Though it seems almost quaint and unoriginal now, I still have vivid memories of the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the Normandy Beach level in the first Medal of Honor. I remember it came out early in 2002 and I thought, “Well, that’s it; no one else needs to bother making any shooters for the rest of the year.” Then came September. No One Lives Forever 2, Unreal Tournament 2003 and the behemoth known as Battlefield 1942 all combined to eclipse the greatness of Medal of Honor. A year later, Activision’s Call of Duty arrived on the scene and pushed Medal of Honor even deeper into the background.

Now, following the success of Call of Duty‘s modern day settings, EA is set to reboot the entire Medal of Honor franchise with a new title set in the War in Afghanistan. The game’s not due out until later this year, but EA recently invited several gamers into the multiplayer beta for the PS3 and PC versions of the game. We were lucky enough to snag one of the spots and have been playing the game for the past few days. While this is obviously just a small nibble of what’s to come, it’s a tasty appetizer that definitely has us hungry for more.

There are two maps and two modes in the beta. In Helmand Valley, the elite forces are on the lookout for a high-value target. The problem is that the Taliban have a powerful anti-air emplacement in the valley that’s preventing the Coalition from conducting aerial reconnaissance of the area. The map recreates a Coalition assault on and the Anti-Coalition Forces defense of this AA position. The map itself is, as the name suggests, a valley with lots of low-lying scrub and ruined buildings, and plenty of high hills for snipers to claim.

Helmand Valley supports the Combat Mission mode in which Coalition forces will have to take five successive objectives to claim victory on this map. All the Taliban has to do is hold them back. First up is a tight roadblock separating the two forces. The Coalition can use a tank to approach the roadblock, but eventually someone is going to have to run up on foot and place an explosive charge near the roadblock. From there, the Coalition has to take a pair of elevated positions, a machine gun site and a large bunker. Since the Coalition can choose to respawn on the front lines, there’s always a lot of action around the current objective. After the bunker is claimed, it’s on to another roadblock before finally blowing up the AA emplacements and being rewarded with a nice cutscene of an air strike.

The second mode, which you can play on the bombed out streets of Kabul City, is team assault. Team assault is a straight up team-based deathmatch, so it’s a race to see which team can rack up the most kills the fastest. The city itself has loads of damaged buildings for players to hide in, as well as long streets that are designed with snipers in mind. Getting from A to B in Kabul City is a pretty intense affair, because you’re never sure if you’re never sure when rounding a corner, if you’re going to be picked off from a distance or shot at point blank range in the face.

Each side has three classes in the beta. There’s the rifleman, armed with an M16 on the Coalition side and an AK47 on the Taliban; a special operative, armed with an M4 on the Coalition side and an AKS74u Carbine on the Taliban (both are armed with rocket launchers); and the sniper, armed with an M21 for the Coalition and an SVD Battle Rifle for the Taliban. Pistols, grenades, explosive charges will also round out your arsenal, and you can even make use of a tank here and there. As you rank up, you’ll earn levels in your various classes, and you can use these levels to access new weapons and mods. A wide range of achievements also open up new rewards and new gameplay options.

The War in Afghanistan is obviously a controversial setting but the political context for the game is very subdued, at least in multiplayer. If you’re the kind of player who is looking to be either offended or gratified by the way current events are used in the game, the setting itself is just a faint backdrop for the real appeal of the game, which are its inventive environments and tense gameplay. Yes, I was a little unnerved by playing as and against the Taliban but once the action gets going, it feels no less or more sensitive than any game that has people with M16s shooting it out with people with AK47s.

Like I said, Medal of Honor made a huge splash when it first came out, but my interest soon turned to the cinematic moments of Call of Duty and the multiplayer mayhem of Battlefield, which the Medal of Honor series never seemed to be able to match.

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