What does it take to be a major player in the fps market these days? A brand name alone might guarantee upward of five million sales but if your multiplayer component isn’t up to scratch, is name alone enough for people to still dedicate more than a few hours to riddling their virtual avatars with bullets? The online battleground is more fiercely competitive than ever and while Call of Duty continues to lead the pack there’s no short supply of alternatives.
So here comes Medal of Honor rebooting during the harshest of times. It’s a game set in Afghanistan, during the War in Afghanistan and one featuring the Taliban. But don’t say it! Despite the flagrant similarities, Danger Close try as hard as they possibly can to shift awkwardly around the topic that would give their game a much better standing in the saturated ‘modern warfare’ market.
Instead Medal of Honor blends convincingly into the paradigm of modern first person shooters. Its brief single player campaign chaperones you through a series of thinly veiled corridors with largely dull routes to success by playing host to a menagerie of familiar mechanics and set pieces along the way. You’ll call in an air strike on a machine gun emplacement, use a sniper rifle to paste a terrorist’s face against a wall and drive Bad Company’s quads through a forest. A mission spent guiding AC-130 missiles into nests of enemies is a highlight, if only for the foreboding sight of the giant death machine prowling the empty Afghan skies. But it’s a scene grounded in another franchise altogether.
The underlying mechanics make this an amiable jaunt through Afgh… Terrorist Land. Weapons require a steadier hand than you’d need operating any of Call of Duty’s machine guns and rifles. Here, weapons kick like they probably would in the real world and there’s a satisfying weight behind the limited array of guns, particularly when you score a brain-popping headshot.
But there’s nothing particularly fresh otherwise and simply aping other successful shooters isn’t enough. Medal of Honor’s slither of identity is forged through its characters but even the rough and ready band of soldiers and Tier 1 operatives leave you feeling a little empty at the end.
The more memorable moments are the ones that feel like they could have been a part of Generation Kill (and as if to demonstrate their fondness for the series, Danger Close go as far as to pilfer memorable lines from the mini-series): having to wait for clearance to launch a missile in an Apache helicopter is a particular highlight. The eerily nonchalant radio chatter while you wait for permission to murder does a remarkable job of clawing you into the world, much more than any of the mindless firefights against faceless terrorists. But these are rare events.
It’s not a particularly good-looking game (although it sounds great) and the levels suffer from an acute case of claustrophobia. There’s never much indication of a war being fought outside your own small-scale battle and so there’s little weight to the story. You’re in make-believe Afghanistan but it’s never really clear why and by the end it doesn’t really feel like you’ve accomplished anything. Is that a profound commentary? I don’t think so.
In its favour the decision to leave the HUD at the door pays off (as ever). By not cluttering the screen with needless statistics you’re more involved with the mountain warfare. The single player section is far from bad, it’s a solid shooter but through a six-hour campaign Danger Close struggles to forge an identity for its reworking of old genre royalty. It’s certainly not knocking at the door of the venerable Bad Company 2 and it’s disappointing that the few moments of brilliance are stifled beneath the seen-it-all-before filler.
So it falls to the multiplayer to pick up the pieces.
Developed by Dice, the foundations of Medal of Honor were laid years ago with Battlefield. As with that game, the raw underlying mechanics are stupendous. Weapons have a wonderfully tangible quality, maps have been designed with typical Dice aplomb – disguised perfectly as real, dynamic environments – and outside of the warfare is a deep and rewarding reward system.
With five game modes and eight maps (3 of which are restricted to just the Combat Mission mode), Medal of Honor comes up short on content compared to Battlefield or Call of Duty. But the maps are fashioned with a meticulous attention to detail. Environments are expansive and dynamic and lend themselves to the different class types with each class given access to different weapons and equipment. Snipers adept in setting up campfires in the high mountain nooks have an abundance of nests but the ever changing spawns coupled with clever design mean even the sneakiest long distance aficionado has to pay close attention to the patterns of battle else he’ll end up a corpse.
But while map design is some of the classiest Dice have outputted yet, Medal of Honor is plagued with the kind of problems that are going to revert the majority of FPS’ faithful back to Call of Duty and Battlefield.
In an effort to amalgamate those two games, Dice have included kill streak rewards. These set-in-stone rewards are granted for accumulating points tied to typical achievements; scoring headshots, kills and successfully completing objectives, among others. Once you’ve accumulated enough you have the decision to choose between an offensive and a defensive reward. The defensive side includes support like UAVs and ammo drops (in essence the less volatile stuff.) Offensive, of course, means death. If it goes boom chances are you’ll find it here. There’s no prowling AC-130 to nuke an entire team into oblivion but the abundance of missiles, air strikes and similarly explosive ordinance works to similar effect. There’s little in the way of warning when any of these offensive killstreaks go live, so unless you’re running around with your gun aimed at the sky, you’re going to fall victim to a few sooner or later.
That’s realistic but it’s also annoying. Knowing an AC-130 is in the sky offers you a few precious seconds to haul ass to the nearest concrete bunker. Being obliterated without warning just doesn’t sit right.
There’s not much feedback when you’re getting shot either and the lack of kill cam plays into the hands of camping snipers a little too much. All sniper rifles are one-hit-kill affairs, which makes them the popular weapon of choice among the few players left on the servers. Not knowing where the guy who’s killed you fourteen times is doesn’t make staying in the server an appealing option.
Learning the maps alleviates that problem somewhat but then both Bad Company and Call of Duty do what Medal of Honor attempts to do better. And with a populace orbiting around a measly 3000 figure, this isn’t going to be causing anyone over at COD HQ restless nights.
It’s a solid foundation to be improved upon with the inevitable sequel and worthy of a look in for anyone jaded by the big boys. But while Dice are at the helm trying to blur the boundaries between its own bravura multiplayer shooter and Call of Duty, is Medal of Honor ever going to better either? Probably not.
And that’s the story all over for this reworking of an old legend. Medal of Honor’s transition from the tumbledown battlegrounds of World War 2 into the modern day is far from smooth and its desire to ape the competition a little too closely is its eventual downfall. There’s potential for something more profound than Call of Duty or Bad Company here, setting the game within a real world conflict has its advantages and they’re here to be seen.
But while those moments are relegated to being interludes between the routine shootouts, Medal of Honor is going to fall in line and be forgotten.