If that bearded hobo bloke - the Tier 1 Operator EA is using in its marketing for upcoming Afghanistan shoot fest Medal of Honor - represents the scalpel, the US Army Ranger represents the sledgehammer. They are the ground pounders, the overwhelming force - what you would expect to see from big military. It is the Army Rangers that executive producer Greg Goodrich is here at EA's spring showcase to demo.
The demo is taken from a Ranger level set in March 2002. It begins with a cinematic - the Leave a Message trailer EA put out last week to debut the "tough as nails" US military force. Go on. Have a gander. It's pretty good.
The Rangers engage the enemy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, but get pinned down by an enemy DShK heavy machine gun. A fire team of six Rangers then volunteers to head into a village to find the machine gun and destroy it. You are one of these rangers, and this is where we pick up the action.
The first thing you notice is how authentic the environment looks. The Shah-i-Kot Valley is a vast place. Dusty mountain passes lead the Rangers along a meandering path through the rugged, harsh terrain. The Rangers bark echoing orders at each other. During quieter moments you can hear the wind whistling through the valley. A bright, almost blinding light reflects off of the pass, but you get the feeling that the place is very, very cold.
When combat comes, it comes from higher ground, behind hut walls and holes dug into the rock. Greg fights back, sliding into cover, zooming down the line of the gun and spraying fire at enemies in an almost desperate fashion. There is much shouting - from both sides - "contact!", "clear!", and destructible cover blown into bits. The level looks like a heart pounding, relentless push towards the heavy machine gun position, punctuated by quieter moments during which the Rangers plan their assault and creep towards tiny settlements.
There are bits when you see your squad mates storm into a hut, counting down "3... 2... 1", kicking in the door and rushing in spraying bullets at the bemused enemy. Eventually, when the squad come up on the DShK heavy machine gun, the player is charged with laying down suppressing fire as the team inches its way closer and closer until an AI-controlled Ranger pops smoke. Then, the airstrike - bombs slam into the HMG position, rubble sprays everywhere and a dust cloud chokes the team. That was dangerously close, one Ranger remarks. "That was sick!" says another.
This Ranger level has all the wide open feel of a classic Halo level, but where that game was very much one incredibly powerful character against the world, in Medal of Honor you are part of a squad of individuals, and so are not always doing the most spectacular, heroic thing. This is a conscious choice - watching your squad bust open a hut door, laying down suppressing fire as the other Rangers pop smoke - there is no I in team, as the saying goes.
There has been some concern that, because the game takes place in just one country, there is little scope for variety. But from just one level I can see that not being a problem. The Shah-i-Kot Valley is a huge place with an impressive sense of verticality - your battle through Afghanistan will rarely be along comfortable, flat routes. As a result, the gameplay constantly changes tact - one moment you're fighting within a gathering of huts, running and gunning and, generally, shooting anything that moves; the next you emerge from the valley to see a deserted settlement down below, and cautiously approach enemy positions knowing full well that things will get ugly pretty soon. When you think of Afghanistan you normally think of dry, desert terrain, which of course exist in the game. But Afghanistan is a diverse place, with lush green river valleys, snowy mountain peaks and city slums. "We have the ability to give players a visual cascade of different environments while remaining in the same location," Greg says.
It's quite stunning to learn that EA had been doing World War II games for 11 years - longer than World War II. So while there are absolutely loads of modern day military shooters around at the moment - indeed some have labelled Medal of Honor EA's Call of Duty killer - as far as the franchise goes, this is quite the refreshing reboot. But the series' core tenets remain, Greg insists. He talks about authenticity, respect for the soldier, telling their story. "It defines Medal of Honor." Indeed the cinematic that sets the scene for the Ranger level Greg's just demoed is packed with references to Medal of Honor's roots. The Ranger who phones his family is the grandson of Lt. Jimmy Patterson, the star of previous games in the series. The Rangers themselves storm Afghanistan from Chinook Helicopters - a nod to the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Medal of Honor tells a Saving Private Ryan style tale - that's what that opening cinematic is designed to emphasise. Here is a shooter that's more than just a heavily-scripted blockbuster fest through improbable fire fights. Medal of Honor is more grounded in reality, as heavy on the heart as it is on the trigger finger. It is not a game about war or politics, Greg says. It is a game about a "group of guys and the war is just the backdrop of our story". This, ultimately, will be what sets Medal of Honor apart from the competition.
Cynics who care little for emotion will point to EA Los Angeles' last shooter, Medal of Honor: Airborne, as evidence that this reboot is one to be sceptical about. Airborne was a decent game, probably the best Medal of Honor game in a long time, but it was no Call of Duty. Still, what little we've seen of Medal of Honor suggests it may well be the best game in the illustrious series.
It certainly looks the part. The game, Greg says, has been playable from beginning to end since last December, but it "didn't look very good". The team has spent the last half year refining what it had. Now it's "polishing the heck out of it". "That's what you need nowadays, man," he says. "The competition, they make phenomenal games, so we're just trying to get as much quality out of it as we possibly can to get back into the conversation, to re-establish Medal of Honor to where it once was."
It's too early to cast judgement on Greg's lofty goal. There is still much about the game yet to be revealed. Only two campaign levels have been shown to press. We've seen nothing of the multiplayer, which, rather excitingly, is being developed by Battlefield studio DICE. Trade show E3 will be huge for Medal of Honor. Here we expect EA Los Angeles to lay its cards on the table. The question is: Does it have the hand to beat Call of Duty at its own game?
Medal of Honor is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on October 15.