Rebooting and reseating the Medal of Honor series was an obvious move for EA this year, following the unprecedented critical and commercial successes of the recent Call of Duty games; indeed, shifting the focus to the ongoing war in the Middle East (in particular that of Operation Enduring Freedom) is both canny and necessary, the game managing to create plenty of recent attention-grabbing column inches simply by virtue of its setting and the choice of combatants.
Speaking of combatants, whilst Medal of Honor’s multiplayer game might well be launching with a day one patch to blot out the word ‘Taliban’ there’s no such censorship in the game’s single player mode: this is an understated, considered America versus a faceless, characterless Al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan. Coincidence and real life parallels are unavoidable; in an attempt to accurately portray the actions, tactics and techniques of the various US Special Forces (refered to in the game as ‘Tier 1′) there’s no point in developers Danger Close pulling any punches – doing so would ruin the atmosphere.
Atmosphere that an ageing, stretched Unreal Engine 3 desperately tries to convey. On the whole Medal of Honor looks just about good enough – the draw distances are frequently impressive and the attention to detail can be great, but animations can feel canned, there’s the usual texture load waits indicative of the engine (including one hysterical close-up of a goat), the frame-rate’s not great (hovering around 30 FPS) and various objects flash in and out of your periphery, occasionally revealing enemies and locations that should have remained hidden. Locations are varied, but given the locale expect lots of mountains and desert before the game is over.
That’s not to say it’s not a diverse, interesting game because for the most part the story arcs and criss-crosses more than enough to keep up your attention: you’ll be playing the part of two Tier 1 operatives and, as a pace changing (and unexpected) switch, a marine – the game’s overlapping paths are a nice touch and the game’s conclusion neatly ties up all the threads. There’s not quite enough differentiation on the loading screens (or the action itself) to make the Special Forces characters stand out, but the sections with the marines are cleverly placed.
The Special Forces featured in the game are tasked with the sort of missions that normally punctuate other genre titles rather than populate them: marking targets, sneaking around in the dark and – yes – waiting, giving Medal of Honor its own identity and verve in an increasingly busy market. And whilst the heavily scripted story revolves around you and your squad, interludes and cut-scenes attempt to expand the plot to a wider scale, including one particularly nasty, resonating friendly fire incident that echoed many news stories at the turn of the century.
Players will come away from Medal of Honor with their own favourite sections, but a desperate last stand against impossible odds and a fraught, expertly designed helicopter section are obvious highlights in a game that concentrates on the humanity of the soldiers rather than the war around them, always keeping the player at the centre . There are few dull moments, and even when the action is dialed down low there’s always the promise of big things around the corner – the only low point the game’s ultimate conclusion.
Ending aside, Danger Close have excelled in creating a sense of tension and expectancy, the subdued, hushed crawls through the dark tinged with excitement and uncertainty. Carefully measured (and silenced) headshots making way for a pitched battle aren’t rare with first person shooters, but Medal Of Honor sports some stand-out moments against some overwhelming odds, often played out in laser peppered night vision. The enemy AI isn’t brilliant, mind, and occasionally that of your squad hits a rough spot (they can miss, repeatedly, from mere feet away) but on anything other than easy it’s a real challenge for the right reasons: the combat is fresh, quick and deadly, and Medal Of Honor gets this bit exactly right.
The game sometimes struggles with effectively communicating objectives, though – a bizarre problem with such a linear, point-to-point campaign. Your next location can be muddled and out of sight (and the HUD requires a tap of the d-pad to show even the most basic information) and one particular target marking exercise – highlighting enemy emplacements for an impatient hovering air support – required a couple of attempts to pass purely because it wasn’t clear what the player was supposed to do with the basic acronyms presented on screen and the flickering pixels in the distance.
AQ, RTB, SOFLAM: just a handful of the many abbreviations you’re expected to either know coming into the game, or pick up quickly – the chatter between soldiers (and the chain of command omnipresent over the radio) authentic but commonly indecipherable, even with subtitles. Consessions to the laymen aren’t expected in a game trying to be gritty, objective and realistic, of course, but be prepared for some of Medal of Honor’s weaving, lingo-laden plot to pass over your head, even if the overarching theme rings true.
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