Operation Market Garden - the daring late-1944 raid on the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and the setting for the third Brothers In Arms game - ended badly for the Allies. It is this foreknowledge of certain defeat that looms uncomfortably over the historical fiction of Hell's Highway; offset, of course, by the broader awareness of ultimate victory.
But one battle developer Gearbox is well on course to winning is against the argument deployed by era Nazis, who claim that making yet another World War II shooter represents little more than a failure of imagination. The simple justification is the same now as it was when the game was first announced just over two years ago; but with a couple of months to go until release, the evidence now seems overwhelming.
"The era's not the issue; it's how you approach the subject," explains John Antal, retired US Army colonel and military advisor on the Brothers In Arms series. We're chatting in a packed corner of UbiDays 2008, deep within the surprisingly anonymous bowels of the Louvre in Paris. Antal has been holding court all day alongside tirelessly enthusiastic Gearbox master chief Randy Pitchford, showing off the latest build of the game to a heaving moshpit of hungover journalists (catch the UbiDays trailer over on EGTV).
"You have a lot of options when you make a game," he continues. "We're making historical fiction: that's the difference. Quality is quality; a good story is a good story." Briefly discussing Call Of Duty 4, we point out that, as much as we loved the experience, we can barely remember the story; it felt indistinct, generic.
Antal seizes upon this: "All the other games are about a bunch of battles: you don't really know where you are, and most of the time you don't care. And you don't know who you are, or anyone around you - it's a shooter."
To underline this point, Antal has powered out two books to support the game's launch: one, a novelisation covering the two days of the 10-day campaign not covered by the game; the other, an historical account of Operation Market Garden. Neither of which should be remotely essential to enjoying the game on its own terms, but will no doubt enrich the experience for those with a keen interest in the setting.
Nevertheless, Brothers In Arms wants you to care about Sergeant Matt Baker and his squadron, not just the frantic dash from set-piece to set-piece Gearbox sees as typical of the genre. And Hell's Highway's gameplay also depends upon this: for most of the game you will have units under your command. This isn't Commando: and a selfish, suicidal approach to the action won't end well. Trust us. Testosterone-powered sharp-shooting is not enough; you must work closely with your soldiers to outsmart and outflank the enemy.
The last time we got our hands on the game was last December, when Rob covered in detail the experience of commanding a single unit early on in the game. For UbiDays, we're getting to grips with 'Black Friday', a mission Pitchford tells us is roughly two-thirds of the way through the game. By which point we should be fully at ease with commanding multiple units on the fly. Which, of course, we're anything but right now; and tactically ordering around two groups of soldiers, while simultaneously dodging enemy fire and running-and-gunning is migraine-inducing.
Playing from scratch, you'll be eased into your role gently. Chapter 1 (each one contains multiple missions) is just you and your gun, as your familiarise yourself with the basic controls. It's not until Chapter 2 that you get to call the shots.
But any confusion we're experiencing is mainly because we're approaching Hell's Highway in the wrong way. Seeing us flapping, John Antal offers some sage advice: stop firing completely and let your troops do the work. The penny drops.
Black Friday takes place in the Dutch town of Veghel, during a torrential downpour. This gives Gearbox the chance to show off its admittedly lovely rain effects: water plummets relentlessly from the heavens, rebounding realistically off concrete; puddles collect and swell covincingly. It's all very, well, wet.
Pitchford can't resist bigging up the power of the game's modified Unreal Engine 3: "It's the engine that powered Gears of War," he notes, unnecessarily. "We've worked a lot on this technology; so you're seeing fidelity that's about 15-20 percent higher than Gears of War." Well, to us Hell's Highway lacks the wow factor of a Call Of Duty 4, say, or even a Gears of War. But it's very clearly a looker, and the level of detail is hugely impressive, once you start appreciating little touches like the way wooden cover is ripped asunder by bullets.
As an example of the game's tactical mechanics in action, a town plaza we're tasked with securing fits the bill perfectly. With bazooka and range-of-fire teams at our disposal, and Nazis camped in a sandbag-shielded gazebo and around the perimeter, creative use of suppressive fire and flanking is essential. The bazooka team, for instance, can blow right through the sandbags while Baker lays down suppressive fire; then, while your range-of-fire team attacks from one side, you can sneak around the back and pick off foes through where their cover has been literally blown.
You can switch between teams under your command via the B button on 360, then order them to change position or attack by holding the left-trigger and pointing at the desired location. And a tactical map, accessed via the Back button, is a useful way of planning out a raid with chess-like precision. Despite the early confusion of multi-tasking under duress, clearing an area with patience and pinpoint accuracy, while keeping your squad alive, is immensely satisfying - as is the 'Action Cam', which highlights the most outrageous kills with an instant slow-mo close-up. Watch those body parts fly.
We see all three versions of the game running at UbiDays. There's little to choose between 360 and PS3 at an admittedly cursory glance, but on PC it definitely has the visual edge.
Gearbox also showed off one of the tank-based missions. This looked fairly run-of-the-mill (we didn't get to play it), with a main turret and mounted rifle available if you risk your neck up top; or just the turret if you'd rather cower inside. You can't climb in and out of a tank mid-mission, but these third-person sections should at least provide variety with their necessarily more mindless action.
So, with two months to go, we're clearly impressed by the brief sections we've experienced directly, and excited by the potential of shooter that promises a refreshing, more cerebral change of pace to raise it above the sardine-tin similitude of much of the genre. And while the series' Saving Private Ryan-esque sentimentalism might prove too cloying for some, if Baker's exploits can tug at the heartstrings the way they engage the brain, we'll be more than happy to make the trip to certain doom along Hell's Highway.
Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 in August.