This Week in the Mercury


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Medal Of Honor

Posted by Earnest "Nex" Cavalli on Sun, Nov 7, 2010 at 11:00 AM

There are two ways I can review this game (neither of which make it remotely timely, but that's a whole 'nother issue).

The first involves you being half asleep, skimming all the words I write and only needing a couple words so you can impulsively drop $60 on another weekend's worth of entertainment.

For those of you I just described: Yes, it's close enough to Modern Warfare 2-quality to warrant your purchase. Hand your money to the Fred Meyer cashier and enjoy killing more Taliban soldiers than a speed freak UAV pilot with the DARPA-funded equivalent of I-D-K-F-A.

The rest of you are going to have to venture past the jump so I can explain why the hint of cynicism in that last remark doesn't stem from moral objections to the real world political monkeyshines leading to the theoretical events mirrored by the game.

Medal of Honor
Developed by Danger Close
Published by EA
Available Now for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC

As much as that pre-jump teaser made it sound, I promise this won't get political. Regardless of how you feel about the war, if you're reading this we can likely agree on one thing: Shooting virtual folks is damn fun.

That said, it's also been rife with controversy ever since the technology advanced far enough to create recognizable humans. One of the more recent tiffs was aimed squarely at the game in question, EA's reboot of its popular Medal of Honor series.

See, the series started out as a line of World War II shooters, back when World War II was the favored choice for companies hoping to give players a bunch of human type people to shoot in the face. After all, who is going to object to people shooting Nazis? Not even Joe Lieberman — the wackadoo senator from Connecticut who has made a career out of decrying video games (despite having never played any of the games he targets) — complained about the millions of virtual members of the Third Reich who died at the hands of gamers during the first part of the new millennium.

When EA opted to rejigger its Medal of Honor games to more closely resemble Activision's hyper-successful Modern Warfare titles however, they wandered right into a minefield of political uncertainty. See, someone at developer Danger Close, decided that in order to have a multiplayer mode — a must for first person shooters these days — the game would need two disparate groups the player could choose from. Sort of a contemporary "red team" and "blue team."

Only, in keeping with the context of the game simply using colors to differentiate player sides seemed too ... reasonable? I have no idea. Regardless, it was decided that one side would be the Americans and the other side would be the Taliban.

You can imagine the swirling hurricane of shit this news created the moment the Gawker network got a hold of it, let alone Fox News.

Fast forward to the game's release and EA has removed the option to play as a virtual representation of a member of a group widely suspected to have been involved with numerous terrorist activities targeting the United States of America and its allies.

If they cut it out of the game, why did I bring it up? Because for the vast majority of people, that controversy is the most attention Medal of Honor will merit. They'll see this game, mentally check off "Modern Warfare clone" in their head and move on to Call of Duty: Black Ops.

I'm not going to claim that MoH is not a Modern Warfare clone — it definitely borrows a good deal of its content from Activision's cash cow — but it does enough to differentiate itself that it should merit at least a second look by anyone who considers themselves a fan of the "ultramodern military" genre.

The most glaring difference — well, actually, it's the least glaring, but that's sort of the point — is MoH's scary attention to detail.

In creating this game, developer Danger Close seriously did their homework. Have you heard the story from the development of Forza 2 where the developers spent months flying around the world recording the engine noises on hundreds of cars just to make sure their virtual cars sound right? Danger Close did whatever the "black ops soldiers fighting unheralded skirmishes against terrorist cells" equivalent would be.

You want examples? Alright, I made a list specifically for this question.

First, all the guns sound spot on. Each has its own distinctive muzzle blast when fired, its own metallic ping when ejecting a shell and even its own characteristic quirks that only people who have spent unreasonable amounts of time around these sorts of weapons would recognize. The AK-47's cartridge ejection sound changes, becomes more high pitched, as the clip gets closer and closer to empty, for instance.

Likewise, the sounds never get comically bombastic.

In reality, not every gun's report is going to blow out your ear drums, so in MoH, the pistols sound piddling compared to some of the more monstrous weaponry. Shotguns, for instance, or the .50 caliber sniper rifle. That one, in particular, makes a noise that leaves me wishing the word "awesome" hadn't completely lost its true meaning through half a century of overuse.

While we're on the subject of blowing holes in people from half a mile away, it was in just that sort of situation that I noticed yet another of MoH's realistic little details that most games of this type seem to take for granted.

Now, in most games when you shoot a wall, what happens? A bullet hole appears, right? And if you shoot a guy standing against the wall, what happens? His blood splatters all over the wall right?

But what if he isn't near the wall? What if he's 30 feet in front of it, yet your bullet goes through him and into that wall? Shouldn't parts of him still end up on the wall? Most games seem to think the answer is "no," but in MoH, your bullet will carry his viscera with it, leaving a bloody bullet hole in its eventual destination.

Enemies too have the ability to send pieces of you flying into a distant piece of concrete and in Medal of Honor it seems a whole lot more common for them to do so with deadly accuracy. So many "realistic" games allow players to constantly linger near the edge of death, absorbing hundreds of rounds, as long as they can find cover before that last round does them in, but in MoH it's very possible, and even common, for a single round to end you abruptly (even on lower difficulty levels).

