War Torn: EA Shouldn’t Have Cancelled Medal Of Honor

This morning’s news that EA has canned the revived Medal Of Honor strikes me as a pretty sad one. Not because the last two games earned any merit – they certainly didn’t. They were truly horrible games. Not just because of their gung-ho, one-dimensional, army-recruitment-writ-large approach to current conflicts, nor just because of the both underlying and overlying racism to be found within, but also simply because they were poorly made. Massive explosions and enormous set pieces fail to carry any gravitas, as you’re dragged by your nose through its shoulder-width corridors. I certainly don’t want another one of those. But I do want another Medal Of Honor.

EA supremo Peter Moore’s words on the matter, as pointed out by Nathan, really smack of a troubling lack of perspicuity, and a mite too much hubris.

“We struggled with two challenges: the slowdown that impacted the entire sector and poor critical and commercial reception for Medal of Honor Warfighter. Medal of Honor was an obvious miss. The game was solid, but the focus on combat authenticity did not resonate with consumers. Critics were polarized and gave the game scores which were, frankly, lower than it deserved.”

It was indeed an obvious miss. But it wasn’t despite the game being solid, nor indeed was it the audience’s failure to understand the game. Lordy. The notion that the games contain even a quarter-teaspoonful of “combat authenticity” is instantly ludicrous. Unless combat is usually fought by one man spraying bullets over a large live-action target practice zone for infinity, until he realises he was supposed to step forward to make the nearby building fall over. I’ve not been in the army, I admit, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it’s not quite like that.

Critics absolutely weren’t polarised – that’s when a game gets a mad mix of 9s and 3s. Warfighter’s scores sat plump in the 4 to 7 range, with not a single reviewer going over 75% on any machine (even IGN broke the bottom of their own thermometer and gave it a 4!). And where too many gaming sites see 7/10 as their punishing score, there’s no ambiguity over the general reception of this one. Moore simply made that up. And why was it so bad. The simplest thing to do is link my review.

And then “frankly, lower than it deserved”. Well, sure, everyone thinks their own baby is beautiful, no matter how much of a troll it may be. But at a certain point, after a certain number of near-unanimous reviews, one probably should stop and wonder. However, I really don’t think the response to all this is to drown that baby in a river.

Just a couple of days ago, while chatting with some of the fine folks at Eurogamer, I joked that EA should demand I put my money where my mouth is, and get me to write a third game in the rebooted series. And then realised how much I would have loved to do that. Because in Medal Of Honor, even ignoring the occasionally decent editions of its WW2 incarnation (most of all the splendid Airborne), there’s so much potential.

It would be far too simple to take Medal Of Honor and make it into an anti-war rhetoric. Indeed, the result would likely be something far too clumsy like Spec Op’s hammering home of its point. And indeed to do so would be massively oversimplifying the enormous complexities of the role of international intervention when there is terrible human suffering. Frankly, having made one’s mind up about such a broad, intricate subject is, in itself, somewhat suspicious. And that’s why I believe the franchise is bursting with such potential – potential to explore these enormously difficult subjects.

A core element of Medal Of Honor was telling a number of stories from a number of perspectives, and it’s in this that there’s so much room to ask multiple questions about the state of contemporary warfare, to represent a number of viewpoints, to pit thesis against antithesis. For the last two games, MoH has opted for a one-track, un-introspective series of “WAR IS JUST BLOODY GREAT!” blundering, peppered with outright hatred toward enemy troops. This “shoot the brown ones” motif is extremely uncomfortable, and in Warfighter even those who’ve blithely ignored it in so many other shooters (of course including the Call Of Duty games) finally seemed to snap and say: just no. (Warfighter certainly deserved the kicking it received – it’s just, so did a number of games before it.)

But at the same time, Warfighter was extraordinarily egregious in itself. It’s opening moment, that wretched scene in which you’ve a reticule fixed on the back of a stranger’s head, with no ability to move your gun, nor your feet, and only the instruction to execute this man in the back of his skull for no given reason – at the time you wonder if it’s a powerful staetment, but minutes later you realise it was just setting the tone.

Imagine a Medal Of Honor that explores this. A number of viewpoints, a representation of different attitudes, with no informing the player of which is the “correct” perspective. A game that sees soldiers challenged in their previous convictions, whether they were blind patriotism or borderline pacifism. And equally a game that challenges the player of whatever their preconceptions might be. No moralising, no bold statements, no take-home message – instead questions, provoking scenes, and doubt.

I think there’s definitely room for a game to provide the opposing anti-war thoughts that would directly respond to the extreme pro- nature of so many shooters. But I don’t think Medal Of Honor would be the right place to do such a thing. I’m not sure that I’d want to play such a thing any more than its counterpart. And while I’d also love to see gaming create the far more sophisticated and ambiguous tone of its own All Quiet On The Western Front, I think the Medal Of Honor series would be the perfect place for something not neutral, but balanced in its opposing views.

And it certainly wouldn’t need to do this through its cutscenes. Warfighter’s ghastly scenes presented a moronic and sycophantic view of a soldier’s family life, patronising both its characters and its viewers, making the game feel only more stupid and offensive. But the early MoH and CoD games demonstrated that no cutscenes were necessary to portray the experience of soldiers. Simply letting you at least hold the illusion of choice made such a massive difference, letting you feel as if you were experiencing it, rather than angrily forcing you along its rails.

I wonder if one element of the significant shift in quality for both CoD and MoH since their early incarnations comes with the change in timezones, because of a loss of perspective. Those early games were often made after team members had spent time interviewing WW2 vets about their experiences. As market-driven as those games might have been, there was no doubt that at least some of the teams felt they owed it to those elderly soldiers to honour them in their creation. But when making a contemporary war game (and indeed far further when making a future war game), that’s not nearly as simple a task. Those still in active duty are in a difficult position to reflect on experiences, and indeed unlikely to be able to talk openly. In fact, it’s more likely that the problematic tone of Medal Of Honor would only be further influenced by the necessary rhetoric of those involved in current combat.

That’s a complicated thought. In fact, a game that honestly represented the perspectives of active soldiers would be entirely unlike the war-profiteering Medal Of Honor, which of course further underlines the nonsense of Moore’s claim of “combat authenticity”. The issue is certainly the combination of the idiotic super-soldier-target-practice-on-train-tracks along with the complete lack of cognisance. But the opportunity to address both – wow, what a thing that would be. The chance to have a team that talented, and explore an enormous subject with pellucidity.

What a massive shame it is that the series should be scrapped, instead of rescued. It needs new direction, not shelving until the next inevitable reboot in five years time, once Battlefield has run entirely aground.

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