6th June, 1944. 6.30am. D-Day. I remember it like it was only eight years ago. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault’s take on the Normandy landings is among the reasons your humble correspondent got into games journalism in the first place (possibly not a point in its favour). Overseen by Steven Spielberg, fresh from the set of Saving Private Ryan, it prompted emotions I’d thought never to feel while playing a first-person shooter: a sense of fragility and arbitrariness, a conviction that the steadiness of my aim and the size of my clip meant nothing in the omnidirectional hail of bullets, shells, blood and sand – that blind chance alone would see me through.
Where rivals diverted themselves with pulse rifles and power-ups, this was a portrayal that inched the genre a little closer to the realities of early-twentieth century warfare. Fast-forward to the present, and the Medal of Honor franchise is out once again to bring home a few sobering truths in the face of gaming’s grander excesses. Shooters set in the Middle East or touching on fictional Middle Eastern conflicts have been made before, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a shooter has taken its narrative and design cues from what is only barely military history, modelled itself on still-contested terrain, pitched itself into still-probable scenarios.
Which makes it hard to gauge the fidelity of the results, of course. Exactly what EA and the team at Danger Close have gleaned from the Afghan war and what they’ve downplayed or circumvented could be the subject of a very interesting insider feature, even a book; I don’t feel entirely comfortable drawing firm conclusions on the strength of a playthrough. The renaming of Taliban troops as “Opposing Forces” in multiplayer, in response to pressure from soldier families, is a pretty unequivocal mark against the game’s documentary credentials, however – and the fact that so much of Medal of Honor resembles a certain other military shooter, one with which the genre has become all but synonymous, is further cause for dubiety.
Whatever else it may be, the new game is among the more flagrant examples of commercial copy-pasting to roll off the production line in the past ten years, transplanting Modern Warfare’s blasted, boxed-in conveyer belts of spawn points and checkpoints to the Afghan countryside with admirable assurance but zero creative flair. I can think of precisely one title that apes a formula as devotedly, as calculatingly, and that title is EA’s own Dante’s Inferno, aka God of War: New Testament Edition.
There’s a moment towards the beginning when Danger Close appears to be attempting something a shade more ambitious, as the perspective spirals from a mesophere laced with satellite TV broadcasts to a Taliban patrol, dumping the player into the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, sitar strains floating on the night air. But it’s just a gag: the ostensible native behind the wheel thumbs the radio with a curt All-American “turn that shit off”, orders filter through hidden earpieces, and the three men on your six reveal themselves to be members of Tier One, the Army’s secretive upper crust, meeting a contact behind enemy lines.
The surrounding town seems quiet and peaceful, so you naturally gear yourself up for an ambush and the game doesn’t disappoint. Medal of Honor pieces together its rather slender six-hour campaign from worthy old FPS devices: sneaky scurries between enemy patrol paths, rabbit-runs through buildings that always seem to explode milliseconds after your exit, breach and clear sequences greased with slow-mo, a pinch of sniping, a dusting of mark-the-target, a dash of mounted-gun Armageddon. Though tripped up infrequently by slow texture and geometry loading, and not quite a match for the prettiest either PS3 or Xbox 360 has to offer, the graphics engine rolls out all the booms and bangs at a smooth and serviceable rate.
Aiding the player in the triggering of those booms and bangs is our old friend the zoom-lock, which is generous to the extent that you’ll rarely need to identify what or who you’re shooting at, the cross-hairs pogo-ing from one fundamentalist skull to the next at a squeeze of L1. This lends itself to an understanding of challenge that frequently defaults to sheer weight of numbers. While there are probably subtle differences between enemy types, it’s hard to pick up on them in the seconds it’ll take you to snap the reticule and score. RPG-wielders, action gaming’s least surprising Surprise Guests, are the only bogies that elicit more than a dutiful flicker of attention.
Then there are the friendlies, all of whom seem to be in competition for the status of honorary Soap MacTavish. They’re everywhere, swooping across killzones like heavily-armed and verbose parrots, shrieking codewords at one another, safe behind their cloaks of indestructibility, prodding the player from flashpoint to flashpoint. You’ll see them pop into and out of scripted animations, clasp wrists as they help you scale the low cliffs that seem to demarcate half the environments, get a screen-full of zoomed-in buttock as they trot courageously into your line of fire.
For all these niggles your comrades are a characterful lot, distinct personalities just visible behind the callsigns (beardy cover-boy Dusty gives the best account of himself), and Danger Close nurtures a bit of drama by gradually stripping them away, deflating your NPC floatation aids one by one till finally, in the closing twenty minutes, it’s just you, a knife and some dodgy infra-red goggles in the crevices of a snowy mountainside.
Sadly, moments as arresting as this aren’t common in the Medal of Honor campaign. It feels a little like the game’s basis in politically charged reality has curbed the developer on two fronts, obliging its scenario designers to stop short of both a potentially controversial degree of faithfulness and the balls-to-the-wall improbability that gave Modern Warfare’s single player its thrill.
Perhaps the most frenetic things get is during the second of the plot’s three in-game days, as you join a band of Rangers holed up in a less than impenetrable farmhouse. Taliban stream unstoppably from pores in the slopes beyond, their rockets tearing premeditated chunks out of the walls and ceiling. By the time Apaches arrive to blanket the offensive in Hellfires, the squad is prone in the dirt behind a single narrow triangle of torn brick.
More in that vein would have invested the proceedings with spark enough to go up against Infinity Ward’s colossus, but Danger Close seems anxious not to overstep the mark. Medal of Honor is a remarkably reluctant blockbuster, not so much empowered as plagued by its eye-catching choice of setting – hungry for spectacle and extravagance, but fearful of giving offence.
Stop back soon for our thoughts on the multiplayer – and a score!