Format: 360, PS3, PC
Developer: EA LA/DICE
Medal Of Honor faces a more interesting challenge than other firstperson shooters of this generation: the war that it depicts is still happening. Moving the series out of the comfortable, well-worn territory of World War II is bold enough for a series reboot, but dropping the player into modern-day Afghanistan shows real bravery. It gives EA Los Angeles the chance to tell a war story that’s not only authentic, but relevant – and could also put the developer in the awkward position of skirting dangerous political ground, unless it handles the story and its characters with the most expert touch.
One way to extricate the game from this political minefield is to claim that it’s not about the war, but about the soldiers. Pointing to the Medal Of Honor series’ core tenets of authenticity, respect and, well, honour, senior creative director Rich Farrelly emphasises the role that military consultants and the advice of real operatives have played in the creation of the game’s authentic fiction. The developer’s respect for the material is evident in the game’s attention to detail, from the whispered squad chatter between special operatives to the soldiers’ hand placement on their weapons.
The campaign has a two-part narrative structure, intertwining the stories of big-military Rangers and uniformless, specialist Tier 1 ground operatives. The emphasis is on the latter – roughly two thirds of the game follows the specialist forces as opposed to the conventional army – but EA’s recent demonstration focused on a four-man Ranger unit attempting to create a safe landing zone for other troops by taking out a dug-in Taliban machine-gun emplacement.
Afghanistan is a geographically varied region, allowing for battles up snow-capped mountains and in surprisingly verdant flatlands, but this mission takes place in a dusty village on arid hillsides that are often associated with the territory. It opens as a helicopter carrying the unit approaches its landing zone; we hear the inner monologue of a soldier compiling a reassuring letter home. It adds a touch of humanity to the characters without being overblown or distasteful, a humanity that’s also reflected in the constant, non-repetitive squad chatter and commands. Medal Of Honor manages to make its soldiers sound like people without compromising on the authenticity of their military language.
The squad moves quickly through the village, kicking down doors and clearing out the ramshackle houses. The gunplay rhythm is a familiar mix of firing accurate bursts at enemies before ducking back into cover – there’s a measure of destructibility, but it seems that the game’s walls and buildings will, by and large, stand firm – but the other squad members play as active a role in the mission as you do. They point out and take down enemies on their own as the unit makes its way to the top of the village, shouting constant directions and clarification. Often you’re playing a crucial but backseat role in the squad, providing covering fire by keeping your sights trained on the mounted machine-gun while the soldiers move forward to plant a red smoke flare, targeting it for an air strike.
As the jets roar overhead and the emplacement disappears in an all-enveloping cloud of smoke and dust, there’s a real feeling of being in a large-scale war. This is further augmented by the dual story threads, the experience of taking part in two different facets of a huge military operation. In terms of authenticity, copious research has gone into the environments, the clothes worn by the enemies you face, and the languages they speak. Thanks to all the dust, though, picking out finer details can be tricky. Kicked up in plumes by suppressing fire, it lingers in the air, obscuring vision. “Check your weapons – this stuff is like glue,” shouts the squad leader, disappearing through the heat haze and down the other side of the hilltop.
After your men have chased two remaining Taliban militia through a valley, the road opens up into a sudden mountain vista. At the foot of the slope in the middle distance there’s a suspiciously deserted group of huts; the increasingly nervous unit moves in to clear them. As they prepare to breach the first door, there’s the telltale ring of a mobile phone; the mission ends as a bomb knocks out the entire squad.
Switching between two different groups of soldiers with very different approaches could make Medal Of Honor a high-tension experience. Missions as the Tier 1 operatives – the scalpel to the Rangers’ sledgehammer, as EA Los Angeles is very fond of analogising – are more precise, requiring the player to keep control of the chaos and avoid gunfights wherever possible. Air strikes and full-on assaults are matters for the heftier military forces. The variety adds perspective, which is usually absent from the eight-hour rollercoaster rides that form most singleplayer campaigns. There’s nothing to suggest that the subject matter is being treated with anything other than the respect it deserves, but EA is unlikely to dodge controversy as the game nears release. Hopefully its apparent quality won’t be obscured by knee-jerk media outrage.