Some years ago, the Medal of Honor franchise ruled the roost when it came to World War II first-person shooters. Then a wily group of upstart developers broke off and came up with what became the new king of shooters from the greatest generation's era: Call of Duty. The CoD series went on to refine the formula and establish itself as not only the premier franchise for depicting war-torn 1940s Europe and Japan, but also for conflicts lifted right out of current events with the rebrand known as Modern Warfare. Meanwhile, those at the helm of the Medal of Honor series, in what's become known as "typical EA fashion," were content churning out sequels with different paint jobs but nominal adjustments or improvements to gameplay. Many were still relatively well-made titles, but it got long in the tooth and was desperately in need of the reinvention CoD had undergone.
Well, that reinvention is here, except it's less about innovation and more about emulation. This is your grandfather's Call of Duty, but lacking some serious polish where gameplay and play options are concerned. Let's run through the CoD checklist and see how MoH did at aping the formula:
- Stunning visuals – Check!
- Outstanding, immersive battlefield audio – Check!
- Ridiculous monster closet spawning of enemies – Check!
- Fluid movement through the environment – Umm…sometimes?
- Scripted events that enhance the experience – Well, there are events, but they kind of bog you down.
- Full campaign cooperative play – Oh wait, neither has done this (Treyarch's underrated World at War notwithstanding)
The fact of the matter is that, on an aesthetic level (sights, sounds, atmosphere), Medal of Honor rocks. However, it also proves true the old adage that graphics don't mean squat if your gameplay doesn't shine equally well. For example, there are several situations in the game where your movement speed is brought to a halt or slow crawl at best while you wait for the next scripted event to take place. This constantly interrupts the flow of gameplay, dragging it down and causing moments of genuine boredom while you're waiting for the game to let the player actually do something.
It's a shame, too, because the music is spot-on for dramatic effect, the radio chatter heightens tension on the battlefield as your squad faces insurmountable odds and limited ammo (though you can at any time walk over to a comrade and get a full ammo cache, even if he just said he was on his last clip), bullets and tracer fire are whizzing everywhere, smoke billows across the desert sky, you sneak through darkened mountaintop forests with only the pale glow of moonlight trickling through the treetops to light your way —
And then that level of immersion is wrecked by getting your pant leg snagged on a rock you can't apparently run past, hitting an invisible wall in the environment, wrestling with the occasionally bone-headed AI that walks directly into your line of fire, or the disappearing HUD leaves you wondering what you're supposed to do or where you should be going until you remember to hit a key to toggle it on for a few seconds. I get that the HUD thing is supposed to make it feel like a real experience rather than a game, but it's a pain hearing your buddy start counting down to a simultaneous takedown when you have no idea what he's even aiming at on the side of a mountain. When you blow it, he bitches at you, and it's often time to reload your last checkpoint.
What would a modern war game be without monster closets? These doorways hidden just out of sight somehow spew endless minions in your general direction until you finally hit some arbitrary point on the map, kill X amount of bad guys, or simply wait for the invisible timer on the event to tick down to zero. Call of Duty is certainly guilty of using this tactic, but those guys do a slightly better job of not only involving the player in the chaos, but also making it more apparent what the event trigger is to stop the stupid terrorist pool from overflowing all over the building in front of you.
I was running down a mountain in Medal of Honor, as ordered, being chased by a bunch of guys who'd just raided Bin Laden's wardrobe. Again, as ordered, I sought refuge in a ruined stone hut. I waited, and I returned fire. And waited. I shot and killed no fewer than 200 enemies (I counted) spawning out of the path just up the mountain from whence we came, and still nothing had happened. I had time to go to the AI guy next to me — who was standing there doing absolutely nothing — and ask him to hook me up with some more ammo, as well as a smoke and whether he had any idea when this seemingly endless spawn event might transition into the extraction via helo I'd heard so much about 15 minutes and 200 corpses earlier. He kept silent, but hooked me up with more bullets anyway. I strolled back to my lookout point through a window, and at that magical moment, it said Objective Complete. What exactly I or someone else had done to trigger said changeover is anyone's guess.
