Review: Medal of Honor (X360)

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When Call of Duty first set out to take on EA’s Medal of Honor series in 2003, few would have guessed at the time that the ‘me too’ WW2 shooter would not only go on to trounce its rival but evolve expectations on what an FPS can deliver – especially online. Reinventing itself as Modern Warfare, the series then became something of a benchmark by which any contender to the throne purchased with the pixelized blood of countless Nazis and enemy mercenaries would be graded against.

But that didn’t stop EA from resurrecting the Medal of Honor series with a reboot, one that ripped its content from today’s headlines by taking players to Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a Tier 1 Operator. For longtime fans, that’s not so far from when it had started out as Allied Assault on PCs years ago before devolving its formula into boss characters and floating icons.

Tier 1s are a real-life part of the US military that act as secret and highly covert elites called upon for missions deep behind enemy lines. EA’s development team had actually consulted with a few of these to help polish the accuracy of the game in certain respects and the setting pays off with a thoroughly unglamorous story.

You won’t be saving the world in this one. Instead, you’ll get one interpretation on how a small group of dedicated professionals simply do their best to see their mission through. Despite its US centric storyline, it’s not as preachy as much as it is pragmatic. Think less ‘The Green Zone’ and a little closer to ‘The Hurt Locker’. Or a more serious Call of Duty.

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Players will pursue the Taliban alongside their fellow Tier 1s and eventually bounce between different viewpoints from other military units, such as a Ranger squad sent into a firefight. There’s still a bit of Hollywood-fisted drama at certain points, but on the whole, its grittier take and smaller scope make the story take on the shape of being something akin to a personal dedication. Its proximity to current events can add a more poignant feel to its material for some players out there despite it being only fiction. Regardless of how you feel about EA’s take, you have to give them credit for choosing to tread the same water with a game that films and books had long enjoyed with its subject matter.

Medal of Honor makes the most of its setting to surprise players and bring home some of what they may have only seen on the nightly news – though with plenty of creative liberty – since it doesn’t try to reinvent the shooter. Built on top of UE3, the same engine used in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Gears of War, the tumbled buildings and windswept mountain passes of Afghanistan’s desolate frontier are littered with plenty of detail adding to the unique atmospheric feel that it tries to drive home.

And in some ways, it’s also hard not to feel a Call of Duty vibe running through its coded veins, such as when you step up to an on-rails shooting sequence. Yet it doesn’t come off as a second-rate shooter, either, in providing the most compelling reason for those who want to know what a big-budget FPS based on current events might play like.

The smart AI partners that you can run with, aside from being a lost co-op opportunity, aren’t bad shots. The enemy also lacks the psychic aim that some shooters include as a ‘challenge’, reacting mostly to what it can see allowing you to get the drop on those that you can sneak in close to without wondering if it will suddenly detect your presence through ESP, making it a refreshing change.

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But it isn’t perfect. There were occasional enemy AI that simply stood around in bright daylight. Some spawns are also more obvious than others as enemy troopers materialized from thin air. Late in the game, I found that one of the enemy spawn points actually broke, generating an endless stream of bad guys that my AI allies tended to ignore right behind them – though it made it easy to earn an Achievement using only my knife.

The short length of the single-player game also means that it can be finished in a day. Though you can repeat the missions that you’ve gone through on higher difficulty settings, including a Tier 1 setting that removes most of the HUD indicators – like crosshairs – and leaves you with only the ammo in your belt, there’s little other reason to head back in once you’ve seen everything unless you need every Achievement.

In a last-minute concession to some of the outcry accompanying the title’s controversial nature, EA had also removed references to the Taliban in the multiplayer half of the game by replacing the term with the presumably less-offensive OPFOR – as if people have no idea who the two sides are. It’s a lot like when several WW2 shooters replaced swastikas on Nazi flags with Iron Crosses, despite whatever region they would be released in. Aside from that piece of PR tomfoolery, multiplayer is also about as basic as the single-player and is also the best reason to keep it from gathering dust.

The game also uses EA’s Online Pass system that is a code good for one use as an incentive to buy a new copy of the game. It entitles you to extra content, presumably to be released later, though you can still play online without one unlike a few other EA titles that make it a requirement. All of the player modes are open for anyone to get into. Simply choosing not to enter it will make it prompt you from the multiplayer menu with an opportunity to buy your own.

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If the multiplayer portion of the game feels like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, it’s because DICE did the work on this part using their Frostbite engine. A number of modes are available such as Team Deathmatch and Sector Control – which is like Domination – along with Hardcore which drops a lot of the comfort features such as radar, ammo drops by enemies, and activates friendly fire. Score chains also open up bonuses that you can use, similar to kill streaks in Modern Warfare, ranging from UAV support to piloting a Hellfire missile into a gaggle of enemy teammates. No, there are no nukes here. Or zombies.

Yet, it also misses several opportunities for improvement while carrying over some of the problems attributed to DICE’s previous efforts with Bad Company 2 such as the limited four-person party system. And if you’re still wishing that this would be the game to allow you to play one specific map out of a particular rotation, keep wishing, even though the small number of maps means that you’ll eventually hit the one you want for any particular mode. And no prone in multiplayer, yet its allowed in the single-player campaign?

Leveling up unlocks new weapons and modifications, but few other options to help customize the experience. Only three classes are available and with a level cap at 15 at the time of this review, it also means that there isn’t much to look forward to after hitting it. As basic as it is, there’s still something to be said about how this approach levels the playing field. Multiplayer is still a decent experience thanks to the large 24 player matches and Hardcore mode, but don’t expect much more than that.

Medal of Honor is still a solid shooter by any stretch even with its no-frills approach to its formula. Whether you agree or not with its controversial subject matter isn’t as important as EA’s willingness to tackle conventional wisdom on what gaming can be a vehicle for.

Unfortunately, its artistic merits will go largely unnoticed by players wondering at just what sets the game apart from its peers aside from where it takes place. Its short campaign, basic gameplay, and the sense of deja vu that its systems create are hard sells in convincing players to leave the house that Infinity Ward built, and its bare-as-bones multiplayer may not appeal to those hoping for more. Medal of Honor is back, though the battle that it needs to fight is still far from over.

Medal of Honor
EA / Danger Close / DICE
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature