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The Here and Now
For the last three years EA has watched jealously as Activision’s Call of Duty franchise racks up obscene profits; their pain made more keen by EA’s own history with Infinity Ward’s founders. Their tactical response seems to have called for a two-prong attack. The first move was to resecure the talents of Jason West and Vince Zampella in the form of a publishing agreement with their new team, Respawn. The second move was to attack Call of Duty with a reboot of their own celebrated franchise, one which arguably defined the genre. It will be years before EA sees any benefit from their new arrangement with the original creators of Call of Duty, but the new Medal of Honor game, developed by Danger Close, is here today.
Following in the footsteps of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the Medal of Honor reboot takes a series historically based in the safe, politically correct World War II and sets it in a contemporary conflict. Unlike Call of Duty, instead of setting the action in the context of imaginary wars with fictitious nation-states, Danger Close has made realism their motto, if not always their execution. As such the game is set in Afghanistan and focuses on a narrowly define sliver of the greater conflagration.
Switching between three distinct perspective, players take on the roles of an Army Ranger, a Navy Seal and a Delta Force commando, the later two being the much ballyhooed “Tier 1 Operators”. In the game’s opening sequence AFO team Neptune (the Navy Seals) are driving into a small town to meet with a local leader named Tariq. Naturally, Tariq has been captured and you find yourself in the middle of an ambush.
After killing everyone in the town, you eventually track down where Tariq is being and set him free. He explains that it was the Taliban who took over the town and warns that they have a whole army in the nearby Shahikot Valley. There is no far flung conspiracy, or globe-trotting thriller had. The entire game is just about securing this one region inside Afghanistan.
The multiple perspectives provide a nice variety of mission types, weapon loadouts and locales. There is also an obligatory, but very exciting vehicle section where you sit in the gunner’s chair in an Apache helicopter. Despite the marketing emphasis on the Tier 1 Operators, the Army Ranger missions were more exciting and effective. The game’s standout moment occurs where your small squad of Rangers find itself surrounded by Taliban pouring out of the hills while your only cover, a mud construction hovel, crumbles around you.
Unfortunately, the game is not very good at communicating what it wants to the player. In multiple cases you will find yourself unable to figure out how to proceed until you stumble upon the magic spot the game expected you to stand to trigger the next event. Other times the game won’t trust you at all, removing your control completely to make sure you park your ATV in just the right spot, or restricting your movement speed while you walk to the next shooting section.
Mechanically the controls feel fine, but the Unreal Engine does not provide the silky-smooth high frame rates that are a hallmark of the Call of Duty games. On PC the default button assignments are also awkwardly placed for certain actions. Having melee attacks on the X key is not optimal and you have to reach all the way over to the left arrow key to toggle to the attached M203 grenade launcher on the M16 which is terribly inconvenient.
The weapons themselves look and sound great. You’ll see most of the usual suspects including M4 carbines, M60 machine guns and the odd sniper rifle, all with the assortment of scopes, red-dot sights and suppressors you’d expect. The shotguns are particularly satisfying, maintaining effectiveness beyond the typical six foot range and making a suitable mess. For magazine fed weapons if you reload before the gun is empty the game will properly recognize that you should have one bullet in the chamber in addition to the magazine capacity. Naturally this does not effect belt-fed weapons like the SAW. It’s not a huge thing, but a nice bit of detail.
Graphically, the game is a bit uneven. On PC it suffers from some familiar Unreal Engine 3 problems, including occasional texture pop-in and framerate hitches when new areas are loaded. The lighting is unimpressive at night time, but daylight scenes can look very good. If nothing else, Medal of Honor has very impressive dust and haze effects. On the other hand, the vegetation can look terrible. Coupled with the scripting glitches and clipping issues, Medal of Honor comes across as lacking the kind of refinement boasted by the competition
Between missions the game features CGI cutscenes from the temporary command post where the Colonel in charge debates tactical decisions with a General skyping in from Washington. They’re a bit overwrought, but help to connect the dots between all the moving parts, making it clear how the efforts of the Tier 1 teams interact with the main invasion force. The cutscenes are also the place where the game confronts issues too hot for gameplay, like friendly fire.
The game does implement a number of endearing features and moments but, taken as a whole, the Medal of Honor reboot fails sustain that quality through the whole campaign. For every great chopper sequence there’s a pointless ATV driving sequence. There’s evidence of a great attention to detail in places and elsewhere elements feel positively slipshod and dated. It’s not a bad game exactly, and in many ways it appears to have its heart in the right place, but excepting a couple standout missions, it’s a disappointingly average title.