And the authentic ‘this is how it actually was’ feel is all-pervasive. While Call of Duty 2 and Medal of Honor: Airborne sometimes made you feel like you were winning WWII single-handed. Hell’s Highway, by contrast, makes you feel like your own small efforts are a part of a wider whole. There’s a great deal of emphasis in the in-game squad banter and the numerous cut-scenes on the almost banal realities of wartime life, and on the personal struggles and tragedies of the individual soldiers.
You might call Hell’s Highway the thinking man’s WWII FPS, and the plot certainly delves into areas that other games in the genre don’t address. The focus on the supporting cast also means that, when you lose someone in the squad through stupidity or carelessness, it means more than just another dead grunt. It’s noticeable that that game is at its weakest when Baker abandons his squad and goes solo: it’s like we’ve gone from Band of Brothers to Where Eagles Dare in one sudden shift of tone. In fact, the modelling of the weapons, which are hideously inaccurate unless aimed using the zoomed-in Iron Sights view, makes this sort of conventional run and gun gameplay almost impossible.
Sadly, for all its great points and worthy intentions, Hell’s Highway ends up falling a little flat. It might be that the emphasis on suppressive fire, finding cover and outflanking can turn the game into a bit of a grind; once you’ve slowly worked your way from one wall the the next to the next in one Dutch town, you kind of feel like you don’t really want to do the same in another. Gearbox has had the sense to punctuate the flow with the odd tank section or set-piece battle to change the tempo, but a lot of the time this is very-much a single paced game. It also might be that Hell’s Highway can feel surprisingly linear. Sometimes you feel that Gearbox has given you one sensible solution to each section of a mission, and any effort you make to move outside that box will end in death for you and your men.
Meanwhile, there are times when the game’s idea of realism either doesn’t quite add up, or doesn’t add up to much fun. Why is it that you can be incredibly accurate when shooting through the iron sights at long distance, yet your chance of shooting Jerry from point-blank range with a machine gun is virtually nil? Why are your men so useless at notching up the kills themselves unless you get them really, really close and force their targets to leave cover? Why do your chaps sometimes ignore the obvious, safe, sideways route from position to position in favour of a heroic charge over several intervening walls in the face of oncoming machine gun fire?
What’s more, the game’s more realistic approach to damage can be annoying. Having carefully shepherded your troops from position to position, taking out several pockets of resistance along the way, it’s rather galling to be taken down in one or two shots by a sniper who appears to have popped up from nowhere or a group of Germans who might have just beamed in from planet Mars.