Medal of Honor is a game that is unsure about what it wants to be. Before release we were treated to numerous interviews from EA where they stated their primary intention was to recreate an authentic soldiering experience. Well from any military perspective that is clearly nonsense. I’m hardly a military expert but I’d imagine that during a dangerous stealth operation a degree of silence might be required, perhaps employing hand signals to indicate patterns for attack and to indicate when to move. Here however a stealth mission is guided via the medium of breathy whispering and repeated commands. I don’t know about you, but if I were lying under a bridge during a stealth mission as a number of enemy soldiers suddenly homed into view, that last thing I’d need to do as a seasoned combat veteran would be to repeatedly grunt “Stay Down!” to my trusted team-mate.
Now to criticise a game for giving the player direction is churlish. Perhaps if I was forced to learn a series of hand signals to be able to play the game correctly I’d be sat here complaining about that instead. But Medal of Honor is not an authentic experience. It may feature facets of military operations that have some relation to reality, and it may be that the game is seeking to give us a facsimile of the modern soldiering experience in terms we as gamers will understand. But it still isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Let me give you an example. For much of the game, the interface is minimised, on-screen indicators for ammo and team-mate positioning, by default fade from your screen allowing you to immerse yourself in the action, only recalling those details if you require them. That’s fine by me. Except every time you perform a headshot, an icon pops up to congratulate you, accompanied with an exaggerated brain splattering sound effect. So on the one hand we have this minimal interface, well designed and immersive and on the other we have something so inherently ‘gamey’ that it undoes all of the good UI design in an instant. It’s as though at the last moment someone thought ‘this would be cool!’ and shoved the headshot indicator into the game without a thought for the hard work that had gone before it.
The above might seem like nitpicking but in the early parts of the game it can frustrate you that the game is trying it’s darnedest to pull you out of the action with it’s immersion killing ways, just when it should be sucking you in. The constant chopping and changing of the character we are controlling should be familiar by now to veterans of the Call Of Duty series, but early on in Medal of Honor, all it serves to do is frustrate as you move between scenarios. You never really get to know the team-mates who fight alongside you, no matter how epic their beards are. At one point your commanding officer saves the life of your character after a scripted sequence leaves you at the mercy of a Taliban soldier. On brutally killing the Taliban soldier he snarls at you “I just saved your ass”. As a gamer being shepherded through a scripted sequence, in order to make an AI character look heroic, it felt cheap and made me actively dislike ‘Mother’ (or was it Voodoo? I couldn’t tell them apart) for much of the game.
You may have noted that in the above paragraph, I repeatedly used the word ‘early’ which carries the implicit suggestion that things get better as the game progresses. And they sure do. The game can roughly be divided into three acts and the second act is where things start to come together. Instead of being whipped from one scenario to the next, plucked out from the action and displaced, things start to become seamless. The player will be controlling an under siege US Ranger one moment, then whipped into the cockpit of a helicopter in the gunners seat to offer said Ranger air support. Just as it looks as though things might go awry for the chopper, we’re called into action as a sniper saving the day before turning attention to an under-fire team of Navy SEALs. It’s at this point the games message finally starts to come through, it’s not about being a soldier from a technical perspective so much as it’s about being a soldier and supporting your fellows in trying circumstances. If Medal of Honor is anything, it’s a love letter to the armed forces in game form. While that might sound execrable to you, the sequence mentioned above features some truly thrilling moments. The stand-out moment of the game comes as a team of US Rangers tasked with flanking an enemy firing position gets into serious trouble, forced to use a small stone hut as protection against an underestimated Taliban force. RPG fire blows the hut apart as you desperately cling to what little cover remains, mowing down countless foes with your M249 SAW. But for each enemy you kill, it seems like another three appear and the situation quickly becomes unmanageable. It’s a truly tense moment and the game manages to keep up the tempo for the next hour or so. This is when the game is at it’s strongest, piling on the combat thick and fast and moving between different types of warfare in a way that helps you understand how the different battles being fought link together into a bigger picture.
The general gunplay in the game is meaty and satisfying with some excellent sound design. I like that when you’re close to an ally you hear both their actual voice as well as their radio voice from your earpiece, it’s a small thing but shows an attention to detail lacking in lesser titles. The main problem with the single player experience is simply that it’s too short. Five or so hours and you’re done. Longevity could potentially have come in the form of the Tier One mode, which challenges you to repeat the story missions against the clock, with the clock pausing for head-shots and melee kills. This is probably supposed to provoke you into doing your best Rambo impersonation, and diving around corners popping enemies in the face with your pistol is all well and good, but unfortunately the mode doesn’t work. Due to the fact the single player campaign is heavily scripted and relies on the NPC actors being in the right place at the right time to trigger the next sequence, it all too often falls apart. In my first two attempts at Tier 1 mode, all was going well until a scripted event failed to fire (due to me leaving team-mates behind in my frenzied search for blood!), leaving me no choice but to start again or just quit in frustration. I chose the latter.
Nowadays every FPS needs to have a multi-player mode worthy of it’s single player and for MOH’s multi-player Battlefield supremo’s DICE were called in to assist. Considering DICE are respected as some of the best craftsmen of thrilling large-scale online violence, it’s understandable that expectations were pretty high for the multi-player portion of the game. On first glance it seems as though all boxes are ticked. Graphically, particle effects and gunfire are spot on, with the dusty Afghan environments brought to life expertly. Sound, as with the single-player is excellent, with each gunshot and explosion carrying real weight, the game does a great job of making the player feel as though they are in amongst the blood and bullets. However, from the half dozen or so hours I’ve spent in the multi-player it has become evident that there are a few flaws. For one, many of the maps are very narrow, meaning you’re forced down some pretty tight corridors of fire, often ruled by snipers. In fact I’ve seen whole games turn into one massive sniper battle, as players give up on taking the actual objectives and instead content themselves with the occasional headshot. Smoke grenades are your friend if you’re brave enough to try and play as anything else than a sniper. The spawn system too can be annoying, especially on the Combat Mission game types, where you can try and spawn on the frontlines of battle next to a team-mate. However, unlike the squad based spawning of the Battlefield games, which relies on a clever team-mate staying alive behind enemy lines and in cover, about 70% of the time here, you’ll conveniently spawn right in front of a snipers cross-hair. My main lament is that if they’d carried over the destructible terrain and cover of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the sniper issue wouldn’t be so bad. You could simply destroy enemy cover, forcing the opposition to fall back or try to re-base themselves, giving you the chance to advance. As it is, the Multi-player is quite slow-paced and relies on rare feats of individual excellence, or even rarer moments of tactical cohesion amongst team-mates to get past the sniper slog.
Medal of Honor overall is a package containing both excellence and mediocrity. The single-player takes a while to get going, but when it does you won’t want it to stop. It’s perhaps unfortunate then that it’s such a short experience with little replay value. Multi-player has a lot of potential, but map design and weapon balance can turn it into a real chore. With regular DLC being released it could yet become a classic, but the multi-player FPS arena is a tightly contested battlezone, show any signs of weakness and your various opponents will pounce. With Black Ops just being released, Brink coming next year and Battlefield 3 announced, Medal of Honor may struggle to survive as a serious competitor, at least in its current form.