By John Walker on October 12th, 2010 at 11:12 am.
I’ve finished the single player campaign of the reboot of Medal of Honour, and I’m fully prepared to tell you Wot I Think. The multiplayer is such a separate game that it was developed by a separate studio, and we’ll be reviewing it after the game’s been out a while. (We’re going with “HonoUr” just because it saves wiggly red lines when typing.) So below is a WIT of the single player campaign.
Unashamedly following in the massively successful footsteps of Activision’s reinvention of Call Of Duty as a modern-day shooter, EA decided to shake up their WW2 franchise in the same manner. So Medal Of Honour is no longer letters from the good old boys of the 30s and 40s, but now a bunch of American soldiers fighting in present-day Afghanistan. However, for as dramatic a change as this might be to the setting, it’s still familiar MOH territory. A selection of soldiers, whose stories interweave as you jump from character to character. There’s four in total, each accompanied by a different group of buddies, all meandering their way through the mountains, taking out the Taleban, Al Qaeda, and anyone else who fancies shooting at them.
Refreshing is the lack of science fiction. This isn’t about deploying the latest, or near-future tech, but rather about squiggling about on your belly, hitting the baddies in their heads with bullets. While you’re frequently whisked off to shoot from a helicopter, or target things from your digital binocular targeting systemmagig, for most the time you’re a man on the ground, in missions based on real events in the country over the last ten years. And it’s fairly apolitical, for such a contentious setting. In fact, absolutely nothing feels contentious at all. But, well, there’s little else you could describe as refreshing.
Medal Of Honour is going to take you on a journey. It’s going to be a very pretty trip, and it’s going to be packed with action and combat. It’s going to have lots of variety, and plenty of explosions. But this isn’t an expedition, it’s a guided tour.
Only occasionally did I feel like I was playing the game. Medal Of Honour is about chasing after one to three other soldiers who all seem to have a lot more fun than you. The game takes every opportunity to make sure you’re aware that you’re barely relevant to proceedings. The game tells you when you can run. The game tells you when you can fire. The game tells you when you can climb. The game tells you when you can jump over a log. (Literally.) And you’d best do it the way it’s expecting, or everything’s going to grind to a halt.
Take one mountain assault of a shack containing a mounted weapon. We’re sneaking our way up the hillside, running from rock to boulder, being assaulted from three sides. The other three take up all the best cover positions, as usual. (The game doesn’t have any cover system – you just hide behind things, if the others will let you.) We’re getting closer to the target, and I’ve a planned route. But the others won’t come with me. I keep getting slaughtered (something that otherwise happens very rarely throughout the seven-or-so hours – on Normal it’s a very easy game). I decide to check the HUD, because the game thinks it’s a brilliant idea to hide it from you after a bit – in case you were fed up of knowing how much ammo you had, or where you were supposed to be going. I hit H, and there’s a target point just behind the respawn location. I step back into it, and suddenly I’m equipped with the device to call in an airstrike on the hut, the rest of the men fight with me, and we easily trudge on. Make sure to walk over the poorly marked patches of snow please. Keep a hand on the rail at all times.
And that’s when it’s even possible to go ahead. So often if you try to think for yourself you’ll encounter invisible barriers that magically disappear once your team has finished jabbering at each other. Find a door that you can kick down, and you’ll have to wait until the game decides it’s time to allow the kick button to do anything.
Shooters have done this before. The Call Of Duties and the Medals Of Honour, and those copying them, have often had you on rails. But they’ve done enough to disguise it, or make it so utterly thrilling that you don’t care. Here, the disguise doesn’t work nearly well enough. This is at the very worst for the first hour or so, where if you’re able to shoot an enemy before the squadmates get it first you’ll be tremendously lucky. Keep your arms and legs in the car at all times.
For most of the game I felt like a little kid dumped with a bunch of bigger boys who really wished I wasn’t there.
“Can I shoot now pl-” “Um, would it be alright if I hid behind the rock too? No? Oh, okay, no.” “Maybe we could go this way, because we could sneak around the back and-? No – not this way? Okay guys! Wait up guys!”
You’re so ridiculously helpless that you can’t jump up ridges the rest of your team bounce up easily. When they’re at the top one of them has to reach down to pull you up. You’re literally dragged along behind them.
Which made me want to rebel. When you’re playing as Deuce, teamed up with the beardyface from the box, Dusty, you’re going stealthy. These are by far the best sections of the game, and yet still you’re only ever Dusty’s errand boy. “Go over there and do this.” “Now come back.” But here you can do exactly what you’re told not to and start wildly shooting at everyone you’re supposed to be sneaking past. It’s ridiculous that this stands out as special. And of course makes it less fun.
Weapons pack a nice punch, and the game’s fondness for headshots (madly, a symbol appears on screen each time, accompanied by the most daft squelching sound) makes for lots of precision shooting. There’s also a good mix of weaponry, new guns handed to you as you go through. Ammo is never a concern, your teammates offering up full clips whenever you get low. If you were ever left to your own devices, or even just supported by your squad rather than subservient to it, it could have been a fun corridor shooter. As it is, it’s an average stood-at-the-back-of-a-queue-in-a-corridor shooter (SATBOAQINACS).
