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Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway follows Staff Sgt. Matt Baker, the fictional squad leader of a reconnaissance unit of the 101st Airborne, as he leads his men against the Nazis in that infamous Allied failure, Operation Market Garden. So why create a game in which the heroes lose? Because inevitable defeat allows Hell’s Highway to focus on gritty realism, offering an immersive gaming experience that draws you in on an emotional level.

As Sergeant Baker, you issue orders to your squadron, using fire and maneuver tactics to advance across the Dutch countryside. Make the wrong decision, and your men will die.

Affecting your strategic options is the game’s new destructible cover system— the only safe cover is behind brick, stone, or armored vehicle; wood fences can be chewed up by light arms fire and sand bag fortifications destroyed with explosives. This mechanic has been tried in other games, but never as successfully. The game also boasts weapons that look, react, and sound more authentic than any other World War II shooter to date.

Adding to the realism is the game’s large cast of characters, which includes familiar faces from the first two installments of the Brothers in Arms series. Each character has an individual personality and personal history, revealed via cutaway scenes and battlefield dialogue— which makes their deaths that much more affecting. Baker himself is an introspective, emotionally fragile individual who struggles with the responsibility of command and is deeply troubled when his decisions cost his men their lives.

Many parental advisory groups and some reviewers have criticized Hell’s Highway for its brutal violence; I do not. I commend the game’s developers for portraying Market Garden as it was, and for showing what weapons actually do. This is video game violence with consequences, where the wrong tactical decision results in the deaths of dear comrades. Because the game’s emotional stakes are so high, you sympathize with the soldiers, who face the stark realities of war and the loss of their brothers in arms. By moving past their physical and emotional traumas to continue fighting, they become even more heroic. Few would argue that the violence in the opening sequence of a character-driven war film like Saving Private Ryan is portrayed distastefully.

But video games offer something movies can’t: they allow you to control your environment, making you a participant instead of a spectator. I don’t care for Hell’s Highway’s “action camera” feature, which activates when you land a well-placed shot or grenade. It pauses the action to zoom in, in gory slow motion, on spilling guts or flying limbs. Thankfully, this feature can be turned off in the Options menu.

Hell’s Highway not only delivers a gaming challenge, but with its compelling story line and attention to detail, it presents an engaging, thought-provoking historical experience. As the game ends, despite the failure of Market Garden, Baker achieves an emotional victory by coming to terms with his demons and rallying his men, setting up the premise for the likely sequel: the Battle of the Bulge.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here