Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
It may not be long before more people will have played a video game about the battles of World War II than actually fought in them. WWII is without question the battlefield of choice for combat-crazed video games. There are well over 100 different titles out there that have parachuted into the Greatest War, and they've sold literally millions of copies.
But of all the series that have depicted the knock-down, drag-out skirmishes between the Allied and Axis forces, few have taken the time to combine fighting action with a realistic-feeling examination of the apprehensions, fears, rock-ribbed friendships and determined valor of the average squad of frontline grunts like Brothers in Arms.
The third game in the franchise, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, carries on the tradition. This first-person shooter takes its characters through Operation Market Garden—a 1944 airborne assault that was the largest of its kind and was designed to put an end to the war. But the Nazis had their best soldiers and armored divisions surrounding the drop area and the daring attack turned into a sound drubbing for the combined American-British troops.
Losses You Feel
Against that historical backdrop, Hell's Highway winds its digital way forward. Gamers play as Staff Sergeant Baker, who's been given command of a squad of soldiers—or should I say, brothers in arms—and has to lead them through eight days of perdition. The game starts out by leading us through a series of cutscenes from past game storylines to help us get to know these guys and come to care about them.
That makes a surprising emotional difference once you storm the virtual battlefield. When a comrade falls in this shooter, the loss hits you—an unfamiliar feeling when it comes to first-person shooters.
Game reviewer Chris Parker put it this way: "Hell's Highway is so powerful from purely a story perspective. Baker's emotional trauma is handled expertly as he slowly starts to crack, because of the losses that start piling up. And the emotional ties between Baker and [his men] creates some interesting drama. One instance in particular is absolutely gut-wrenching. Just thinking about it gets my eyes all watery."
The game also pulls you in with authentic battles that are even more involving than, say, SOCOM or Medal of Honor. Figuring out how to best place your men to suppress and outflank the enemy is a huge part of successful play ... and comradeship.
War Is War
But there's a problem with being immersed in a realistically believable and emotionally compelling war game: Namely, you're immersed in a realistically believable and emotionally compelling war. When you stare down your rifle sight and squeeze the trigger, the game gives you an all-too-good view of the blood-spraying damage your bullet causes. To heighten that effect, an action-cam option zooms in on and slows down particularly nasty shots that, for instance, obliterate an enemy's face, sending tissue and bone shards flying. Burned, dismembered and eviscerated bodies litter the landscape.
Then there's the language of war. The old Hollywood films about WWII proved you could successfully avoid the foulest of language in the heat of battle. But the creators of Hell's Highway have decided it's a necessary part of family room gameplay. So they've included multiple f- and s-words along with profanities "d--n," "h---," "b--ch" and "b--tard." God's name is also abused.
To be fair, the gamemakers do give players the option of shutting off the explicit gore, action-cam zooms and obscene language. This is a well-appreciated option that, if fully utilized, helps transform an M-rated shooter into something much closer to a T. That and the historical topography of this title are definite pluses. But make no mistake. This is a war game, and even when played with the gore functions off, you are responsible for a lot of killing. With all the possible bloodletting turned on ... well, even the game's director, Jeramy Cooke, realizes the problems.
"I fully expect there are going to be some people that play this game and are just like, 'Yeah! Explosions and gore!'" Cooke said in a MTV interview. "And I fully expect there's gonna be other people that are like, 'I can't believe how horrible this is.' And still probably more people that are like, 'Wow, I can't believe that they would show that kind of violence and try and make money off of it.' It's hard to have an answer for that; everyone is going to take it slightly differently, I expect."
Cooke went on to say, "The more real it becomes, I think, in terms of graphical representation and physical representation, the more people are going to start to ask questions about, 'Is this right? How should I feel about this?' I hope people will have that to some extent with our game. I hope they can step back from it for a minute and go, 'Why did I find that cool? Was that really a gross thing or was that something I should like?'"
We hope that'll be the case, too. But we would recommend asking those questions before picking up the controller.