I didn't like the Medal of Hono(u)r beta - but that's okay, according to DICE, as it was intended to be an actual beta. Not these fancy 'betas as marketing gimmicks' that are commonplace nowadays (although it was used as a marketing gimmick) but an actual, honest-to-goodness beta with warts and all, such as serious problems that needed fixing - like the way it kept crashing my PS3, for instance - and really dodgy balancing.
So, it's been a few months and the game's due out in a couple of weeks. What's changed? Loads of stuff, actually. Some of the most noticeable changes include the overhauled HUD, the recoil of the weapons and the killstreaks, which are now far harder to obtain. That might not sound like much in an industry obsessed with making up 'revolutionary' new features to plonk on the back of boxes, but take the game for a spin online and it's clear that these tweaks have had a massive impact.
That being said, my only opportunity to test out the multiplayer component of the game - this is the bit being made by DICE with the Frostbite engine, as opposed to Danger Close's single-player campaign - was over the course of an afternoon a few weeks ago. The set-up was two random teams of European journalists, who all worked together about as well as two random teams of European journalists ever can: badly. One major problem was that the sides were wildly imbalanced, and while steamrolling the other team over and over again was undeniably entertaining, it didn't show off too much of the game's subtle intricacies. Still, can't complain.
Changes from the beta are immediately apparent as soon as you spawn. The re-jigged recoil adds a lot more to the fire-and-forget style of the beta, and while the animations still lack the fluidity of other competing shooters there's an excellent selection of chunky, enjoyable weapons. It is incredibly easy to perish, which makes bullets feel deadly and life precious.
The first mode we played was Team Assault - the game's standard Team Deathmatch variant. It's tried and tested, and will probably be the most popular mode. You band off into two squads (yes, one team is the Taliban - just like the papers said) and try to shoot each other while not dying in the process. On that note, when will developers stop trying to make up their own names for Team Deathmatch? Nobody is being fooled into thinking this is anything new.
Then you get a bit of Sector Control, which you'll probably recognise more by its other name: Domination. Here you try and lock down three points on the map and then hold them to accrue points. More points, more prizes. You'll end up shooting people along the way, too. Again, it's a staple gametype of modern shooters.
More interesting, perhaps, are Objective Raid and Combat Mission. These have drawn their inspiration from DICE's spiritual sibling Battlefield. Objective Raid turns Bad Company's Rush into an intense skirmish where an attacking team needs to blow up two points on a teeny tiny map within five minutes. Areas are so small in Objective Raid that you're shooting people a couple of seconds after you spawn.
Combat Mission is an altogether more expansive territory-grabbing mode that sees an attacking team attempting to move across five consecutive objectives. These have a bit more dressing to them than simple points A and B; on the Shahikhot Mountains map, for example, you start by securing a crashed helicopter, and then move to blow up an ammo depot, clear out a stronghold, knock over a mortar station and, finally, take out an anti-air gun.
One problem that popped up in our games, as a result of the team imbalance, was that it seemed difficult for an attacking team to get the upper hand on a squad of devoted defenders. Having a point A and B in Rush divided defenders' attentions and allowed attackers a bit of variety, but with only one objective to guard at any given time it's obvious where the attacking team are going to be pouring in from. Teams swap roles at the end, though, so it's okay.
Still, these modes were pepped up considerably by DICE's considerable mapmaking expertise. The Shahikhot Mountains and the Mazar-i-Sharif Airfield were both intricate arenas for Combat Mission, each an epic, unfolding zone of carefully-constructed details, with a natural way of guiding you in the right direction. Diwagal Camp and Kabul City Ruins, the latter recognisable from the first beta, are both fantastic Team Assault maps, peppered with just the right mix of high and low ground, tight alleys and wide-open sniper traps.
What's most interesting are the Killstrea- sorry, Support Actions. It's all about the Scorechain, you see, which you obviously rack up by killing the other team, but also by performing actions like capturing points and securing objectives. About four kills earns you 50 points on the chain, which can then be cashed in offensively on a mortar strike or defensively on a UAV. Save up even more points, though, and you can splurge your hard-earned chain on bigger and better prizes, peaking in either beefy Kevlar vests for your team or the opportunity to drop a cruise missile on your enemies.
It's clearly a similar concept to the Killstreaks we've all come to know and love in the other game, but giving you the option to go defensive or offensive with each support action adds a lot of depth to the proceedings. Die and you lose your chain, but if you've managed to earn a reward it'll still be available to use when you respawn; if you score chain hits 250 and you die, for instance, you'll still be able to choose between either an artillery barrage or improved rounds when you magically pop back into existence.
Support Actions are not nearly as frequent as most killstreak rewards, so when you've managed to earn an artillery strike you really feel like you've accomplished something. It also exacerbated the difference in ability of the two teams playing on the day: my team, as it so happened, were stacking ammo and armour upgrades on each other to the point that we were virtually indestructible.
As you level up each of the three classes - Rifleman, Special Ops and Sniper - you unlock bounties of fancy doohickies and attachments. Classes must level up individually, though your level remains the same regardless of what faction you're playing as. Each class progresses through three tiers of weaponry, so the OPFOR (Taliban) rifleman gets an AK-47, moves on to a PKM and ends with a F2000. In the interests of parity, both factions share the same top-tier unlocks - the coalition rifleman enjoys a M16A4 and M249 before the F2000, for instance.
Class variety adds another interesting twist to the proceedings, with the Rifleman acting as a standard go-to 'assault rifle' guy with a bunch of handy grenades, but the Special Ops comes complete with a rather fancy rocket launcher. Snipers snipe.
All the weapons feel weighty and pack a punch, and there's general sense they're not too far removed from their Bad Company 2 equivalents. It's your standard mix of assault rifles, snipers and shotties you've seen before a hundred times, though the execution is impeccable. Amusingly, though, somebody went out of their way to tell me that sniper rifles were effective at long range fire but not so good when used up close.
Where Medal of Honor will fit into an online world already populated with Bad Company 2 and Call of Duty still remains to be seen, but it certainly looks like DICE is competently treading the middle ground. With a compound of modes from both games, and a devout insistence on making it so that skill is more important than perks or unlocks, it looks like it shouldn't have too much trouble carving out a niche of its own.
Medal of Honor is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on October 15.