad-libbed defence of a downed glider in open countryside while the enemy swarms in from all sides. And even if the relative small-scale opening battles are too controlled and formal to live up to the anarchic promise of the game's title, they still provide plenty of tension, and the emphasis is heavily weighted towards adapting your approach for each new situation. It remains to be seen how the pace picks up later on.
Graphically, Hell's Highway is shaping up to be a bit of a mixture, with great art direction - a moonlit fight through a bombed-out hospital is a particular highlight - alongside often slightly limp textures and some fairly unconvincing foliage. And while your cast of comrades are engagingly human, the identikit Germans who pour out from cover at you are not. The lack of enemy character models is an understandable limitation, certainly, but it's also all the more noticeable because of the care lavished on your own team.
At least that means Gearbox is putting the emphasis in the right place, though. In-game chatter means that your team-mates never revert to being mere tools in the heat of battle, and the cut-scenes, filled with mess-tent banter and stoic camaraderie carry a surprising emotional weight. Furthermore, the game's opening, flashing forwards to a cliffhanger two-thirds of the way through the narrative, promises a strong personal story alongside the more elaborate historical events unfolding.
So while Hell's Highway may not be the prettiest game you'll play this year, and there are a few troubling indicators that the AI, though much improved, may not be the most robust available (one team-mate got stuck jogging against the side of a farmhouse for about thirty seconds, and we saw a few isolated moments where enemies stood stock still after their cover had been taken away and we pumped in the bullets), the series retains a careful pacing and attention to human details that makes it seem far more substantial and involving than some of its more arcadey cousins. From what we've seen so far, Gearbox continues to be one of the few developers able to offer up entertainingly explosive games that still manage to treat history as more than just a simple playground.
Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is due out on PS3, 360 and PC on 26th September.