Picture the scene: You're creeping through an Afghan wadi, covering your squad mates' approach with suppressive fire on an enemy machine gun encampment. Dust is being kicked up by running and bullets, and the piecing glare of the red-hot sun is so bright it makes looking far into the horizon impossible. You're a long way from home, soldier, and the emotional toll must surely be immense. As you zero your sights on another distant bogey you gently squeeze the trigger before being greeted by a big ol' headshot notification icon popping up at the bottom of the screen. This is war.
Medal of Hono(u)r enters the crowded shooter market with lofty ambitions: it wants to realistically present the current conflict raging in Afghanistan, and in doing so it has become the most controversial game of 2010. But developer Danger Close's contentious desires are often hindered by Medal of Honor having to concurrently act as a video game, and it's in this back-and-forth between tone and game that the whole product suffers its biggest blow.
What you need to understand about the new Medal of Honor, you see, is that many of its core events play out like its contemporaries. The first level ends with a carbon copy of Call of Duty 4's iconic, slow-motion pistol headshot, for instance, and the second level has you causing a ruckus in an aircraft graveyard less than a year after Price and Soap shot their way through one in Modern Warfare 2.
This aesthetic familiarity is a bit of a shame, as when Danger Close designs set pieces around the currently unexplored avenues of modern combat the result is far more spectacular. One notable highlight arrives in the middle of the game, when you and your NPC cohorts are garrisoned inside a dilapidated house that is progressively blown to smithereens by enemy fighters. The massive scope of the action is refreshing: rolling mountains completely surround you and huge concentrations of Taliban fighters bundle over the horizon. By the time the confrontation ends you can see the whites of your opponents' eyes and your house has been reduced to a single, broken slither of wall. It's an absolutely thrilling sequence.
The problem, however, is that such moments are few and far between. Over the length of the game's six-hour campaign there are only a handful of events that get the blood pumping, with the rest having you do little more than take potshots at distant enemies with high-tech weaponry. Major events are heavily signposted, and too many instances place you behind invisible walls (or in front of a door that only your AI sidekick can open) until you've dispatched the current screen of baddies. Much of the best spectacle is packed into the first few missions, as the game takes you from a top-notch opening to a slightly underwhelming and abrupt finale.
Even the equipment selection is a little sparse. Ammo for your guns is only ever a button press away, with supplies infinitely bandied out by any of your sidekicks. For this reason you're hardly ever likely to switch out from your default selection, which consists of the precise M14-EBR, all-rounder M4A1 and, occasionally, the sweeping destruction of the PKM - all familiar tools to an FPS aficionado, familiarly implemented. You can, of course, pick up weapons from your fallen enemies, but yours are always better so you won't bother. The onus is supposed to be on the people holding the guns, rather than the weapons themselves, but it would have been nice to have a little bit more versatility made available.
And while your Tier 1 fellows and occasional group of Rangers feel like they want to stay alive, perhaps shooting their way through this mess so that they can get back to a nice little house in the suburbs with a cute little picket fence and a tasteful American flag waving proudly in the autumnal breeze, your Al-Qaeda enemies roam around like mindless AI drones. The complete inability for the opposing force to preserve its life feels remarkably out of place - and kind of ruins the end result a bit, too.
Danger Close has a real knack for nailing their environments, however. The hills, mountains and tunnels of Afghanistan are well realised and consistently entertaining to trek over. There are also some exemplary weather effects, ensuring these environments are dangerous and hostile in spite of your fancy night vision goggles and scoped weaponry. It also helps that the sound design is uniformly stellar, from the uncanny radio chatter to the noise of the weapons and, yes, those mandatory big-budget explosions.
The atmosphere is furthered by the reliance on distant confrontations. Combat is rarely handled up close, with firefights routinely spanning the lengths of Afghanistan's rocky valleys and mountainous expanses. This makes your scope invaluable, and turns enemies into little more than faraway muzzle flashes hidden in plumes of mist, snow and dust. This is an altogether more realistic take on warfare, perhaps, but it's also a game element that starts to become a little wearisome and homogeneous after the umpteenth time.
The narrative is perhaps more successful than the experience of playing through it. I can often see what Danger Close is trying to achieve; there's a repeated suggestion that life is valuable and the loss of a fellow soldier is a big deal. That's something I can get on board with, but the message becomes a little twisted when you realise you're shooting your way through what feels like the entire population of Afghanistan as if they were little more than ambiguous meat puppets. No amount of fancy opening and closing quotes is going to do much to alleviate that.
The obvious argument in the game's defence is that war is, you know, like that. But the need to inflate the enemy numbers beyond realistic proportions - literally into the hundreds in some of the game's bigger moments - inadvertently creates an experience that feels a bit confused and disjointed regarding the sanctity of life.
Some of its other story decisions have the potential to offend, too. Military generals are painted as bumbling, disconnected idiots, while every soldier on the ground is unquestionably a valiant hero. EA opens itself to these criticisms because its design pitch revolves around the concept that Medal of Honor, unlike its contemporaries, is an altogether more realistic and genuine take on war. While these claims feel accurate at times, at others you're left scratching your head and wondering who decided such a bold statement was ever a good idea.
At least the inclusion of the bearded Tier 1 operatives feels genuine. You do feel like you're part of an elite group of commandos barrelling over the country in ATVs and performing dangerous operations - and you should, too, seeing as how Tier 1 squads Neptune and Wolfpack take centre stage in seven of the game's ten levels. The characters speak with suitably cold precision, dishing out reams of dense military lingo as if it was their native language, and they feel just as detached as the player who, from years of gratuitous shooters, now feels nothing anymore when popping off a target's head with a Barrett .50 cal.