I've even had foes take advantage of the ability for higher caliber rounds to sail right through certain materials. As much fun as I'd been having killing people through a concrete wall with my SAW, I never expected that they'd start blowing holes in the airplane fuselage I'd been using for cover with the ubiquitous 7.62mm rounds in their almost comically ubiquitous AK-47s.

These all seem like small details — and they are — but when you witness them in-game, all at once, they add up to a virtual military experience that is second to none in the realism category.

The key to a successful game, like a successful movie, is mating a respectable amount of realism alongside a respectable amount of dramatic license to create something that, while perhaps not entirely real, is more entertaining that anything else.

That's the key to the success of the Modern Warfare line of games: They are somewhat realistic, but if realism is ever going to get in the way of something entertaining, MW developer Infinity Ward dumps the realistic bit in favor of whatever might leave the player most entertained.

For the most part, Danger Close got this lesson right. The game certainly hails from the cinematic-style war game school of development. You've got big explosions, burly, badass soldiers yelling "fuck" before capping a jihadist with some seriously awesome military hardware, and you never go more than 30 seconds without an action set piece popping off and reminding you that you are in the middle of a war, soldier!

Unfortunately, "for the most part" implies that there are parts when Danger Close forgot the script. Occasionally you will be given an objective that is poorly explained, leaving you wandering around — wandering around a war zone, no less — trying to figure out what to do. Maybe it's your own fault (read: my own fault) for not being more intelligent, but in a game like this, where keeping the action flowing at all times is the key goal, even a few seconds of confused wandering can throw off the pacing of the whole thing.

Additionally, even for its ADHD-prone genre, the game is pretty short. Now, I'm not going to call this a negative necessarily, as a 6-hour singleplayer game might be perfect for people who simply don't have the free time to spend 40 or 50 hours on a game. Plus, those six hours are filled with all kinds of surprisingly disparate gameplay. One mission sees you running and gunning through an airplane graveyard before posting up in an office building and calling in various types of plane mounted weaponry on an airport full of tanks, jeeps and RPG-toting Al-Qaeda operatives. Another sees you "stealthily" driving an ATV to the outskirts of an enemy-occupied town before covering two of your teammates with a sniper rifle as they attempt to do their heroic soldier thing. And, of course, a number of missions see you embroiled in hectic gunfights with the Taliban.

Still, I can imagine a number of people will get to the end and immediately think, "That's it? Where's the rest of the story?"

As an aside, and this ties into the game's "realism," your enemy in MoH is the Taliban. No psuedonyms, no fictional Arabic resistance force — no, you're fighting the actual Taliban here.

Where some games would try to be vague and cast your foes as unnamed turban wearing resistance fighters — or in the case of Modern Warfare, desperately try to ignore real world conflicts in favor of 80s-style "Blame The Russians" melodrama — MoH just comes straight out and says "we're here to kill Al-Qaeda because we're a bunch of badass American (or British) soldiers and that's what we do."

It's almost shocking in the oft-hyper diplomatic world of gaming, a realm in which appealing to absolutely as many people as possible is the number one goal of everyone from the most powerful development lead to the lowliest PR intern, to see a game so brazenly embrace a topic that is a real world political and social landmine.

At least we now have something to offer the Fox News pundits the next time they start decrying violence in games. The moral conflict created by their desire to ban these "murder simulators" and the priapism caused by MoH's America, Fuck Yeah-style content might just make their heads pop like that dude from Scanners.

Back on topic, the brevity of the singleplayer storyline almost makes it seem like a warm up for the extensive multiplayer offerings, which Danger Close obviously put a lot of effort into.

Again, if you've played Modern Warfare 2, you're going to get a strong wave of déjà vu when you fire this thing up, doubly so if you're also a fan of EA's own Battlefield: Bad Company games. The multiplayer in MoH feels like a blend of those two series' respective online modes, and that combination actually works out pretty well. You've got customizable character classes, experience points that accumulate toward unlockable weaponry and gadgets, and a handful of game modes and maps (with more coming via DLC). Really it's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's done quite well, and even on the PS3 version lag doesn't seem to be an issue.

I think MoH's multiplayer mode stands as a good representation of the game as a whole. It's good, quite good, even great, but it's always going to live in the shadow of other games that came first purely because it obviously lifts their best characteristics. Even when it exceeds those earlier games — nothing in the genre can match MoH's realism — it's in areas that are unlikely to draw that many dedicated fans from their established game of choice.

Those looking for a shooter would be well served with Medal of Honor, that is, unless they own Modern Warfare 2. In that case, renting MoH would make quality entertainment for a weekend, but purchasing the thing would simply be redundant.

Post Script: It doesn't really warrant a mention in the game's actual review, but I would like to point out that the PlayStation 3 version of Medal of Honor includes a "high-definition remake" of the 2002 PlayStation 2 title Medal of Honor: Frontline.

It does make for a nice, no-cost extra for PS3 owners, but it should be noted that while the remake is touted as being a "high-definition remake," this really only means that they up-sized the original assets so they would display properly on your HDTV's 1080p resolution screen. As a result, a lot of the textures look stretched or muddy. The character models looks essentially the same as they did 8 years ago when the game was first released, and the story and gameplay is unchanged, but anyone expecting a remake of Frontline with the aesthetics of the new Medal of Honor, is going to be sorely disappointed.

You get what you pay for. Given the $0 price tag, and the 88/100 the PlayStation 2 version is averaging on Metacritic, I say it's a pretty solid deal.

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