*Focus On Design is a spotlight on the mechanics and structure of a chosen game and as such is filled with spoilers.*
There’s always been a problem when writing reviews: by their very nature, they’re unable to be objective. Every single human being on the planet perceives things differently, yet some choose to write this perception as if it were fact. This then bleeds outwards into review culture: scan for bulletpoints, scroll to the score, and allow our own personal opinion to be instantly coloured by that of another. Reviewers balance expectation against result, gorging on the game to complete it within the review window, and often a marketing agenda will shape these initial expectations in order to compete with a rival publisher’s title. This can create a tidal wave of negativity for any game that falls into such a trap.
Medal Of Honor was EA’s attempt to really upset the Call Of Duty applecart. Using the goodwill attached to the fantastic PS1 titles that allowed the player to barrel through the streets of WW2 France, the franchise was re-adjusted to fit modern-day requirements: bombastic single-player campaign, engrossing multiplayer modes, and a publicised focus on being “authentic” and “respectful” to the real heroes of the various modern-day US wars. Call Of Duty, remember, was doing everything right at this point (something that would definitely not continue), with the 2010 variant Black Ops poised to become one of the biggest selling games of all time. EA obviously wanted a slice of Activision’s FPS pie, so they formed developer Danger Close and instructed it to do one thing: create a CoD-beater that could fold into an annual franchise. The marketing made direct parallels and there was no doubt that Medal Of Honor was clearly attempting to fight the same battle.
So it was almost understandable when the negative reviews started flooding in. Beyond some shaky technical issues (especially with the PS3 version, at a time when system parity was a difficult endeavour), many reviewers called out the overbearing stoicism of the short single-player campaign and uneventful multiplayer. When compared to the slick and choreographed Call Of Duty behemoth, Medal Of Honor just couldn’t stand up to the expectations that had been laid out by EA. However, when taken as its own game and not one that is trying to ape another, it suddenly reveals itself in a new light, and doesn’t just match the CoD intensity but actually goes some way to surpass it.
Two of its main criticisms turn out to be its main strengths – its steadfast linearity, and relatively short run time. Granted, these elements are largely held as negative traits in today’s open-world, pro-agency gaming market, but what it does allow Medal Of Honor to do is take on the feel of a short modern war movie, albeit one that has occasional fail states. The ability to hammer through the campaign in a few play sessions really benefits the plot. It’s a story of two distinct halves, the latter making retrospective sense of the former. Which is just as well, because on first play, it doesn’t seem like anything more than a reflection of CoD‘s formulaic structure. Slo-mo shootouts in dusky market villages; turret gunning through hordes of cannon fodder; requisite stealth missions to locate and tag enemy assets. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, usually done with a greater degree of success elsewhere.
However, the second part of the narrative – and what I now consider to be the true start of the game, forcing all that came before into a kind of extended prologue – starts with a hard touchdown for a squad of American marines entering the fray in a whirling, spitting helicopter. The preceding shooting galleries filled with aggressive generic Talibanic enemies have been good training for what awaits you; surrounded and fired on from all sides, it’s the first sign of the intensity and desperation that grows with each new area. What’s absolutely vital to note here – and an element that further underlines the second half as standalone story – is that, from this point, it’s a clear unbroken timeline to the final shot of the game. Forget about CoD‘s insistence on switching geographical areas and leather-faced protagonists with each level; here’s you’re stuck as the same guy in the same situation and the resulting pressure is transformative. It builds empathy, not through CoD‘s broad emotional manipulations of nuclear explosions or strained objections to lives being lost, but with dust and stacking drama and the claustrophobic embrace of being utterly outnumbered. In keeping with real life, it soon becomes clear that there has not been enough research or preparation to enable these men to carry out the simple business of staying alive.
The narrative masterstroke here, though, is reserved for a moment midway through the second part. You – and it feels like you by this point, your neck already subconsciously twitching your head down at the sound of incoming bullets – find yourself and your squad hopelessly surrounded after a successful Taliban counterattack has forced you to take shelter in a dilapidated mud hut. In CoD, you’re a super soldier. You might as well be a tank; onwards, upwards, the right trigger the key to all your problems. And thanks to CoD‘s genre dominance, this feeling was carried over into every FPS clone, seemingly as a vital element of the overall experience.
