Let’s talk about the future of videogames, you and I.
Let’s speak about a time when blockbuster, triple-A titles across a single genre of game are all indistinguishable, save for their stories. Let’s ruminate on the possibility that these games will take very little risks, gameplay-wise, but deliver a fantastic film-quality narrative over six hours of entertainment. Let’s whisper quietly about a future where gamers purchase one title over the other because of that narrative and the game’s setting, rather than the promise of some great new videogame technology or gimmick.
And just for one second, let’s compare videogames and movies, and suggest that, in the future, audiences will flock to one videogame over the other (despite their similarities) simply because, in one, the special effects are better and the explosions are bigger – much like the pattern of results shown at the close of a Hollywood box-office weekend.
My friends, the future is now.
Medal of Honor is Electronic Arts’ (EA) latest entry to the long-running series of war-based first-person shooters, and while the franchise has in the past been content to allow gamers to gun down Nazis (and Japanese soldiers in the Pacific theatre) during World War II, 2010’s edition of the game takes us into the past and current war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and associated factions, as two separate but symbiotic divisions of the US military, the Tier 1 group of special forces (an elite group who go on dangerous threat-clearance and intelligence gathering missions) and the Rangers (comprising many squads of soldiers who break through enemy lines with brute force) make their way through the region dispatching enemies with ruthless skill.
Throughout the game, you’ll see the action unfold through the eyes of Tier 1 operatives ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Deuce,’ as well as a Ranger by the name of ‘Adams’ (with a stint as an attack helicopter pilot to boot), and though most of Medal of Honor is set in desert-stricken, sand-encrusted rocky terrain and harsh snowy environments high in the mountains, the developers do a good job of mixing up the scenery with a smattering of bombed out buildings, makeshift military installations, small villages, and clever changes to the time of day – despite the similar environments, night time in Medal of Honor’s Afghanistan looks very different to dusk, which again is incomparable to dawn.
The reason you’ll be moving from one environment to another is because of the aforementioned opportunity to experience the conflict from different perspectives, while also being tasked with taking on varied mission types across the region – you start the game with an intense and exciting run, gun and chase mission, but subsequent objectives will require different tactics, as you sneak through an encampment at night on a stealth mission, obliterate enemies and buildings while piloting that attack helicopter, race from place to place on the back of a quad bike, take down imposing targets in sniping missions, tactically clear out a ruined village, defend yourself and your team-mates against overwhelming odds… the mission variety in Medal of Honor is impressive, and even though we may have ‘seen it all before’ in other titles, the game is also paced excellently, just so that you’ll never get tired of performing one task, and to ensure your current actions are suitably engaging.
Some of these missions are connected together with entertaining CG cinematics revealing how the ‘higher ups’ in the US military are making strategic decisions about your future movements in Afghanistan, while also serving as little vignettes to set up the next section of gameplay, story-wise. Voice acting during these sequences is overall very good, while general banter and story relayed during gameplay is also delivered very convincingly, which makes all the difference when the developers are trying to convey a serious, believable narrative.
Gameplay-wise, Medal of Honor fairs a little less well than its mission variety and presentation would have you believe. As first-person shooters go, operation of your very own US soldier is pretty standard, with shooting, iron-sight aiming, the ability to carry three weapons (two rifles and one handgun), grenade throwing, jumping, crouching, running, and reloading all present and accounted for. Medal of Honor does include a few neat tricks though, including the ability to slide (run and press crouch) which comes in handy when trying to get to cover quickly, and if you double-tap the weapon-switch button, you swap to your current handgun. A ‘lean’ button is also available, but I didn’t use that once during the campaign.
Firefights against your enemies are generally exciting thanks to well designed play spaces – the level designers have really done a great job of directing movement and action through the environments, and have created enjoyable ‘game areas’ perfect for combat that are also believable real-world spaces. That being said, unnecessary combustible objects do make an appearance to artificially spice up the action, but these are pretty rare. Unfortunately, as great as the design of most of the levels are, scripted enemy appearances, actions and placement can reduce an exciting courtyard firefight to something of a predictable shooting gallery – if you happen to die a few times during a given encounter, expect to see the enemy that surprisingly showed up in a window (and killed you) to appear in the same place on the next playthrough.