Another thing at which the Call of Duty library of titles is much better is involving the player, so much so that at times it feels like the story simply would not be progressing without your direct assistance. CoD leaves targets for you. The back and forth of gunfire cannot always be relied on to clear out an area. Sometimes, the AI spots targets and sets them up specifically so you can feel awesome about scoring the kill. Medal of Honor largely fails at this. Sniping missions have some adequate punch, but the village-by-village firefights in which you'll regularly find yourself will largely be won by the AI, with your participation being entirely optional. Once, I just chilled by a campfire down the hill while I waited for the rest of the team to let me know they'd cleared the way for me to stroll on through without breaking a sweat. Plus, it's incredibly aggravating zeroing in on an enemy only to see him offed at that last second by an AI teammate just as you were about to pull the trigger.
That could be fixed presumably by making the campaign cooperative, and given that you are always with at least one AI player at all times (usually more, commonly four), I see no reason why this feature was left out. It would have added a bit of replayability to an otherwise dull but lavishly decorated tourist experience.
The multiplayer that is on hand is purely adversarial and by the books, including variants of capture and hold, free-for-all and team deathmatch. The experience did remind me of playing CoD online in that I would empty entire sighted clips into another player to no effect, then fall to two rounds shot from the hip by his rifle. There are no kill cams, so camping can run rampant. Punkbuster is in use here, but it constantly told me the service was not installed, though I had completely removed and reinstalled it from scratch. Because of this glitch, I was unable to join ranked, secured servers (i.e., most of them), relegating me to the dingy arenas where cheaters go to do their thing. Not fun. But hey, if you dig CoD MP and can get Punkbuster to play right, maybe you'll get some enjoyment out of it. The multiplayer matches are fast and furious; it's not my cup of tea, but your mileage may vary. The graphics and sounds are consistently top-notch, though it lacks game-changing touches like Battlefield: Bad Company 2's destructible environments.
There is no bot support or training for multiplayer, so it's already fallen behind Black Ops in my mind. There are kill streak rewards similar to CoD as well, letting you rain death on hapless players from the skies above. On top of it all, get this: One of the default "sniper" class weapons has a red dot sight for a scope. Read that again. Sniper. Red dot. No zoom. Yeah. That's not sniping. There was no shortage of servers to play on. The problem is, there were more empty than not, and no option exists to host your own, so someday when EA eventually shuts down the servers, and the lack of P2P co-op or bot support, you'll be stuck with just the campaign.
What about the story line in the campaign, you ask? It was reminiscent of Call of Duty 4 in that you were a nobody grunt getting bossed around by a lot of people, and jumped between a couple of different soldiers (no offense with "soldier" to any Marines or S.E.A.L.s out there — the game didn't always specify) between missions. It was disorienting in that game, and it doesn't work any better here. Modern Warfare 2 has more story polish, so this didn't bother me as much, plus it was good to see Soap's familiar mug again, but MoH falls short. I played as at least Rabbit, Adams and Deuce in the war with little to no distinction or personality between them, and that quick jumping around made it really hard to attach to or care about any one of them.
They try for a big dramatic finale with one story line in the end, but it left me wondering what happened to the other two, and what was to come in the conflict, since it didn't try to wrap up things for the player at all. I understand that in real war, there isn't a tidy "happily ever after," and in most cases, everyone has to settle on an acceptable amount of loss and move on, but I expect better narrative from an entertainment experience like this. The Rainbow Sixes and Ghost Recons of the late '90s were more realistic and edgy and tied up their stories quite well.
With PC games, there's always a question of DRM. They didn't do too badly here, offering the choice of a basic CD check or online authentication every time you play. Both are more hassle than pirates are forced to endure, but better than forcing always-on connectivity or similar. Overall, I think this is generally acceptable since the DRM doesn't break the game or significantly hinder the experience.
Overall, Medal of Honor is visually and aurally outstanding, but it needs much more polish on gameplay, scripted events, character/scene transitions and narrative construction before it's ready to really run with the big dogs. Multiplayer is the same frustrating quick-or-dead affair for which Call of Duty is now known, and it doesn't aspire to do anything terribly new or interesting. The set pieces would have made it an excellent war movie, but as a game, the interactivity and overall experience are more mediocre.
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