Medal Of Honor, though, seems to understand that lasting tension comes from real, overt danger rather than continued pyrotechnics. As you lay down prone in the hut, enemies closing in on all sides and the precious protection of the building shredding over your head in waves of bullets and RPGs, the first thing to disappear is the false hope of CoD bravado. Any attempt to sprint across the oncoming army to flank and destroy the attackers ends very quickly in death. You have no choice for much lateral movement, leaving you to shuffle and wince as you desperately attempt to take down the closing threats all around. Hold on long enough and, just as the point of being totally overwhelmed looms overhead, an opportunity for escape appears and, for the first time, a modern military shooter gives you a new command: run away. Fast.
It’s thrilling. There’s no doubt at this point that you’re beaten, giving the motivation for flight a real sense of urgency as you roll and tumble over walls and down cliff edges. The attackers don’t let up either; any attempt to stop and take in the moment results in a bullet in the back, ensuring panic replaces confidence as the overriding emotion. Your sprint ends with a desperate helicopter escape off the side off a sloped cliff, but the inevitable man-left-behind provides all the motivation for a last-ditch – and ultimately failed – attempt at rescue. By the time the final titles roll, you really feel you’ve been dragged through a singular, devastating experience.
This clean sectioning off of the narrative into two distinct, compact parts does wonders for replayability. Never mind the bloat of DLC or hours of meaningless, repeated side quests; I’ll return to a game if I know that the end is not a million miles away from the beginning, and the ride between these two points is worth experiencing. It becomes something more akin to a favourite movie or even an arcade cabinet that is returned to over and over again, enemy patterns slowly becoming learnt until the challenge becomes no longer about just beating the game, but doing so in style. This conversion to a modern Time Crisis or Point Blank or even Operation Wolf (my first favourite game) has the additional benefit of shifting focus away from the silly gravel-voiced respectful references to the seriousness of modern war skirmishes. With this sudden injection of fun, the story becomes more like that in Battle: LA – glorious popcorn bombast. Remove the frown and there’s a real sense of speed hiding underneath.
Once this speed is discovered, the controls suddenly make more sense. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the later Bulletstorm in its approach to moving through space in clean, efficient sweeps. Aside from the standard move/sprint, aim/shoot, crouch/prone and melee, you’re given a few extra tools that are surprisingly effective. First is a left-right lean attached to L2, meaning that you can crouch behind cover and pop out for targeted hits in a technique that is usually reserved for PC shooters. The fingers fit very well into the required pattern, leading to smooth transitions from movement into leaning iron sights targeting. The second move is a ridiculously over-powered slide that wouldn’t look out of place in the magnificent Vanquish. If triggered mid-sprint, your marine enters a slide into cover that can only be explained with him having a permanent frontal waterslide at his disposal. Really, just try launching yourself along the kind of dusty track that frequents a Medal Of Honor environment; you’ll notice that the few inches you move leaves nothing but pain and an overriding sense of embarrassment. This game, though, isn’t interested in the real-life physics of body on ground, but instead wants you to have a steam train of forward motion whenever you want it. And so a pattern emerges that is only solidified through repeat play: sprint, slide, lean, shoot, move. Repeat, learn the pop-out points and best routes, then race through the battleground. Just like the best games, this evolves the gameplay as it becomes less of a battle and more of a dance.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an arcade shooting gallery if the weapons weren’t up to scratch, but this is another area in which Danger Close succeeds. The marketing may have pushed the real-life-reflection-of-actual-events angle, but there’s nothing realistic about these weapons and they’re all the better for it. Quick and punchy, responsive and accurate, they go a long way to changing Medal Of Honor into a fun experience, with the extra useful addition of a double-tap of the weapon select button to bring up a small pistol allowing for more gameplay options around the three easily accessible weapons. Again, when paired with the secondary play style of sprint, slide, lean, aim, fire instead of creep, duck, strategise, the reflex-friendly weapons flip the whole experience into something far more arcadey. It’s a shame, though, that the grenades don’t play along – their puff of smokey dust may be good enough for a magic trick, but they soon appear out of place as the destruction becomes more fast-paced. Maybe the PC version has a mod for something a little more firey.