Occasional discrepancies in tone don't affect the overall experience, however. Danger Close should be commended for its bold intentions, but sadly the campaign doesn't quite live up to its potential. The magnitude of its controversies could be seen as mere attention-grabbing antics - something to help the game stand up to the might of Call of Duty - but in reality Medal of Honor tries to tell a story without resorting to the silly and incongruous tricks of its contemporary market. It's just a shame it doesn't tell it a little better.
Bridging the gap between single and multiplayer is Tier 1 mode, which completely disregards any attempts at creating narrative and authenticity to make way for speed runs and online leaderboards for each campaign level. It's absurdly difficult, but that's part of the charm; I've found myself unable to resist chipping away at one particular scenario (to no avail, sadly) for the last few days.
Dividing the game right down the middle, there's also DICE's multiplayer component. Following on from the runaway success of Bad Company 2, Medal of Honor is the developer's first real take on a predominantly close-quarters multiplayer experience. Sadly, it shows.
Adapting DICE's venerable Frostbite engine, which specialises in destructable expanses of land, to the smaller confines of Medal of Honor has opened up a world of technical niggles. Single-player features such as leaning and sliding are gone but hardly noticed. More disturbing is the hit detection, which has been improved since the oft-maligned beta but ultimately it still feels a little broken. I also didn't much enjoy the instances where I found myself stuck in occasional clipping errors, with bullets hitting walls when very close to the edges of cover.
It's hard to visualise exactly how the online community will develop after just a couple of days spent playing on the retail servers, but even from such an early stage in the product's life cycle it's clear to see what angle the game is coming from. In attempting to bridge the gap between Call of Duty and Bad Company 2, Medal of Honor is trying to capture the best of both worlds.
As is now mandatory for any online FPS, Medal of Honor sets up its own system of experience and progression, mixing RPG-like grinding and levelling into familiar modes such as Team Assault (Team Deathmatch) and Sector Control (Domination), alongside the objective-based Combat Mission and the mini-Rush intensity of Objective Raid; everything but Combat Mission can also be played on a punishing Hardcore playlist. Potential armaments are split across both factions (Rangers and OPFOR) and then divided by the three classes on offer; Rifleman is your all-rounder, Special Ops carries a rocket launcher and Sniper snipes.
Positive actions on the battlefield - killing an enemy, capturing a point, getting a sweet headshot and so on - are rewarded by points, which move you up the ranks and unlock new weapons and accessories, such as the red dot sight or another ammo magazine, to lump in a gun's rail, barrel and base slots. It'll take exactly 31,700 XP to follow these golden breadcrumbs along the 15-level journey from Recruit to Tier 1 Warfighter - and since you receive a scant 10 points for each basic kill, you can expect maxing out all three classes to take quite a bit of your time.
Whether or not you'll bother to invest that time is another question entirely. You'll probably spend most of it in Team Assault, which is already being played by twice the players of any other mode. A scant five maps are on offer here, with another three reserved solely for use in Combat Mission.
There are inconsistencies in the maps across different modes. Kabul City Ruins, for instance, encourages you to scamper around the scenery to gain tactical advantages over the enemy team - bits where you jump up on top of crates and peek through little holes remind me of the exalted de_dust2, for instance. Take that same desire to explore and tinker over to Shahikot Mountains, however, and you're left hitting your head on invisible boundaries.
Most maps are riddled with corridors that are simply too thin, and even basic games of Team Assault - played 12-vs-12 - are robbed of any potential nuance by forcing you into staccato chains of death and respawning in areas that are clusterbombs of crossfire and explosive damage. Bullets are especially deadly here, and even the lightest spray of fire in your direction will have you staring at your own demise.
Die, and you're simply told that you're dead. That's understandable, but the last few years has seen post-death turned into a mini-tutorial: Halo nudges you into the direction of the enemy; Call of Duty shows you how you bit the dust from the perspective of your killer. Medal of Honor's vanilla approach might be the purest implementation, harking back to How Things Used To Be, but when you've been blasted away six times from the same camping sonofagun, you quickly realise that these gentle post-death nudges have been added into other games for a reason.
Notch up points while remaining alive and you'll add to your score chain, which lets you choose from an offensive or defensive ability after hitting certain increments.Reaching 50 points will give you either a mortar strike or a UAV, whereas 600 treats to you a cruise missile or a massive boost to armour. By setting the barrier of entry quite high (roughly four kills depending on headshots and other bonuses) DICE ensures that games are focused on tight gunplay and solid tactics instead of cheap artillery strikes.
It's not a bad experience by any means, but it's a slightly inconsistent overall package. By attempting to be a jack of both Call of Duty's and Bad Company 2's trades, it ends up a master of neither, though its vicious gunplay and unfettered carnage will ensure it finds a solid and dependable fanbase - at least until Black Ops and Bad Company 2: Vietnam show up.
Medal of Honor's balancing act combines two developers and game engines. Lofty ambitions on both fronts are ultimately let down by very little desire to redefine the game's range or bring out the best from each engine's particular set of talents, but it's undeniable that both single and multiplayer have their individual merits. Neither Danger Close nor DICE are working to their full potential here, but underneath the hype and controversy there's a video game that's still worth a look.