When Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway looks more like Soldier of Fortune than it does Medal of Honor you know that it's not your typical WWII shooter. Our first act was to hurl a grenade that blew one man into three: eviscerating his mid-section and blasting off his left leg at the knee. Once we'd thrown the grenade, the game decided that we weren't in any immediate danger, so it even decided to give us a close-up of the explosion. In slow motion we could make out every little detail, including the bones protruding from each stump.
We've been used to this kind of violence for a long time now, but never in a WWII game - a time period that's always been handled with some delicacy. However, Gearbox insisted it wasn't all about the violence (although did admit that these sequences were both "really cool" and "a lot of fun") when we caught up with them for a hands-on with the near-finished game.
"Our main philosophy is twofold," Gearbox co-founder and president Randy Pitchford said. "First of all it's about the authenticity, and secondly we want to focus on squad combat."
Credit to them, as after the first two levels it's abundantly clear that the effort's paid off. Explosions and machine-gun fire tear people apart much like they would in real life, and enemies will react to suppression fire by using cover or, if they spot a flanking manoeuvre, by retreating to safer ground. Weaker cover will crumple under heavy fire, so it's advisable to seek out metal items rather than wooden ones, although there's isn't much that will hold firm against a direct hit from the awesome bazooka.
The shield system is especially interesting too, as players need to quickly react to increasing 'risk' (be it upcoming explosions or gunfire) indicated by red colouring and blur effects. If you're slow to make a move you'll eventually take a bullet, and unless you're extremely lucky you'll probably die from the wound.
Three's a crowd
You also gain control of up to three squads in the game, allowing you to set up advanced battle plans against multiple enemy forces. Clever management of allies is the key to success in this part of the game - leave them stranded and they'll be gunned down, removing your covering fire and ending your chance of a sneak attack from the sides.
The game's been in development since the very dawn of March 2005, and although Gearbox have never offered a firm release date it's taken just a little longer to develop than many had anticipated. Hell's Highway was our cover game in May 2006, on the back of two very impressive predecessors - but one factor that Gearbox and Ubisoft probably hadn't counted on was, 23 issues later, WWII games becoming... well, old news.
Certainly, when even the unquestioned daddy of the World War 2 genre, Call of Duty, ditches the early 1940s in favour of modern combat you've got to ask whether there's still call for a game like Hell's Highway, and the brutal truth is... maybe not.
Of course, while it's safe to say that most people have had their fill of gaming between '39 and '45, it would be ridiculous to dismiss a series as previously reliable as this simply because of its setting. But for all the tricks and ideas at play here, we not sure we've actually seen anything that's particularly new - not to Brothers in Arms, and not to gaming as a whole.
Cover systems appear in almost any shooter you'd care to mention nowadays, the flanking attacks are regurgitations of the same tactics used in the last BIA games and impassable borders return to steer you through some disappointingly restrictive levels. Unless the later missions bring some originality to the table we're not convinced that Hell's Highway will be a route worth taking.
A mixed bag: the cover system's a nice addition, there's some brutal deaths, and we love the meticulous authenticity of the world... but so far there's just nothing we haven't seen before.