This is a game that really comes alive when the player decides to treat it as a Schwarzenegger movie rather than Zero Dark Thirty and the level design also plays into this transformation. Again, it’s all about the second playthrough; when the uncertainty of not knowing what lies around the corner is removed, what replaces it is an urge to learn routes and plan attacks. The placement and patterns of the enemies never changes – another negative tickbox for some, yet it offers a great opportunity for timing attack runs through the battlegrounds. It all becomes about the racing line, the exact path in which you can traverse the levels in the shortest time possible, except with the added complication of reaching for the perfect headshots. Bizarre Creations tried a similar approach with 2008’s The Club, but it was too bogged down with unwieldly controls and a lack of personality. Medal Of Honor may not offer much more personality but its blanker slate allows for greater personal projection in your play style, with some of the most responsive and sparky control systems in modern military shooters.
At this point, the question arises as to whether Danger Close’s priorities lay in the gritty EA-sanctioned public face of the game or actually in the emergent arcade thrills of the repeated playthroughs. There’s too much snappy fun buried beneath the grey and brown façade for it to be a coincidence. Well, this question is quickly answered when you finish Normal and Hard difficulty modes and dive into the final offline menu choice, Tier One. Ignore the typically alpha title; Tier One is nothing less than Medal Of Honor‘s version of TimeSplitters. It’s almost as if Danger Close predicted how your play style might change as you fly through the campaign, as it’s all been a kind of training for this mode. Unlocked a level at a time, Tier One lays down a strict time limit, with no extra ammunition from your squad mates (who usually have a hilariously large stockpile ready at any point), and death means game over. No mid-level restarts, a lack of firepower and the clock ticking over your head; suddenly, the racing line for each environment becomes a vital factor in flying through the hordes as efficiently as possible.
Once again, it becomes a dance, except this time with very real danger present – your perfect run is only ever one bullet away from being ruined. As your weapon runs dry, the downed enemies become a resource in themselves as you hungrily scoop up their dropped guns. As such, the thrills of the campaign are multiplied tenfold, ensuring that hearts are pounding as the end of the area approaches. Your skill and memory is directly rewarded with success, and the pleasures stack; one of my best moments in gaming was finishing the first Tier One level with one second left and simultaneously earning two trophies from the final, slo-mo pistol headshot. I may have fistpumped, uncontrollably and unironically. The whole mode is wonderful, and provides the kind of playful flourishes that you wish could be witnessed by a crowd of gaping onlookers.
The online multiplayer is also totally solid. By my own admission, I’m not into faceless multiplayer and most of my Call Of Duty time is spent respawning. The modern military online pattern of back-and-forth bullet swapping barely contains any pleasure for me, so I was a little surprised at how much I played the Medal Of Honor multiplayer modes. They are nothing new, mere variants of kill everyone quickly, but the time I’d spent in the offline modes had meant that I wasn’t too bad at holding my own and the feedback loop of drip-fed upgrades was effective enough to keep me playing. Maps are wide and pocked with climbing opportunities, and the chaos is just the right side of involving. However, my love for Medal Of Honor lies in the learnt racetrack of the single-player maps, and as such the random thrills of occasional online kills soon lost their sheen.
But that’s by the by; a small loss in the grand scheme of this game. I’ve recently repurchased Medal Of Honor – this time on PS3 to play the (barely) HD version of Medal Of Honor: Frontline bundled on the disk – and it’s amazing how much muscle memory still exists as I play through the levels for the first time in a few years. After refamiliarising myself with the controls, I was soon zipping from cover to cover, pre-empting enemy movements and sliding along the best lines of attack. The overwrought storyline doesn’t even register now; it’s all about the arcade thrill of quick times and skillful shots. Saying that, the second half still stands out a mile amongst most other shooters for just being brave enough to make you scared. There should be more retreating in games. We’re real people, not bulletproof military machines, and fear is something that constantly lurks. Fear resonates.
Although someone at EA obviously didn’t agree with me because the sequel, 2012’s Medal Of Honor: Warfighter, eschewed all the dynamic nature of the reboot and aimed directly for the Call Of Duty clone prize. The fast-paced flow and narrative originality of the first was completely removed, leaving a shell of a game dogged by technical failures and shallow storytelling. Warfighter turned out to be an even bigger failure, though, leaving the Medal Of Honor brand to once again be shelved by EA in favour of their other Call Of Duty franchise beater, DICE’s Battlefield.
Playing Warfighter after becoming so charmed with the first title is a real insight into design by popular opinion; Medal Of Honor did not review well, and that magic Metacritic score is still the key to the kingdom for big publishers. However, ignore the superfluous fluff and you’ll discover a game that may be outwardly drenched in frowning militaristic jingoism, but inside it carries the arcade heart of a gun-racer that really, really wants you to have fun.