Format: Xbox 360, PC, PS3 (Version tested)
Release: Out now (US), October 15 (UK)
Developer: Danger Close / Dice
People who wave placards and hold symbolic burnings are upset about Medal Of Honor, but they really needn’t be. EA’s reboot of the war-themed shooter sees the series evacuated out of World War II and redeployed into the present-day conflict in Afghanistan. Much pre-emptive fury has been directed at the prospect of playing a Taliban soldier in multiplayer – claiming offence to Our Boys. Detractors are late to that party, given that Nazis and non-specific terrorist organisations have long since been considered fair game, but the real kicker for EA is that it’s made such an obvious effort to revere the soldiers the game is now accused of insulting.
In its campaign mode, MOH is almost a paean to the decency of US military personnel – even if it pointedly saves its admiration for the troops on the ground rather than those commanding the forces from afar. In fact, it is so keen to exonerate the soldiers themselves, who all operate with the utmost virtue, that it comes across with the forceful naivety of propaganda. This is not the sort of war in which US air support blithely shreds civilian vehicles or in which US troops keep as mementos body parts of murdered Afghans. And by focusing on an early part of the conflict, this is not the sort of war in which enemies shelter beneath civilians or use IEDs to pick away at the numbers and sanity of a beleaguered occupying force. This is not, in other words, really the sort of war being currently fought.
Whatever its bias or excisions, MOH rejects the sort of gung-ho globetrotting baloney seen in Modern Warfare, and makes an honest attempt not to trivialise the lives of US soldiers, creating an air of sober authenticity which is unusual among shooters. It is perhaps a small watershed – bringing some degree of credible soldierly tactics to what is otherwise blockbuster entertainment. While it’s possible to run and gun, the game impresses upon you the importance of ‘no movement without fire’, maintaining ‘noise discipline’, and avoiding silhouetting yourself against the sky.
Terms like ‘danger close’ are more than just fetishistic military gabble – many of the game’s set-pieces involve marking targets for artillery and air support – something which the troops are not keen to do while standing nearby. But MOH’s major triumph is in describing, albeit in airport-paperback terms, how different branches of the military work together. Control zips between different members of the armed forces like a relay race – SEALs perform subversion and reconnaissance behind enemy lines, while Tier 1 operators mark and snipe embedded mortar positions, and the Rangers plough headlong into enemy forces with the support of overwhelming air power.
Though it paints a broad picture of an invasion force conducting itself with appropriate military rigour, this is still a heavily scripted, linear shooting gallery in which hordes of enemies bundle towards you without any thought of of self-preservation. But the game turns this crude tenet to its advantage in missions where retreat becomes essential; several key moments deal in simple survival, as the numbers of enemies overwhelm, whittling down and working around your remaining cover.
There’s some variety besides, albeit within the genre’s well-explored mechanical limits: the SEALs infiltrate moonlit villages to place tracking devices on supply trucks; sniping sections play with optical modes to keep things lively; and a turn as a helicopter gunner offers cathartic carnage after a near-death experience as a Ranger. MOH does its best to create cinematic thrills, but with the more fantastic opportunities curbed by the need for authenticity, the game’s adherence to shooter rote feels a little claustrophobic.
And it is a short campaign, clocking in at six hours or so. Still, the multiplayer’s competence suggests enduring appeal, should your sensitivities permit you to indulge in it. Made by DICE, it shares a good number of similarities with that studio’s games, assuredly blending Battlefield’s smartly orchestrated objective-oriented matches with some of the lethal, concussive vigour of market leader Modern Warfare 2. Like MW2, you can earn extra abilities the more kills you rack up, but these have been better balanced; mortar strikes use line of sight, requiring the player to be exposed to danger while calling in the ordnance.
There are some niggles: as the enemy pushes forward, defenders can find themselves spawned behind enemy lines with a clear shot at their backs, while some levels make it all too easy to pin the enemy to their spawn point. Judicious use of smoke is essential, with many levels requiring you to pass through a bottleneck or rush a ridgeline. It’s a pacey, punchy affair, and its short rounds hold more tactical interest and more opportunity for co-operation than MW2’s chaotic, boisterous frays. It also feels more varied in its scenarios than recent Battlefield games, its various modes moving adeptly between claustrophobic deathmatches, open battlegrounds and epic tugs-of-war. But without Battlefield’s wealth of vehicles, devastating toys and destructible scenery, MOH lacks some of that game’s moment- to-moment dynamism.
MOH is a robust, if seldom surprising, rebuttal to MW2’s dominance, and its measured tone and diligent observation of military patter make it a marginally more meaningful representation of modern warfare itself. It’s an idealised one – going by the book, telling only part of the story. But it’s only because MOH makes a brave move away from the ludicrous extremes of other shooter fantasies that its failure to seize reality entirely becomes so palpable.