We’re a sucker for a good war movie. Black Hawk Down, A Bridge Too Far, even the classic Wild Geese... all show fighting men dealing with the extremities of war to thrilling and dramatic effect, without ever really cheapening their sacrifice. That’s pretty much been what Medal of Honor – the original military franchise – is all about: honouring the men and women who fight and die for us, while also delivering a game that’s as entertaining as it is impactful.
That’s pretty much what Electronic Arts has been promising with the reboot to the series, controversially set in the ongoing Afghanistan conflict. To that end, EA’s been very vocal about its recruitment of serving spec ops types – or Tier One Operatives, as EA reminded us in trailer after earnest trailer. Even when we visited EA’s LA HQ last year, Greg Goodrich, lead producer on the project, was keen to point out the intense level of verisimilitude they were hoping to achieve with the game.
Which, taken altogether, makes the final product that we’re finally left with all the more baffling.
One product, two games
Delivering two executable to separate singleplayer from multiplayer is nothing new – Call of Duty did that with CoD4 – but the way Medal of Honor delivers the two experiences is curious to say the least.
The singleplayer game uses the frankly aging Unreal 3 engine, and on PC it’s supremely unsatisfying to fire up a game you have high hopes for and be greeted with barely adequate graphical options like Antialiasing: Off or On. And it looks like it’s only 2x AA at that!
The multiplayer game uses the Frostbite 2.0 engine from Bad Company 2, and it’s an altogether more appropriate beast for PC. In fact, it’s one of the best looking online shooters we’ve played this year.
It’s a worrying trend from EA games, and one that matches the aforementioned Bad Company 2 – a lacklustre campaign experience bit a more or less solid online one. Which is a shame, because it really wouldn’t take a lot to lift Medal of Honor’s singleplayer experience from adequate to awesome.
The story starts strong, placing the player as a member of a small unit of specialists – Tier One Operators of the highest skill level – seeking out an informant in an Afghan village. But it’s a setup, and before long it’s a running battle through the streets and buildings of the town. As a set piece, it’s very well staged, but it quickly becomes apparent that that pretty much sums up the entire game – set piece after scripted set piece, with very little in the way anything resembling open gameplay.
There is a great story here, don’t get us wrong. How can there not be when you’re trying to depict the actions of arguably some of the most skilled warfighters on the planet? But more often than not this story, and the men it’s trying to depict, get lost under one gaming cliché after another – the last stand against waves of enemies, the ambush, the sniper level... none of it really does the subject justice.
There’s some really solid action dialogue, however, and though it may be a bit overcooked for some gamers it really does suit the subject. The motion capture of the elite characters is similarly top-notch, but for every moment of immersion in the game – and there are many – there’s a bug or realisation that drops you right back out again. In one mission, it’s the pickup chasing after you that’s utterly empty – no drivers, no gunner in the back – that’s still managing to shoot at you. In many others, it’s the realisation of just how linear the game is – and really, what competent military force attacks up a ravine while not even trying to scale the heights?!?
Sadly, it’s simply not a compelling enough experience, and really doesn’t live up to the best that Medal of Honor has offered in the past. It’s not the worst game in the franchise, but it’s certainly a long way from what we were hoping for in a reboot.
For you and a friend ...
Then, of course, there’s the multiplayer portion of the game, which makes the campaign seem like a mere afterthought by comparison.
With the vastly upgraded engine, it’s a much more immersive experience, and without the occasional annoying AI glitches of the campaign, immensely more satisfying. We had been sceptical about the 24 player limit on matches, but the maps are all so finely tuned that you don’t really miss the extra eight bodies. The game modes are a wonderful mixture of slogging matches akin to Bad Company 2’s Rush mode (though with only one objective per stage), map domination, and fast paced objective matches.
But it’s not all wine and IEDs here, either. For one thing, some of the more interesting stance options from the campaign mode, like lean and prone, are not present in multiplayer. Once upon a time you couldn’t make a military shooter without such moves; these days it seems like devs have forgotten how. It’s like we’re in a Dark Age of game design banging the code and design ethics of a previous renaissance together in a fit of barbarian pique.
The class-system is also a bit anaemic. Bad Company 2’s classes have very defined roles, but considering there are few vehicles in MoH, the Spec Ops class’ rocket launcher seems a waste, and with the ability to so easily fire sniper rifles from the hip or pull off long range shots with an assault... there doesn’t seem to be a lot of differentiation.
But the good far outweighs the bad. Support actions, Medal of Honor’s answer to kill streak awards are satisfying without being nearly so powerful, and every weapon feels beautifully tooled and lethal. What’s more, with the superior graphics engine combined with great motion capture, the multiplayer game is easily the more immersive of the game’s two parts.
Which, when you get down to it, makes this one of the hardest games of the year to actually rate. But since it is one package, we have to judge at as such – that being the case, Medal of Honor’s singleplayer campaign, despite some highpoints, really does drag the title down. If released by itself, we’d be very tempted to give a Hot Award to the game’s multiplayer, but taken as a whole, Medal of Honor has proven itself unable to live up to EA’s hype.