Thankfully the act of shifting your squads around the battlefield to pull off these manoeuvres is made extremely easy thanks a very intuitive command system. By just using tab to select your desired squad, and then right click to order them where you want them to go and who you want them to fire at, you get all the control over your squad that you’d ever need while keeping the whole process extremely simple.
The Squad AI is for the most part very good, and they’ll instinctively find cover to hide behind, return fire, shout out enemy positions and act just as soldiers would do.
Their speech and actions are also completely situational – if you’re sneaking behind an unsuspecting German patrol they’ll be whispering and hunkered down, but once the bullets start flying their behaviour changes to shouts of enemy positions and battle cries – it’s all very convincing and in places utterly immersive.
Sadly though, your squads still run in front of the odd machine gun on route to their new cover on occasion – not to worry though as you’re bullet proof American chums only die in dramatic end of level cut scenes – taking a few MG-42 rounds to the face in game just means they fall to the ground injured until you reach the next check point when they’ll eerily rejoin your squad fighting fit. While it breaks the realism and immersion somewhat, maintaining the key group of characters is crucial to the story line, which is certainly a hell of a lot meatier than the usual FPS fair.
Click to enlarge - Squads take cover and return fire on their own
The plot deals with fairly hard hitting dramatic material; cowardice, innocence, naivety, love, loss, regret and mortality all play their parts; although you can’t help but feel that Hell's Highway
bites off a little more than it can chew. One cut scene features the main protagonist, Sgt. Baker, weeping over his badly injured friend, and while this might have been pulled off in a big budget movie or serialised TV series, Hell's Highway
uses a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3.0 and not Tom Hanks. As such, it appears to struggle desperately to deal with the highly emotional subject matter in the confines of a 3D game engine.
However, the storyline is certainly a great deal more than you’d expect from a traditional FPS, and manages to convincingly portray Baker’s Airborne squad to such a degree that by the end of the game you get a real feeling for the multiple individual characters around you. It certainly lends a very adult and personal tone to the game that other shooters just can’t compare to, even if the execution is a little clunky in some areas.
Sadly the plot’s immersion is all too often compromised by the game’s continued attempts to sell out to appease traditional FPS fans. After the opening hour, comprised of the excellent squad based combat, your next mission is to assault a church and kill the sniper inside – with just one other soldier under your command. What follows is a run and gun sequence painfully similar to traditional FPS offerings, with the usual conveyor belt of cannon fodder Germans meeting their end as you ascend the church in a sequence that just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the game.
It’s not that it’s a particularly bad gameplay – it’s just a world away from the squad based focus of the game. Sadly this isn’t an isolated incident, and there are a few more brief periods where you go solo, including a notable tiresome sniper section – it all just seems very out of place among the serious plot and squad based combat.
Click to enlarge - The tank driving sequences are a disappointment
There are also the some rather uninspired vehicle sequences, in which you switch roles to a British tank commander and clear out towns of artillery pieces, tanks and whole companies of infantry single handedly. The tank is ridiculously powerful, knocking out artillery and tanks in a couple of hits and massacring infantry with ease without any real threat of death. It’s another example of Gearbox trying to break up the squad based combat with a different gameplay mechanic and what we end up with is a rancid piece of vehicle based naffness in between the tasty slices of squad based combat.
What’s more frustrating here is that it’s clear from the scripting in the in game cut scenes that originally Gearbox had meant for you to continue on with your squads and command the tank as if it was another squad (an angry giant metal squad) just as you were able to do in the original game, but for whatever reason this was cut in favour of the ridiculously trivial tank driver sections. Thankfully these don’t total more than ten minutes of what was for us well over twelve hours of play time, but their mere inclusion is enough to rankle.