It turns out there's some irony to the controversy that erupted last summer around Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor reboot.
When media and politicians learned that players would be able to take on the role of the Taliban in the game's online multiplayer modes (the word "Taliban" has since been scrubbed and replaced with the less offensive nomenclature "OpFor," or Opposing Force) they criticized the game and its developers for showing disrespect toward military personnel engaged in an ongoing war.
The rub is that now that the game has been released it's clear that few other first-person shooters paint America's fighting forces in such flattering hues.
Medal of Honor is an unabashed ode to the courage of U.S. troops – specifically SEALs, Tier 1 Operatives, and Rangers – fighting in Afghanistan. From its patent leave-no-man-behind-no-matter-the-cost message to its closing, glowing dedication to enlisted men and women, no one who plays the campaign mode could tenably argue that that the game is anything but a love song to America's currently serving military and fallen troops – a thoroughly foul-mouthed but unquestionably honourable and principled bunch of professional warriors, according to what we see.
What's more, developer Danger Close cautiously skirts anything that could be considered even remotely controversial in the game's story. Rather than tell a tale about a frustratingly fruitless search for a terrorist mastermind, or explicate the difficulties of determining peaceful Afghans from warlike Taliban – and illustrate the consequent civilian death toll – they have instead focused on a fight for a patch of barren rocky land that has no more apparent worth than Hamburger Hill. In fact, simply by invoking that notorious Vietnam War battle I have offered more political commentary on the current conflict in Afghanistan than have the makers of this game.
Of course, one can't blame Danger Close for this approach. To try anything more daring would be to invite a level of public backlash that would make last summer's media storm seem like a mild drizzle. Still, proponents of games as a medium for the expression of progressive thought will be disappointed.
- The Goods Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Windows PC Publisher: Electronic Arts Developers: Danger Close, DICE ESRB: Mature The Good: Many rousing and immersive single-player missions. The harsh Afghan countryside in the campaign is beautiful. Multiplayer amalgamates several familiar and appealing elements from other games. The Bad: Deliberate avoidance of controversial narrative elements is plainly evident. Campaign bugs lift players out of the experience. Online play could prove difficult and frustrating for new players. Multiplayer maps lack the arresting visual flair of campaign missions. The Verdict: Fun manages to outweigh frustration in this flawed and controversial modern military shooter.
Gamers expecting one of the great military shooters of 2010 might be let down, too.
Though the campaign has many stirring moments – desperate retreats, last-second rescues, all-out rushes on enemy lines – that will fail to rouse only the most jaded video game combatants, something about it feels just a little bit off.
Some of this has to do with the predictability of our enemies. They seem to have two modes of action, either rushing headlong toward the player with no regard for personal safety or holing up behind cover, taking turns popping their heads out above or beside whatever box, rock, or barrier they happen to be using for protection.
It doesn't help that there are far too many obvious bugs for a triple-A title. Weapons with muzzles that flash without actually being fired, paper-thin rocks that you can walk into and which offer no cover, allies who block your way from exiting a building until you throw a grenade at them to make them leap away – these are all issues that suck the player out of the experience, killing any sense of immersion or momentum they might have had.
Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have fun. The best parts of the campaign are those that wander slightly outside the well-defined box of your average shooter. Like a long-range sniping sequence across a valley that sees a lengthy delay between pulling the trigger and bullet impact. Trying to take a bead on targets as they desperately attempt to hone in on your position proves a thrilling experience, and reminded me of tense sniper sequences in movies like The Hurt Locker and Enemy at the Gates.
I also enjoyed a gunship mission that offers players a much-needed chance to let loose after the previous mission, which concludes with a heart-pounding last-stand sort of battle. It begins with a couple of gunship pilots engaged in authentic military chatter as they attempt to verify an enemy position on long-range camera, then turns into a frenetic game of cat and mouse as your helicopter and another dodge RPGs while laying waste to whole enemy encampments.
But the most memorable aspect of the campaign may simply be its setting. Once we get out of the town in which the story begins the game takes on a distinct visual tang, presenting us with stark deserts, dark caves, and low mountain ranges along the Pakistan border that look and feel just like what we've all seen on the news. In no other game have I witnessed the sort of desolate yet arresting vistas on display here.
Sadly, this bleakly beautiful countryside is mostly absent from the multiplayer portion of the game, which was developed by DICE and is set primarily in small urban areas, bases, and settlements, all of which seem to have the same textures and colours and consequently end up blending together. Even now, having spent hours exploring these locations just the previous evening, I can scarcely tell them apart in my mind.
Of course, a greater concern for EA than indistinguishable maps is whether Medal of Honor can overcome the inevitable comparisons players will make between it and Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the game by which all modern military shooters are measured by mainstream gamers.
The good news is that Medal of Honor has its own online personality, even if it is more or less a mongrelised version of others.
As in the Call of Duty games, players can level up and customize their soldiers' gear, selecting from a selection of better weapons and attachments that offer noticeable advantages over those just starting out. However, this system of rewards, which also includes some fairly meaningless medals and ribbons awarded for player performance, is rudimentary when compared to recent entries in Activision's franchise, which offer a seemingly never-ending series of challenges and objectives designed to make players experiment and try new ways of playing.
Meanwhile, fans of DICE's Battlefield games will recognize this game's three basic soldier classes – sniper, special ops, rifleman – and be immediately at home with modes like Sector Control, which has players fighting to capture and hold flags in a trio of semi-defendable positions. Variants of other modes, such as Combat Mission – which sees coalition forces working to secure a series of objectives held by terrorists – and the self-descriptive Team Assault , have been seen in a wide variety of other military-themed shooters and ought to be fairly familiar to almost everyone.
This is all fine and dandy, especially given that this is a reboot of the series designed to expand the brand to new players. Oddly, though, other aspects of online play almost seem geared for much more experienced shooter fans.
Smallish maps mean that open ground is almost always within line of sight of one of the 12 players you're fighting against, and carelessly entering this space – as rookies are prone to do – is tantamount to a deathwish. Plus, support abilities such as mortars and rocket fire – which come available only to players who are already playing very well – may crush the spirits of newbies who keep getting blown up and wondering when they'll have a chance to put their finger on the trigger of these decidedly deadly weapons.
That said, I'm not sure hardcore players are flocking to Medal of Honor. Servers are already filled with plenty of higher level players, but I've seen little of the sort of teamwork or cooperation that is the hallmark of veteran shooters. My headset remained completely silent most matches, and most of my allies either rushed enemy areas in uncoordinated groups or took up camping in random hidey-holes, waiting to take pot shots at passers-by rather than try to stealthily stalk their enemies.
Still, it's very early. It could simply be that the online community has yet to find its collective groove.
In the end, the greatest obstacle to players enjoying online play – and indeed the whole of the Medal of Honor experience – is their own preconceived notions. It isn't a bad game, as many seem to have been anticipating, but rather just derivative and noticeably rushed. It's a reasonably entertaining mid-tier military shooter that happens to have the marketing hype – and, unfortunately for all concerned, the expectations – of a triple-A blockbuster.