Medal of Honor and Call of Duty have always had an interesting relationship. Activision's FPS behemoth was born from EA's FPS franchise, when the disaffected team that created Medal of Honor: Allied Assault split off to form Infinity Ward and make its own rival World War II action title. Out came Call of Duty 2, then Modern Warfare, and while Call of Duty’s star waxed, Medal of Honor’s waned. The later titles on the PS2 cheapened the values of the series, and while the more innovative, free-form Airborne was a return to form, it failed to compete with Infinity Ward’s blockbusters.
It’s almost fitting, then, that this reboot is so obviously designed to slug it out, toe to toe, with Modern Warfare and its sequel. While it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that the new Medal of Honor doesn’t have its own identity, it’s impossible to play it without feeling the ghost of Modern Warfare in the mission design and structure, the reliance on high-tech weaponry and air support, the jargon-heavy chatter and even the general look and feel. This is effectively Medal of Honor: Modern Warfare.
We won’t go too much into the pros and cons of taking the action to modern Afghanistan, and to a war real soldiers are still fighting as we speak. If you find the idea repellent then Medal of Honor will certainly repel you, and we don’t think many of us will be able to play it without feeling some discomfort at the way the team at EA’s Danger Close studios mixes real events and gung-ho drama during the game. Set during the initial stages of the war in Afghanistan, the action switches between four protagonists, two “Tier One operatives” working in small units on and beyond the frontlines, a US Army Ranger and - for a brief spell - the gunner of an Apache helicopter.
The mix allows for a range of mission types, with the Tier Ones handling tactical search and destroy missions and sniper work, while the Rangers get mired in the grunt work of clearing hostile villages, taking down defensive structures and getting stuck in a hut in the middle of nowhere while half of the Taliban descends on his position.
The basic feel and flow of the action isn’t going to give you too many surprises if you’ve played other games in the genre. Each level funnels you through a series of encounters on the way to various objectives, you kill pretty much anything that moves, then go on to the next section. All the classic set-pieces are present and correct, from the night assault on a hostile encampment, to the bit where you have to snipe enemy troops while your allies advance, to the sequence where you’re placed in a vaguely defensible bounding and have to fight off wave after wave of attackers until relief arrives.
The good news is that it’s all handled well, with a fair bit of drama, some great weapons - we think Medal of Honor might just have the best sniper rifle yet – and, decent support from AI team-mates who actually seem more lethal to the enemy than to yourself. It rolls along at a decent pace, and there’s enough variety in the different play and combat styles to maintain your interest. The bad news is that it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’ve done all this before, and that it was a little more thrilling last time around. There’s nothing to match the peaks of Modern Warfare’s Russian sniper mission or Modern Warfare 2’s chaotic Favela sequence. It’s good FPS staging - and sometimes very good FPS staging - but is Medal of Honor a great FPS? Well, probably not.
What is good about it is the way it creates a convincing portrayal of the US military as a monolithic and reasonably effective war machine. The bits in which you use targeting devices to call in air support feel much less tacked on than they do in other games, and there are some brilliant sequences where two of your protagonists cross paths. Medal of Honor isn’t realistic, in any sense of the word, but it certainly has a more authentic feel than Modern Warfare 2, which took the genre much further into dumb action movie territory than any game before, and without the sharp, jet-black wit that made Battlefield: Bad Company and its sequel so much sharper.
However, the game isn’t exempt from other flaws. Visually, the single player campaign is mostly very impressive, with some of the most detailed textures and fantastic lighting we’ve seen in an Unreal 3.0 engine game, and some inspired use of smoke and dust effects that affect both gameplay and atmosphere. Unfortunately, there are times when the engine seems to struggle, dropping frame rates and popping in textures like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve also come across moments where the event that takes the game on to the next section fails to trigger, and some ridiculous bits where enemies respawn ad-nauseum if you don’t move on to the next checkpoint rapidly enough. These flaws aren’t game breakers, but they make you feel that this isn’t as slick or polished an effort as the Infinity Ward competition.
The multiplayer component, made separate to the single-player campaign by DICE using its own Frostbite engine, is a more robust and ruthlessly efficient beast. It plays out like a hybrid of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Modern Warfare, mixing the objective-based gameplay of the former with the fast-paced slaughter of the latter, and mod cons like persistent identity and upgradable weapons are present and correct. It’s good fun, but we’re not sure it’s different enough from Modern Warfare and its sequel to build a significant player base for itself. In fact, DICE’s own Bad Company 2, with its destructible environments and deeper game modes, is easily a more interesting multiplayer game.
And this is the crux of Medal of Honor’s biggest problem. It’s a very decent shooter in the Modern Warfare mould with some great elements that give it its own distinct identity. However, it’s not as exciting a game to play, second by second, as Modern Warfare or Modern Warfare 2, and it doesn’t go as far in building a thinking man’s alternative as EA’s own, brilliant Battlefield: Bad Company 2. We can’t imagine any fan of either game finding this reboot a major disappointment, but it’s not good enough to put Medal of Honor back at the front of the military FPS pack. It’s a solid game for genre enthusiasts, but your average gamer will have bigger and tastier fish to fry pretty soon.