Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Los Angeles
Release Date: March 26, 2007
EA's Medal of Honor series is charging ahead. While the next-gen Airborne is in development for the PC, PS3, and X360, EA has made the curious decision to release an entirely different title for the PS2 and the Wii. Called Vanguard, this entry in the series seems to be out to please fans who were left dissatisfied by one reason or another by recent installments like European Assault and Rising Sun. Vanguard's stated goal is to return to the highly praised and polished gameplay of Frontline, and make players remember why WWII FPS got to be such a hot genre on consoles to begin with. Of course, Vanguard is going to be sporting the new features, enhanced A.I., and graphics improvements that are essentially required for a new sequel to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the only version EA had ready to show us was for the PS2, so there's no word on what the Wii control scheme will be like or if the graphics will be different.
Vanguard ties in loosely with Airborne by focusing on the role played by paratroopers in WWII. Usually in Vanguard, protagonist Corporal Frank Keegan gets dropped behind enemy lines with a small coterie of allies to do what's necessary to help out forces on the ground. In gameplay terms, this means the single-player campaign will feature a lot of hot and heavy firefighting against overwhelming odds. Picking where you want to be dropped behind enemy lines while starting the game, eventually getting to pick your own "start point," is a vital gameplay element. There are multiple routes through every map, and some will be far more challenging than others.
While you do have allies with you, they act on their own rather than being commanded by you in any way. A.I. for both allies and enemies is contextual, causing them to seek out enemies, look for cover, and try to fight intelligently. For instance, if you throw a grenade at an enemy, he'll try to flee from it (even if it's too late), rather than simply continuing to shoot at you. In addition to scripted dialogue to advance the story, allies and enemies make comments of their own as they go about the battle. They may shout directions to each other, taunt enemies, or curse as the battle goes poorly. The developer claimed that if the NPC characters or enemies were simply placed in an empty level, with no other features or action, their programming would cause them to begin interacting immediately. The A.I. at the demonstration certainly showed dramatic improvements over previous games in the series, with the characters reacting as naturally as you might expect from a 360 title. Enemies weren't quite as prescient as they were in European Assault but still fought using sensible tactics like running from grenades and waiting for you to stop firing before returning fire. Combined with the new dialogue options, it effectively created more of an illusion of the CPU enemies being people, as opposed to ... well, CPU enemies.
Much like Burnout: Dominator, Vanguard is a really standout title when it comes to extracting high-performance visuals from the PS2. There are points where this game really looks like something you'd see on the Xbox. The characters have been completely reconstructed from the ground up, and no models have been re-used from previous Medal of Honor games (despite some early speculation from fans that the bulk of the graphics were being recycled from European Assault). Instead, the newly remodeled characters, maps, and weapons incorporate far more polygons per character and move with far more natural animations. Particle physics, such as puffs of smoke from gunfire or destroyed buildings, are at an amazing level of fidelity for a current-gen system. Instead of a simple pouf of black for smoke, you instead get some of the layering effects required to make smoke really look like smoke.
Headshots result in a marvelously realistic and satisfying backsnap of the hapless victim's head and neck before they slump down. Likewise, the object physics are excellent for a PS2 FPS. You can see, and properly exploit, the way grenades bounce, the way bodies fall, and the way physics impacts debris. These all result in welcome and much-needed upgrades in the basic gameplay of the Medal of Honor series. Vanguard no longer features idiotic A.I. that takes actions which make little sense, and can be easily dispatched by abusing bugs and clipping errors. Instead, it plays as smoothly and with as much fidelity as basically any next-gen FPS.
If extracting this kind of performance out of the PS2 sounds suspiciously impossible, bear in mind that the PS2's been around long enough for certain programmers get extremely talented at extracting high levels of performance from the Emotion Engine. Right now is an ideal time for PS2 veterans to show their prowess, as the appearance of new systems has yet to truly dull demand for new PS2 games. EA went so far as to proudly describe a member of the Vanguard team as a "PS2 coding ninja," and after seeing this game in action, we can believe it. It would take years of experience to make the PS2 capable of pushing graphics, AI, and physics enhancements on this level. It is simply a better-looking and better-playing game than any previous Medal of Honor on the system.
The gameplay is indeed far more like Frontline than the more arcade-like European Assault or the frankly embarrassing Rising Sun. Checkpoints are back, and the EA rep made a point of noting that there were several checkpoints in each stage to minimize pointless repetition on replays. European Assault's optional objectives appear to be back, letting perfectionist players work toward acquiring medals. Most of the missions concern themselves with fighting in and around Germany, as the game largely focuses on the Allied push into Europe. So you'll get to handle missions like fighting behind enemy lines to pave the way for the soldiers landing at Normandy on D-Day to advance, fighting off the elite German ground troops who eventually pushed back Operation Market Garden, and eventually participating in the magnificent success of Operation Varsity, the airborne offensive that let the Allies gain control of ground past the River Rhine in Germany.
It's a stop-and-pop type of FPS, as both the PS2 controller and the A.I.'s tendency to seek out cover makes strafing maneuvers pointless. There are some interesting options, though, such as an ability to sprint, that may elevate the sense in the tactics above pure simplicity. Regardless, it is a game that has a slow, deliberate pace, in the manner of classic FPS. To enhance the experience, EA is promising lots of story beyond the simple re-enactment of major historical battles. The only real sign of this promise is the tremendous amount of voice-acting in the game, and while actor names aren't available yet, a lot of the actors sounded like veterans of the animation industry. This bodes well for a game that's going to feature a lot of dialogue as part of gameplay. Vanguard is also being promised to be a longer game than European Assault, featuring 10 missions, each introduced by a cut scene video.
Vanguard will have online gameplay content that takes advantage of the new features, although there's little information about it right now. Presumably it will improve upon Rising Sun's unexpectedly popular online component, and let players take advantage of the enhanced physics to improve their efforts against enemies. Team vs. Team play seems assured, and co-op would certainly be possible. Unfortunately, there's just no information on this aspect of the game yet, which is a shame given how important it's likely to be to the attractiveness of the final package in consumer eyes.
A FPS on a current-gen console like the PS2 (or, for that matter, a low-res one like the Wii) is something of a hard sell to fans of the genre. FPS rose to popularity on the PC because they're such a good vehicle for showing off stellar graphics, physics, and other technical advancements. The gameplay of most FPS can be boiled down to a simple and familiar formula that lets players take their skills intact from title to title. Despite this, EA is betting that Medal of Honor's franchise name and a promise of a return to the days of Frontline's superior gameplay will be enough to draw players back for this iteration. This may very well be a winning bet, as Vanguard looks like it's going to pull the kind of performance out of the PS2 that a dated system needs to keep selling games in a period of transition. Of course, we'll find out for certain when the game drops in March.
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