No-one really knows the precise recipe that guarantees a successful first person shooter. However, one new theory, based on literally minutes of painstaking consideration by yours truly, suggests that the following ingredients may be helpful: a three word title, under the format "X of Y"; a hideously competitive multiplayer mode; a near-contemporary Western military theme; and, most important of all, at least one character with a beard.
EA's new Medal of Honor has already nailed this last element, even though the game won't be out for months yet. The front cover boasts a hard-as-nails-but-still-quite-cool-looking chap, replete with a massive trampy beard and a whopping great machine gun. He's also sporting sunglasses AND a baseball cap, the latter worn backwards in the manner of an early '90s rap artist. It's a terrifying combination: he looks like some form of CIA hiphop busker, a man who could kill you in 48 different ways if you refuse to buy his last Big Issue.
Thankfully, this isn't all that MoH also has going for it. If we return to my hastily-assembled checklist, it's clear that EA LA is scoring high on all fronts: the title is a natural fit, obviously, while the multiplayer side of things is being handled by Battlefield developer DICE. Hardly anything is known about this part of the game aside from the fact that it'll use DICE's own Frostbite engine, but considering the quality of the recent Bad Company 2, it'll be a big surprise if the Swedes drop the ball on this one.
So that just leaves the near-contemporary Western military theme. As luck would have it, this latest Medal of Honor has opted to ditch the series' World War 2 setting in favour of a new plot involving terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan. Plot details are still vague, but we now know that the story will be told from two very different perspectives: for part of the game you'll play as a regular Ranger grunt; at other times you'll be in the shoes of a man named "Rabbitt" - a Tier 1 Operator. For those of you who don't subscribe to Guns & Ammo magazine, know that these are the cream of the USA's military forces. There are about 200 Tier 1 Ops in active service, compared to two million in Uncle Sam's overall throng of soldiers. These guys could kill you with a bus ticket, sneak aboard the N87 to Kingston, and make an impromptu radar blocker using a damp Rizla and a discarded kebab. Some of them may - or may not - look like CIA hiphop buskers.
Let's finally cut to the chase here: Medal of Honor is EA's answer to Modern Warfare 2. Comparisons are inevitable, and on the face of the demo presentation I watched last month, they're quite apt. The mission I was shown finds Rabbitt and his lethal chums sneaking through a mountainous Afghan landscape, just as dawn is breaking, stalking their unwitting foes. The Tier 1 Ops have names like "Preacher", "Voodoo" and "Mother", while the stealth-based action carries a focus on silent, simultaneous takedowns, orchestrated by terse radio commands. Later on, as the pace heats up, the group are protected by the familiar, awesome firepower of an AC-130 gunship. At all times the action carries a deeply cinematic feel, driving the story onward through sharp banter between Rabbitt's fearsome colleagues.
So far, so Modern Warfare - but one notable point of difference is the game's overall tone. Infinity Ward's mega-hit often resembled a Michael Bay film, and a particularly noisy one at that. Here, during this stage at least, things are a lot quieter. The chatter between the men is hushed and littered with military jargon, recalling the detail of HBO's war miniseries Generation Kill. Fine, so there's clearly far more action in this game than there was in that show, but when violence arises it does so with a similarly brisk efficiency. When Rabbitt and co stumble across a handful of insurgents, skulking around a camp fire, there's a quick back-and-forth discussion as the ops plan their attack. "Mother" gives the signal, and the five men meet a silenced lead death. The whole attack lasts less than five seconds.
Tension, it would seem, is the main attribute of this outing. Later in the demo, in the vicinity of a fort-like village that rises out of the hills, the Tier 1 Ops encounter a larger band of fighters. As Rabbitt closes in, a warning crackles over the comms: "Wait, they're bunching up." The demo player circles around and creeps to the top of the incline, meters from where the hostiles are passing beneath. Again, there's a moment of anticipation as the fighters prepare themselves, then the specialists attack together. From the demo, there's a genuine vibe that the player is part of an active, participating squad - and a highly skilled one to boot.
It's not all quiet moments, either. At one point the group spots an enemy convoy on the near horizon, a short chain of trucks moving over the rugged terrain. There's another whispered conversation to prepare the use of the AC-130 gunship, then the player is tasked with marking the trucks via a laser designator. Rabbitt switches over to night vision, the screen taking on a grainy green tint, and then he marks the unfortunate vehicles with a beam that cuts across the land. Moments later the dreaded aircraft arrives, decimating the targets with a deafening explosive barrage. It's a sequence that neatly sums up the whole demo: several prolonged stretches of quiet, punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence.
The full game may well take on a similar shape in terms of its overall structure, as the Tier 1 brigade are just part of the story. Though it probably goes without saying, EA has stated that the Ranger-based sections will offer a markedly difference flavour - acting as the sledgehammer foil to the Tier 1's scalpel, to use the developer's own analogy. There will also be vehicle-based moments too, though it's not yet clear whether these will offer full, roaming freedom, or whether they'll be relatively linear bits like the snowmobile and boat sections of Modern Warfare 2.
Ah, there's that comparison again. The development team must be sick of hearing them already, but I dare say that there'll be a few more before the final game arrives. Still, that's what you get when you buck a long-running WW2 trend (one that covers some 13 titles, by my count) in favour of a modern, terrorist-based scenario. In any case, it looks as though the new Medal of Honor will do more than enough to distinguish itself from its obvious rival. The taut mood and military detail hint at a game with a far more subtle ambiance, and it's looking good, too: the visuals in the demo were supposedly "only 60 per cent done", but there's already much to admire in the atmospheric world that EA has created, in the thin mist that stretches across the rocky terrain on a cold blue morning. So yes, I still love the killer hip-hop hobo - but I'm guessing that he won't be the only talking point when the game arrives in the autumn.
Medal of Honor will be released in the autumn for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.