And woe betide you if you do happen to die in certain areas of the game – Medal of Honor’s progression saving and checkpoints can be exceedingly lousy when they want to be, taking you several encounters back before allowing you to try again. And woe betide you even more if the game’s scripted events and sequences ‘break’ and fail to play out – I personally had to restart from a checkpoint three separate times (one of which was a full mission restart) simply because the game didn’t do what it needed to do to allow me to progress, which is pretty much inexcusable.
Fortunately, actions in Medal of Honor are enjoyable to perform (even for the umpteenth time), as weapons provide a suitable feeling of weight and power with great sound effects and fluid animations, but visual feedback is a little lacking – shooting an enemy should provide players with an enormous amount of feedback to ensure we know that we’ve hit the target and successfully taken him down, but there are times when it can be difficult to know whether or not your fired shots have made contact or not. To add to this, collision detection with your targets can be a little iffy (sometimes a fired shot doesn’t hit) while it’s also difficult to tell which materials scattered around the environments can be shot through – just because an enemy is hiding behind (what appears to be) a cardboard box doesn’t mean that you can shoot through that obstacle to hit that enemy.
Well, as long as those enemies don’t pop in and out of existence, that’s OK. Oh, I didn’t mention that some weird stuff is likely to happen during Medal of Honor’s campaign? Like enemies suddenly materialising before your very eyes? Or muzzle flashes firing off on your guns even when you’re not shooting? Or ‘wonderful’ instances where enemies will be oblivious to your presence? Or the above-mentioned breaking of scripts? Or the fact that this is an Unreal Engine 3 game fo’ sho’, with terrible texture and level-of-detail pop-in?
Yes, Medal of Honor could have done with a few more coats of that magical videogame development ‘polish.’
This all leads me to the possible ‘future’ that I posited at the top of the page: a future when videogame audiences decide to invest time and money into one triple-A game over another simply because of a given title’s story combined with the presentational quality and engagement on offer. This also leads me to the inevitable comparison between EA’s Medal of Honor and Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (as well as the upcoming Black Ops).
Both games tell different stories, and while one is more interesting, engaging and understandable than the other (Medal of Honor), the other delivers an unparalleled experience in terms of presentation, overall quality and bombast (Modern Warfare 2). Gameplay-wise, the two games also contain comparable experiences – there is shooting, and running, and explosions. While Modern Warfare 2’s gunplay may top that of Medal of Honor, I personally feel as though EA’s title pips Activision’s game in terms of play spaces. Both games are scripted, however, which is never good (according to me, anyway).
What I’m trying to say (and failing miserably at) is that while Medal of Honor is a comparable game in the same genre as other blockbuster first-person shooters such as Modern Warfare 2, Halo: Reach and Killzone, it’s the story that sets it apart, but the quality that brings it down. The singleplayer campaign in the game could be recommended for its range of situations and the narrative, but you’ll find the same gameplay experience elsewhere, in games that you may already own.
And although Medal of Honor does tell an interesting story with great characters, it falls short of tackling serious issues and making a meaningful statement about the current and devastating situation in the Middle-East, simply remaining content to say: ‘Hey, the US is great and it’s the only reason we’re all safe and free. Hooah!’
It would have been more interesting (and daring) if Medal of Honor incorporated different perspectives on the war, but as it stands, we have to accept the fact that all Taliban are evil and everyone who helps them deserves to die – the game never gives us a reason to think otherwise, which is disappointing.
Up until now, I haven’t once mentioned multiplayer – the other reason gamers might decide to buy one title over another, and despite the fact that Medal of Honor includes four fun and distinct competitive online modes playable over a selection of maps, an extensive ranking system and associated customisation options, as well as a cool Scorechain mechanic to unlock per match abilities, this portion of the game doesn’t stack up against comparable offerings in other titles (i.e. Call of Duty).
It’s a good sign, though, that during launch week the servers were always fully active with players, and lag has been kept to an impressive minimum – a far cry from the closed beta earlier this year!
Medal of Honor multiplayer sees two opposing factions, the Coalition forces and the OPFOR, battling against one another for domination of different maps over four game modes, namely Team Assault (team VS team deathmatch), Combat Mission (Coalition completes five objectives as OPFOR defends them), Sector Control (teams compete for control of flags and gain points for the length of time held) and Objective Raid (Coalition defends two locations as OPFOR attempts to destroy them).
Additionally, a Hardcore Playlist has been included that rotates between Team Assault, Sector Control and Objective Raid, and enables ‘Hardcore’ settings such as increases to damage taken from gunfire, no mini-map and no health regeneration.