It seems that the game is desperate to be “cinematic”. And this is at the expense of absolutely anything else. There’s a story – albeit one of no discernable content – and it’s going to tell it to you, no matter what you want. Everything else seems such a low priority, and so it is that the game feels a decade behind the crowd.
Enemy AI is sometimes poor. I shot someone in the back, which still wasn’t incentive enough for him to turn around or run away. Most bob up and down behind rocks like targets in a shooting gallery. Your squad’s AI is better – too good, with them playing the game for you half the time – but I still watched them running on the spot into rocks. At one point Dusty drove his quad-bike into a tree, and seemingly offended that it didn’t move out of his way, sat there wobbly-ramming at it until I drove far enough away that he respawned with me. But most maddeningly, they appear to have no ability to understand that your bullets hurt them too. They will run through your fire all the time, even squatting directly in front of the muzzle of your gun. They’re the ones playing the game – you just stop trying to interfere.
Then little details I’ve grown to expect were missing. Cars often don’t explode when shot at, unless it’s scripted into the level. Fuel canisters are bulletproof in some areas. You don’t leave footprints in the snow. (Because then you’d have a discernable impact on the game.) Explosions look awful, strangely 2D. You can’t open doors, unless the game tells you to kick them. You have to wait for one of the bigger boys to do it. And you can’t even look around in the lengthy cutscenes, so determined is the game that you’ll bloody well watch its cinema how it wants you to.
The overwhelming sensation throughout is of being uninvolved. So much so that at one point, unable to remember that I was supposed to hold down the right mouse button and then the left in order to target a building for an airstrike (the game flashes up instructions the first time, but miss them and they’re a secret – I had to restart one section to know that I was supposed to be holding down the number 4 key to attack, which was a rather odd choice), I took so long about it the game just called the airstrike in anyway, and the level was won. Me – I’ll just sit here.
It often looks stunning. The snowy mountains can be breathtaking, and it’s plenty detailed enough to allow you to snipe off tiny men at enormous distances. And the acting is absolutely superb. While no one says anything of any substance, they say it with a lot of style. Lots of shouting, military lingo, and orders for you to “take point”, while they then tell you which way to go.
Some of the set-pieces feel like they’d be exciting if they’d only happen while you were in control. Anything thrilling – like a moment when two of you, in desperation, jump off a cliff into the fog below – is robbed from you, the controls taken away and the game enjoying it instead of you. It’s extraordinary the difference it makes to not be able to even turn your head during the cutscenes. Call Of Duty’s beach landing worked because you looked around you as it all occurred, terrified, and then helplessly staggering up the sand. Here the big dramatic moments are television, and half the time you can’t work out if you’re a character in the place, or a floating camera just observing.
You watch the others doing lots of cool stuff, including performing melee stealth kills, while your feet are frozen to the ground. But later, when briefly equipped with a knife, the only time you use it is when the game explicitly tells you to.
As it happens, that sequence was my favourite. You have to find weapons from enemies, fight through a tough corridor with only a pistol, and for a brief moment if feels like you’re actually playing. Then you regroup with your squad and it’s back to normal. There are other moments like it, a few assaults of villages, or an airfield, where you get to play shooting galleries, ducking behind rocks, either advancing or retreating (on the instruction of your team, naturally). They’re fine. They’re nothing special in any way, but they’re entertaining shootery moments.
In many ways you have to argue that Medal Of Honour is competent. If you want to feel what it’s like to be a grunt in a conflict, unable to make decisions or use your imagination, it’s mostly very solid. There’s constant variety in how you’re playing, all flying past you at quite some speed.
It’s an extremely easy game on Normal, and as I may have mentioned once or twice a rather detached experience, and as such a few attempts to have some emotional impact miss quite widely. It’s never disrespectful of the current-day conflict (apart from the strangely distasteful lust for headshots), and it’s surprisingly inoffensive toward Afghanis (although you never encounter a single non-combatant – the game makes a special point of the soldiers checking extremely carefully that they’re only targeting combatants). But when it tries to tug on the heartstrings it ends up seeming a tad silly.
If you want to give yourself an artificial tougher challenge there’s the Tier 1 mode. Here you can take on various levels attempting to score on online leaderboards. Playing the game before it comes out affords you some advantages:
You can attempt to outdo others for headshots, best time, accuracy, etc. It does rather make a mockery of the game, in most respects. And it reveals quite what a lot of baloney much of the missions are. Replaying one area, but not playing properly to see if I could beat the par time, pulled back the curtain rather. I won’t say how, because as Kieron sensibly pointed out just before he upped and left, mechanical spoilers are spoilers, and will change how you approach the game. But it only further underlines how much your actions aren’t meant to determine the game you play.
It frustrates me that something potentially exciting is so restricted by artificial blockages, and a deeply peculiar decision to let your fellow soldiers have more fun playing than you. Those moments between the barriers, between the hopping from idea to idea, where you get to shoot your way through a mountain side – they’re decent. Nothing original, but they do the job.
But for so much of the game it feels like one of those theme park rides where you gently trundle past various dioramas. “Ooh, look kids, here’s one of the helicopters they use for fighting wars. No! Don’t touch it!”