Review: Medal of Honor

For me, EA’s Medal of Honor series set the standard for World War 2 shooters. After exploding on the PlayStation in 1999, and then double-exploding with Allied Assault on the PC in 2002, the series was a high-watermark of action, story and setting. Over the past ten years, however, EA’s premiere shooter has found itself chasing the success of Activision’s Call of Duty, which took what Medal of Honor did and then did it even better. This year, Medal of Honor has chased its competition all the way to Afghanistan and the US military’s war against the Taliban, who have been politically-corrected to the more neutral “Opposing Force” in multiplayer. While it doesn’t have anything to do with the gameplay, we’ll have a bit to say about that later.

The new Medal of Honor has all the components of drama but doesn’t quite fit them together as well as it should. The missions and firefights are tense and varied. At various points you’ll find yourself firing a machine gun from the back of a speeding truck as you race through a heavily defended enemy camp, silently knifing guards on a moonlit snow-covered hillside, or fighting a heroic Alamo-style stand against waves of Taliban attackers. There are even rail-based levels where you get to fire weapons from an Apache helicopter. There’s very little monotony in Medal of Honor, which is also helped by the campaign’s short length. While the game is probably a little too short, at least it doesn’t hang around so long that you get bored.

The upside of shorter games is that there’s more incentive to want to play through them again. The downfall of Medal of Honor is that levels are so heavily scripted and linear that replaying them doesn’t give you a substantially different experience. The enemies all come pouring out of the same doors and seek cover in the same places, and the triggers all fall out the same way each time. There are some slight variations that come out if you break silence in a stealth level, but these are minor differences. You won’t notice this the first time through and you’ll find the combat is genuinely fun. The weapons have a strong sense of weight, so you really feel connected to the action. Hitting enemies provides a great sense of feedback and the hit effects on your own screen are subtle but effective.

Though the combat is the main attraction here, the story doesn’t always support the action. Medal of Honor is full of predictable clichés, from the out-of-touch general whose cold logic unnecessarily threatens the lives of his men, to the inevitable helicopter crash. Are we really to the point in this industry where every time a soldier gets into a helicopter, it has to crash? As clichéd as your commanders are, the allied soldiers are largely all alike. They’re so indistinguishable from each other, that when one of them says “Come with me,” you actually have to look around for a second to see who’s talking.

Fortunately, the game cleverly uses multiple viewpoints to create a personal motivation for the player. You’ll switch from soldier to soldier in the course of the campaign and, while it’s initially a bit confusing, their individual stories start to intersect with each other. When you suddenly find yourself playing a soldier sent in to rescue the soldier you were previously playing, you can’t help but invest more of yourself in the action. It’s a smart trick that helps make the whole experience more engaging but it doesn’t come up soon enough and by the time it does, the game is almost over. At the beginning the only thing you know is that your name is “Rabbit” and you’ve been selected for the team because you’re the only one who knows how to kick down doors. If nothing else, this game should encourage patriotic inventors to build a door-kicking drone for the Army.

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Medal of Honor‘s multiplayer, developed by DICE, is much more enjoyable. The levels are more open than those of the single player portion of the game, so you’ll almost always have a handful of ways to get to whatever your objective happens to be. The maps themselves are small enough that you’ll have lots of action even in less-populated sessions. It’s true that the long corridors of some of the levels can get a little snipe-tastic, but the game compensates by removing the prone command for multiplayer , making it easier to spot the snipers at a distance. The modes and unlocks help add to the variety of the overall experience, but they’re not really all that different from what we’ve already been playing in Call of Duty. EA’s take on the shooter won’t beguile you away from that other game; it’s just not different enough to get out from under the massive shadow that Activision has cast on the genre.

One last point: EA removed the Taliban label from the opposing force in multiplayer. I’m personally indifferent to the issue, but I seem to be the exception. Many of the most vocal gamers seem to feel betrayed by EA’s decision to compromise the realism of the game. Taking out the Taliban name may protect EA’s public image, at least as far as the protestors were concerned, but some gamers feel such an ideological concession harms the advancement of the medium.

Like I said, I don’t have an ax to grind one way or the other. I just want to suggest two things: First, EA didn’t seem to develop sensitivity to this issue until it became clear the game was going to be banned by the very military institution it was meant to honor. Second, the more we demand recognition of gaming’s relevance to society, the more responsible we need to be in handling controversial subject matter. Does that mean across-the-board censorship? Absolutely not. But neither does it mean carte blanche to ignore the perceptions, superficial though they might be, of non-gamers. Whether you see EA’s decision as right or wrong (or somewhere in between) is much less important than what you think of the motivations behind it.

Bottom Line: EA’s take on the modern shooter is good but not great. The combat is genuinely thrilling, but the heavy scripting and predictable plot points leave little room for surprises. Multiplayer is fun but not different from what we’re already playing.

Recommendation: Multiplayer is the only thing that’s worth more than a few hours of your time. If you’re not already heavily into Call of Duty, this is at least worth a rental.


What our review scores mean.

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Steve Butts’s advice to game writers: If your story isn’t dramatic enough, maybe you just haven’t added enough profanity.

Game: Medal of Honor
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Danger Close/DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 12th, 2010
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3) , Amazon (PC)

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