At the beginning of a round of multiplayer in Medal of Honor, you’ll be faced with a choice of three classes – Rifleman (all-round soldier), Special Ops (suited to stealth) and Sniper (suited to sniping). These decisions are as much a lifelong career choice as they are a reflection of your action style. The reason for this is the way the game handles your rank and weapon upgrades.
Every match, you’ll accumulate points based on your actions during the game, awarded for killing opponents, making headshots, assisting with kills, getting revenge kills, performing ‘saviour’ kills, and more. These points are then used to level up your character, but these levels are limited to one class, not all three. If you want to level up the Rifleman, say, you’ll need play as that class extensively in order to rank up and unlock new weapon upgrades for that class. For your trouble, you’ll gain access to new add-ons such as weapon clip size increases, scopes for your rifle, and different kinds of suppressors and attachments.
During a game, these points are also used to rack up a Scorechain. Get 50 points in a row without dying (killing an enemy awards you ten points, and a headshot awards you five, for example) and you’ll gain access to a Support Action, such as calling in a mortar strike, providing your team with the location of your enemies on your mini-map, and a handful of other offensive and defensive Support Actions. It can be a little difficult to earn this access, but more skilled players will have no trouble getting 50 points consecutively.
At the end of every match, not only are your points tallied up so you can rank up, but you’re also awarded Skill Points based on your performance compared to other players on your team – it’s entirely possible to have the best game of your life and still see Skill Points deducted simply because you didn’t match up to others. These Skill Points, as far as can be deduced, are then used to place you in subsequent matches. If you have 1500 points, for example, you’ll then be matched up with gamers who have a similar score. These points are persistent, and the game will continually add to (or subtract from) your tally at the close of every match.
Now, because the multiplayer segment of Medal of Honor was developed by a different team (DICE, creators of Battlefield) and with a different engine (the latest iteration of DICE’s Frostbite technology), it makes sense that this portion of the game is different from the singleplayer offering. It makes sense, but it’s still a little weird that the decision was made to use two different engines for these two parts of the game.
In multiplayer Medal of Honor, there is no slide and no prone, while certain guns have added functionality accessed with different buttons. The multiplayer offering is, overall, a much more visceral affair, as weapon feel, gunplay and action feedback are (in my experience) superior in the online modes. In addition, there’s a degree of destructibility in the environments, which was lacking in the singleplayer game.
Like the singleplayer game, however, levels are expertly designed, encouraging movement and enemy engagement at all levels, with great environment elevation, cover placement, opportunities for risky runs that can reap rewards, as well as a good mix between tight encounter spaces and open areas. Also like the singleplayer game, framerate is an issue, only it’s more of an issue here in multiplayer, which is detrimental to a competitive game where the ability to aim accurately and react quickly is extremely important. It doesn’t kill the experience, but there are times when you can see and feel the game slow down by a handful of frames, which has definite gameplay repercussions.
Hopefully DICE and EA can fix this up in the future, because Medal of Honor multiplayer can provide some truly entertaining matches and hectic scenarios – gunning down opponents with radio chatter in your ears and mortar strikes raining down in front of you, all while your team works together to push towards an objective, can lead to some memorable online action. Ruining it all with poor framerate issues is unacceptable.
To the Future…
Medal of Honor, as a complete package, is a good, solid entry into the long-running series and is most definitely a return to form for the ailing franchise. The narrative delivered during the singleplayer campaign, combined with the range of modes and entertainment on offer in multiplayer, wrapped up in a well paced, well designed and enjoyable gameplay experience is enough to secure the title a place in your list of purchase considerations. Faced with similar offerings, and the looming juggernaut of Call of Duty: Black Ops, however, you may not consider it for too long.
But think carefully about ‘the future’ (or present) state of blockbuster videogames, and how we will (and do) choose which games to buy and play. Although the overall experience is comparable to a Call of Duty game and other first-person shooters, it’s the fact that Medal of Honor tells a different story, in a different way, that should be weighted in your decision to look into the game, not to mention the existence of a passionate, already-active online community of gamers for the fun multiplayer offering.
(Note: The PlayStation 3 version of Medal of Honor comes standard with a high-definition edition of Medal of Honor: Frontline from the PlayStation 2 days – a fantastic extra, and a great way to see just how far videogame technology and design has come in only a few short years.)