Back in the heyday of the PS2 and the Xbox, shooters were historical rather than modern, enemies were German rather than Middle Eastern or Russian and multiplayer was a myth, rather than a selling point.
Publishers and developers pumped out game after game set during WW2. Medal of Honour kicked the trend off proper in 1999 before Call of Duty began its steady march to power. So many video shooters piled onto the WW2 bandwagon that soon people were crying out for change.
That change occurred with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and, you could argue, the ongoing success of the Halo series). Suddenly WW2 was out and modern shooters were in. Online multiplayer became the cash-cow to focus on for developers and publishers, who wrung their hands at the prospect of yearly releases of grey-brown mini-updates charging all-too eager gamers £40 per release.
Before that paradigm shift, however, a FPS series had set itself apart from an on-the-rails one-man-army crowd. Like those around it at the time it was set in WW2, yet focused on more than one individual.
Based on the exploits of the 101st Parachute Division (and with a healthy dose of inspiration from the critically acclaimed Band of Brothers TV series), Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms aimed to show a different side to combat, as well as gaming. Instead of a one man army carrying five to six weapons at a time, players took on the role of Matt Baker, reluctant squad leader and all-too fragile human being.
Being in charge of a squad, the player is tasked with using real-life military tactics to defeat their enemy. Two fire teams have to be used to fix an enemy squad in position with a base of fire while an assault team is directed to flank them for an easy kill. Rushing well-entrenched enemies is a no, as both the player and their squad can only take so much punishment before dropping.
The game asked tactical questions of its players, something lauded when compared the “go here, kill that” mentality of other releases. Brothers in Arms arrived at the dawn of the cover-based shooter, fresh enough to be admired.
The first entry into the series received critical acclaim, for both its gameplay and its story-telling, where each member of the squad has their own personality told through dialogue and cut-scenes. As opposed to one-man army shooters players were encouraged to rely on their squadmates and care for their wellbeing through the Normandy campaign of 1944.
A second Brothers in Arms followed shortly, lambasted by some as an attempt to cash in – since it portrayed mostly the same event but from a different characters perspective. It did show, however, that Gearbox were intent of creating a narrative for the characters they had created – the game added depth and backstory to events that would occur later in the series.
Gearbox waited until the next generation had emerged before returning to Baker and the 101st. By this point Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had been released to great success, causing a number of other publishers to begin scrambling for their own modern IP. Even multiplayer greats like DICE’s Battlefield series began to modernise its highly successful model, increasing graphical fidelity and realism to cater to gamers’ new tastes.
It was in this market that Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released. Featuring a new graphics engine and storyline, it focused on the 101st’s role in the failed Operation Market Garden. Many of the same features were there with a healthy coating of improvement: situational cover returned, as well as the addition of destructible environments. Two new forms of squad were added in the shape of a bazooka and machinegun squad. Tactical choices were numerous in open campaign maps allowing players to create their own unique battle plan.
In an era where huge multiplayer maps are becoming the norm and single player campaigns shunned or completely ignored, Gearbox attempted to tell a single player story that would abate a modern gamer’s needs to go online and yell at someone through a mic. There are very few games that prize their storyline over their profitability (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind) and they are usually hailed as diamonds in the rough.
It has been six years since the release of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Returning to the game now reveals a title that has lost none of its sheen: the graphical fidelity of the game still holds up, while its historical accuracy and sound design is second to none. Gearbox has since its release created and grown the hugely successful Borderlands series (itself also based on teamwork) and the “to be continued” at the end of Hell’s Highway seems to become more and more of a false hope.
The developers attempted to cash in on the success of Borderlands (and of Quentin Tarentino’s film Inglorious Basterds) with the announcement of a new entry into the Brothers in Arms series named Furious Four. Tongue-in-cheek, outlandish and cartoony, scorn was poured upon the game until finally Gearbox agreed to remove the game from the fan favourite series.
Nothing much more has been heard from Gearbox since: rumours of a Brothers in Arms set in Bastogne – where Matt Baker’s story comes to an end – are abound without confirmation by the developers. It must be said that with the new generation picking up steam and gamers finally growing tired of cookie-cutter carbon-copy modern warfare shooters, perhaps the time has come for a much-loved franchise to step up to the plate once again.