First Look: Medal of Honor review

If Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was a challenge to Modern Warfare’s domination of the military shooter genre, then the new Medal of Honor is a full-on, slap in the face attack. The series has been quiet since 2007, when Medal of Honor: Airborne made a bold but unsuccessful attempt to stake a claim for the series on the current console generation. Now with both its glory days and the those of the World War II shooter behind it, the new Medal of Honor needs to do two things: re-establish the series as a real contender, and prove it can work in the modern era. On both counts, Electronic Arts has its work cut out.

Luckily, it has more than a fighting chance. We’ve now seen the game three times: at an EA event before E3, behind closed doors and hands-on on the floor while in LA, and most recently as a participant in the current multiplayer beta. Each time we’ve come away thinking that this is a game with serious potential.

Well, it’s probably more accurate to say two games. The single-player portion is being developed by EA Los Angeles using the Unreal 3.0 engine, while the multi-player component is being worked on by DICE, using its proprietary Frostbite engine. There’s a degree of collaboration between the two teams to try and make the game feel like one coherent whole, and from what we’ve seen so far there’s a lot of common ground in terms of general look and feel.

The setting, however, is certain to prove controversial. Medal of Honor is set in Afghanistan during a period just after the 2001 invasion, and while the team keeps stressing that the intention is to avoid politics and - as ever with Medal of Honor - concentrate on telling the soldier’s story, there are bound to be questions about simulating a war in which British and American servicemen are still dying as we write. On the other side, there’s no question that this makes for a dramatic environment and an action-packed story, which Medal of Honor will tell from the viewpoint of the Tier One Operators who perform missions behind enemy lines, and the US Army Rangers battling it out on the frontlines.

The theory is that the split should provide several distinct styles of play, with the Tier Ones working in small teams and acting as a "scalpel", while the Rangers are the "sledgehammer", hitting the enemy hard and en-masse. One is more about stealth, precision and all-out aggression, while the other gives you camaraderie, straight-up action and a more recognisable "soldier’s story". From what we understand there will be four playable characters; two Tier Ones, a Ranger, and an Apache helicopter gunner for the inevitable shooting gallery mission that no military FPS can be complete without.

So far, there’s nothing too unusual, but here’s where Medal of Honor has a chance to stamp its own mark in the genre. While it inevitably has things in common with Modern Warfare and its sequel, there’s a recognisable difference in tone. Where the Call of Duty series has increasingly moved towards big stunts and Hollywood theatrics, the new Medal of Honor feels more serious; you couldn’t call it realistic in the ArmA sense, but it’s certainly more inclined towards covering the grim realities of 20th century war.

Watching the Rangers tackle machine-gun emplacements and enemy encampments, it’s clear that this is less a game of Die Hard-style set pieces than of nerve-wracking tension and sudden, explosive release. It’s also a game that’s not afraid to humanise its soldiers, then show that bad things happen to them. There’s plenty of chat flying around between the Rangers, and a fair wodge of military jargon for the sake of authenticity, and while there is drama - and even a bit of "family back home" sentimentality - it’s all quite restrained by the current standards of the genre. The AI, too, looks very convincing, with both your troops and the enemy making believable use of cover, and signs of organisation and tactical thinking on both sides.

To its benefit, Medal of Honor is also a hugely attractive game. There’s a real beauty to the highland valleys we’ve seen so far, with gorgeous natural lighting, some lavish cinematic effects and masses of realistic textural detail. Close-up, your fellow troops and enemies are eerily convincing. Again, there’s a sense of gritty realism here that Call of Duty has moved away from since Call of Duty 2.

There’s a reason for this: EA’s studio has been working with real Tier One operators in an effort to get the details of the campaign right, and has had access to a mass of visual materials and research to work with. The result should be a more diverse Afghanistan than you might recognise, taking in mountains, cities, slums and green valleys on top of the sandy landscapes we’re familiar with from news footage.

Of course, we have little idea how the single-player campaign will actually play. What we do have some idea of however, is how the multiplayer portion might work out. As those of you who have also played the beta will know, it plays a bit like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and a bit like Modern Warfare 2, which - when you think about it - is probably no bad thing. There’s a certain amount of BF:BC2’s more deliberate pacing and wide open space, but it’s still got that fast and frantic "kill, get killed, then come back to kill again" thing that Modern Warfare 2 has in spades.

At the moment, two maps are playable - one based in the Helmand Valley, and one based on a post-invasion Kabul - with two game modes, team assault and an objective-based team mode. The game has three classes - rifleman, special ops and sniper - with preset weapon loadouts, but the cool thing is that success in combat helps you level up, and levelling up enables you to customise those loadouts, giving you the chance to swap an assault rifle for a very tasty shotgun, or add silencers, scopes and variant ammo types to your weapon of choice. What’s more, success in battle also brings you perks, so you can call in an air-strike or mortar assault and give that sneaky git camping on the roof what he deserves.

At the moment, everything is in place to make DICE’s chunk of Medal of Honor a compelling online game. The controls are smooth, it looks good, and there’s enough short-term action and long-term depth to hook players in and keep them coming back for more. The question is whether it brings anything new to the table. At the moment, there’s a slight feeling that it misses the widespread destruction - particularly the destructible cover - of BF: BC2, while it might not be quite fast enough for the adrenaline obsessed Modern Warfare vet. However, there’s no denying DICE’s expertise in this arena. After all, if anyone can make Medal of Honor stand out amongst the online FPS crowd, it’s the team behind Battlefield 2, Battlefield: Bad Company and Battlefield 1943.

Verdict

While you have to question the wisdom behind choosing this particular conflict to do it with, the new Medal of Honor has a genuine shot of establishing itself as the serious, plausible alternative to the gung-ho action of Modern Warfare 2. The multiplayer component needs to work harder to carve itself a real niche, but it’s already very polished and enjoyable in beta, and the tone of the single-player campaign already makes it look like more than just another military FPS. EA has a lot still to do and much to prove, but this could be a storming restart for a once much-loved brand.