Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA LA
Release Date: September 4, 2007
The glut of World War II-themed shooters in the market over the past several years was at first a gamer's inside joke, like pretending Duke Nukem Forever will ever ship, eventually becoming a tired gaming cliché, like pretending Duke Nukem Forever will ever ship. Per usual with these things, the reality of the matter is more conservative than the popular myth, save perhaps the peculiar case of that MIA Duke Nukem sequel: There were indeed a lot of WWII-themed shooters released over a few years, but there were only a handful of distinct, lasting franchises. Over the past 18 months, the WWII-shooter body count has considerably decreased. What remains are miserable, abortive, late attempts — Hour of Victory comes immediately to mind — to capitalize on the historically strong sales of the sub-genre. Beyond that, you're perhaps expecting Codemasters' Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, which is foremost an alternative fiction, more much akin to Resistance: Fall of Man (okay, even the games' titles follow the same grammatical structure) than the original Call of Duty or any Medal of Honor title.
Infinity Ward, with its already classic squad-based shooter, was credited with injecting new life into the WWII sub-genre, and although the developer made just two full-fledged Call of Duty titles set in that era, only one of those made it to consoles and that title for only one console. With Medal of Honor: Airborne, EA is obviously taking its own shot at reinvigorating not only the market for WWII games but also reestablishing the formerly preeminent franchise in the field.
The only significant change in Medal of Honor: Airborne, aside from the ultimately superficial current-generation enhancements in graphics, HD screen resolution (this game actually supports 1080p) and audio, is the "airborne" gameplay mechanism, which in most cases has you jump out of a perfectly good airplane onto the field of battle — typically not a field at all, but the middle of a European village, bombed-out ruins, or some setting not confining per se, but still having defined, inviolate perimeters.
It takes playing a while to discover the two most important things about the "airborne" design model: First, the gameplay scheme does indeed matter, and where you choose to land does affect how you'll accomplish the numerous objectives in each campaign mission; next, in order to use the "airborne" mechanism as it is intended, you have to die and start over in the middle of a jump, from the latest saved checkpoint, which has persevered your weapons status and previously accomplished objectives, but not — except for rare instances — the ground location you reached to trigger the checkpoint, by default automatically saved.
EA never intended you play through the whole game, or even large sections of the game, without dying, and the "normal" difficulty setting, often a cakewalk for experienced shooter fans, is so calibrated that it will get you killed at least a couple of times per campaign mission. As an example of the obvious get-killed design, there are skill-objective positions — landing on top of columns, dropping through holes in roofs, etc. — scattered throughout the campaign levels; you'll only find them by passing by them on foot, once you're already on the ground, and the only way you'll have a chance at them is by dying and again parachuting down over the region.
EA has built in a couple of green smoke flares on each campaign level as adjuncts to the "airborne" spawn system; these are "safe zones," defined as landings spots guaranteed free of Axis troops who will shoot you all the minute you hit the ground. Also, jumps should finish with flared landings — by default, holding the X button at the right moment, to flare your 'chute for a softer, graceful landing. Missing a "flared landing" means a "botched landing": you drop on all fours instead of two feet, but it doesn't much matter, as you take no real damage from a botched landing, you're up on your feet but quick, and should you land in the middle of a Nazi poker game, you're in scant better straits with a properly flared landing than a bumbling tumble.
It should be further noted that the "airborne" model in the games is not particularly realistic. In WWII, the Allied idea of dropping troops out of airplanes over battlefields, dangling their souls from parachutes, was an innovative notion in military tactics — some considered it absolutely insane until it proved, over time, a decisive, effective concept in putting troops on the ground. Army Airborne parachutes were designed to rather slowly drop men to the ground from relatively low altitudes to what everyone hoped were safe landings. Most of the time. As soon as Axis troops figured out armed Allied soldiers could perhaps fall out of the sky, it was wasn't the most secure spot in the world, drifting down through the open air above machine-gun emplacements. These parachutes were not contemporary air-show stunt models; although Airborne soldiers could try flaring their 'chutes for a good drop, they didn't have nearly the control of where, exactly, they landed as Medal of Honor: Airborne would have us believe. It's great fun to direct your jump with the analog controller sticks in order to land at the best, specific locales for going after certain objectives, but it's not at all realistic in terms of WWII Army Airborne soldiering.
Medal of Honor: Airborne's graphics technology is perfectly acceptable for the HD generation, but it's nothing to show off. You may notice a few instances of frame-rate hiccups, particularly when you first make your jump out of an airplane — re-spawn jumps, however, after the first checkpoint, start you off mid-air — but they don't persist throughout the game. Fortunately, pedestrian graphics don't detract noticeably from this title's gameplay; it's more about picking your landings, choosing your weapons, carefully selecting your approach, ultimately, of course, just gunning down the bad guys before they pop you a couple in the head, or sneak up from behind, beating you to death with their rifle butts. Dolby Digital audio is also suitable, though nothing special.
Airborne's online multiplayer is enjoyable and, rather unusually, remains fun with only a few players in the match, but its maps and modes are extremely limited — there are only three game types, all absolutely standard shooter fare — and if you're assigned to the Axis team, you lose the "airborne" gameplay element, as Axis troops spawn on the ground. Playing Medal of Honor: Airborne is enough fun I can't fairly label it a poorly considered afterthought, but it's very simple. Matches are for the most part smooth, but I did consistently notice, when first aiming at an enemy with one controller trigger button and then depressing the trigger button assigned for firing automatic weapons, a disconcerting delay before the weapon actually fired. It's surely a network connection issue, and may or may not turn up in most online games, as entering a building, aiming and opening fire on, say, a divan, your weapon fires with the welcome immediacy you'd expect. Presumably opponents equally suffer the same virtual "jams," as I didn't have any problem finishing online rounds at least in the middle of the pack on my team.
Since retail price drops are often keyed to time in market, delayed releases of PS3 titles here and there hand Sony's gamers a gap coming off their primary list and getting on with their secondary list, or we must pay more for our second-tier selections. Otherwise, despite Call of Duty 3's quite a bit more robust online multiplayer features, trudging through that title's single-player campaign felt more like doing the weekly marketing by one's scrawled, near-illegible shopping list than playing a game; Medal of Honor: Airborne is clearly the superior title, and it's the PS3 WWII-themed shooter Call of Duty 3 should have been, considering the quality of that franchise's direct ancestors.
More articles about Medal of Honor Airborne