Most know the Medal of Honor series' war torn past by now. The 'historically accurate' shooters were fantastic on the first PlayStation, and even flirted briefly with success on the second Sony console, before becoming bogged down in a struggle to move forward, like a soldier pinned in the trenches.
Some players enjoyed the games' determination to stick to Medal of Honor's grimly rehashed formula, but most strived for something more elaborate, and moved over to series like Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms. With Airborne finally released, and its arms open, it might just be the time for those players to come back, as it is a premium example of a World War II shooter, and goes a long way to silencing criticism that the genre has reached an evolutionary dead end.
If the previous Medal of Honor games were guilty of one thing, it was their increasingly linear nature, and the claustrophobic feel of much of the level design. Now you start each vast campaign dropping in from a parachute, meaning that to a certain extent you can choose your own starting point. Each campaign has several objectives, with more opening up as you progress, and all are positioned and designed to allow you to tackle the level as you please. The parachute controls are fairly simple, and your drop off point generally allows you to get to most of the city or town below you, but it is the design of the levels beneath you that really deserve all the praise.
Previously, WWII games have often been riddled with narrow corridors and compact exteriors. So much so in fact, that most of us ignore the closed doors and inaccessible roof tops that could bring so much depth to any street skirmish. Happily, this is not the case in Airborne. Almost every building's rooms are left open, and many rooftops and balconies are accessible to cunning gamers willing to explore the myriad of back alleys and tunnels through bombed out ruins.
Quickly it becomes second nature to scavenge the flanks, and poke your gun into every nook and cranny, looking to surprise your enemy or bypass an overwhelming opposition stronghold. You can see how amazing each area will be for multiplayer, which is shaping up to be nothing short of great once enough players are online. Do not be misled into thinking this is something you have seen a dozen times before though. Far from just including a careless smattering of obvious side-alleys, instead Airborne conjures up a sense of being a soldier loose in a town filled with hideaways and undiscovered routes. There are plenty of chances to lose the various clusters of fellow allies, but even retreating to sweep up a health pack can feel lonely and, thanks to a seemingly constant supply of enemies, rather dangerous.
The AI of both your team-mates and enemies is fantastic, bringing both dynamism and atmosphere as you charge about in the organised chaos of the battlefield. Though there is no direct control over your squad members as such, they work very well alongside you, and you can encourage them to advance and pile pressure onto enemy fortifications by doing the same yourself.
The henchmen of the axis of evil that you face are certainly better than in any Medal of Honor game yet released, but their improvement is a double edged sword. While their ability to work together and second guess your actions adds some depth to the combat, it also takes away a little of the fun. In the past an important part of Medal of Honor was the way it made you feel like a master of gunplay who could shoot a falling playing card from the sky. Enemies would pop their head out a second time and before they had time to see you, you would have knocked them back with a slug of lead. This time you have to be far more responsive, giving the gameplay a slightly unruly feel. Of course this does a far better job at creating an atmosphere of conflict, but seasoned Medal of Honor veterans may be a little disgruntled as they adjust to the new tactics and general approach.
Which brings us to the difficulty. Though the normal setting is not furiously unkind, it certainly sets the standard high for those who expect to plough through the game. A methodical, laid back approach is advised, as charging in guns blazing will only frustrate, and the later campaigns such as the epic and demanding conclusion at Der Flaktrum will stay with you for some time.
The reason the missions are so memorable is in part because of the riveting gameplay and huge scale of the action, but sadly it will take you some time to forget the exhausting checkpoint system, which only saves after completed objectives. Due to the open-plan nature of the levels, this means you can have spent 20 minutes gathering weapons and salvaging health, only to be sent back to where you started thanks to an unseen sniper bullet or an unexpected gun stock to the face. Still, after many deaths you do get to parachute in again, even though you have completed some objectives, meaning you get second attempts at landing in hidden spots for bonuses.
Other than the model for saving and respawning, there are only a handful of tiny complaints, and on the whole Airborne is absolutely brilliant. Its looks are certainly far from original, but the size and physical detail of each level is astounding, especially from above as you drop in. The number of troops, explosions and bullet traces gives a truly cinematic feel, and as with every Medal of Honor game, the sound is magnificent.
Airborne is no revolution, and most of the action, whilst thrilling, varied, and well-conceived, will be familiar, but it is great that so many creases have finally been ironed out of the series. The most obvious was of course the linear nature of the previous games, but there are numerous other refinements that are less clear at first. The health system, which now combines a traditional pick-up system with the new fad for regenerative life bars, means less back-tracking, and the weapon load-out, which lets you choose weapons before you depart and upgrade them on foot, has revitalised a tired old procedure.
Medal of Honor is back with a bang that could shatter a dozen ramshackle out buildings across several derelict war-torn towns. This is not gaming perfection or a must have title that will be remembered for decades, but if you like war romps, and you long for the feel of Frontline or Underground, pick up this brilliant war game.