Let's get this off the chest right at the start: it's clear from hands-on time spent with Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway that Gearbox hasn't gone about reinventing the wheel.
It's still Brothers in Arms. Squads to command? Yep. A context-sensitive order system? Yep again. A suppression meter and the overhead tactical map view? Check. The tension of being pinned down by German assault? Indeed.
But what the developer has done is taken the foundation it's constructed in the previous two titles in the series and bolted on a number of new features. At the same time, it's made the transition to Epic's widely adopted Unreal Engine 3 and the improvements on a visual level are certainly welcome.
In Gearbox's continuing plan to follow the 101st Airborne through World War II, Hell's Highway focuses on a bold and daring operation that the Allied forces were eventually to lose - Operation Market Garden.
Market Garden was launched in September 1944. The goal of the operation was to secure a two-lane road and bridges that would provide the Allies with a fast, direct route into Germany and end the war by Christmas. It was the task of the Airborne troops to secure the roadway and bridges - the most famous of which was the bridge at Arnhem - to open the way for an Allied tank corps. Bloody fighting would lead to the road becoming known as Hell's Highway.
It's into this war zone that BiA's paratrooper Sgt. Matt Baker is thrown, heading up a reconnaissance unit. Gearbox explains he's a soldier that must find a moral victory in spite of defeat.
Hell's Highway's story opens in a hospital in Eindhoven, which was heavily bombed during the operation. It's actually two-thirds of the way into the game and, without spoiling the plot, suffice to say Baker's clearly been unhinged by something he's witnessed and finds himself at a mental crossroads...
Story aside, the game doesn't mess around drip-feeding new features. Instead, they pretty much all get chucked in your face in the space of five minutes. The screen now turns a lovely shade of red and goes blurry to alert you of imminent life-threatening danger, and it becomes apparent that you can now vault over objects in the environment, something criminally missing in the previous games.
Oh, and Brothers in Arms now employs a cover system.
Gearbox has labelled its cover system 'digging in', which drops you into a third-person viewpoint, and it bears more resemblance to the system seen in Rainbow Six: Vegas than Gears of War. However quite whether it's been included because such a system is the de rigueur in squad-based shooters, or if it does genuinely prove tactically vital, is a question still to be answered.
Want another new feature? How about shredding cover. The impact of now breakable cover is obvious, and it works the same both sides of the war fence. It adds too another element to what's really Brothers in Arms' big puzzle of establishing the best way to overcome the enemy.
Do you order your squad to shred the cover the enemy's cowering behind, ruling it out of possible use by yourself and your soldier comrades seconds later?
BACK TO THE FRONT
Soon after the hospital scene you're whisked back to the start of the operation. Strapped into a Horsa glider, you receive a bone-jarring introduction to Holland soil and, after a meet and greet with Dutch resistance, you're tasked with flushing out pockets of German resistance in a rural area to secure landing zones for the Airborne arrival.