Like the developers of EA’s Medal of Honor reboot, I’ve seen The Hurt Locker – clearly a major source of inspiration for the game – and it’s a pretty grim portrayal of the politically perilous situation over in Afghanistan at the moment. So, who wants to grab an M4 and shoot some terrorists right in the face?
“We’re Rangers. This is what we do,” enthuses a marine to his family over the phone, presumably directly referring to the act of shooting terrorists in the face but said to assuage his family’s fears over him being riddled with bullets or blown up by a roadside bomb. He doesn’t bother to remind the family about regenerating health and generous checkpoints.
The action takes place in the north of Afghanistan, we’re told, so we’re left to assume that the narrator is either safe in the south or simply lying to his family. In my mind, his son is waving an American flag for the duration of the conversation, although the imagery being displayed on-screen is decidedly less patriotic: an American Chinook is being destroyed by rocket fire. Crumbs. Is the child now without a father? Medal of Honor is trying very hard to make us empathise with these characters on a human level.
You do not empathise with these characters on a human level. You can’t, because as soon as the action starts they’re little more than a regular gung-ho military superhero type who blasts away scores of enemies without a care in the world. I am told this is not what it is like to be an actual marine – just like the developers, most of my military knowledge comes from old war movies and the odd documentary on the History Channel when I’ve lost the remote control – so no matter how hard EA strives for authenticity, it will forever be out of the game’s reach. Might as well toss in a few snowmobiles and explode a nuke in space, eh?
No, actually. That’s just not how Medal of Honor rolls. It’s a bit slower, with a little less glitz and drama and a little more emphasis on a painstaking recreation of Afghanistan’s towering mountains, steep valleys and dry basins. There’s no flashy briefing screen and exciting bevy of locales, just a solid recreation of one of the world’s most war torn countries. EA have decided they don’t need to coat their game in the glossy veneer of Bruckheimer but instead fancy the dusty, mottled hues of Kathryn Bigelow.
The threat is less bombastic, too: an IED is a source of major terror, not an excuse to run for a bit and then do a totally awesome dive. A lonesome machine gun is causing most of the grief throughout the demo, and even calling in friendly air support puts our squad of grunts in significant danger. It’s all good, hearty stuff – the kind of desperate anxiety you felt back in the days of Call of Duty 2, just without all the guns that go ping.
Despite the relative calm compared to the rest of the genre, this is EA’s “sledgehammer” component of Medal of Honor, with the clear antithesis of the calm, structured “scalpel” destruction brought about in the other half of the game by elite Tier One operators; if they came across a patch of tall grass they’d probably try to hide in it, while the Rangers would pepper it with bullets before drowning it in napalm and stomping all over the charred remains.
When the bullets do start to fly – it doesn’t take long – we’re back in familiar territory. Enemies crumple to the floor after a couple of tidy headshots like dolls; dead meat-puppets relinquishing their hold on life in typical videogame fashion. Your squad racks up the kills with precise military abandon, and while there’s proportionally fewer explosions than I would have expected, the body count is pretty much in line with the competition.
We’re told that if it moves we’re supposed to kill it, but even if it doesn’t move you’ll probably riddle it with so many bullets it’ll end up shuffling across the ground so you can feel like you’re killing it again.
Our squad flushes out some baddies from their cheeky hiding spots in the valleys, shoots down some enemies with RPGs and generally cleans up the hostile landscape one bullet at a time. Crawling out from billows of smoke after the machinegun emplacement has been obliterated by allied airstrike is a definite highlight, with the air so thick with grit it almost makes you want to clear your throat.
Moving towards a new LZ, the squad runs up against another set of dingy huts. A ringtone is audible when pressed against the door. The realisation comes too late. The ensuing explosion is enough to knock everyone for six, and is a dramatic enough incident to cause the screen to fade to black.
I doubt crouching down for fifteen seconds would be enough to recover from that.
Medal of Honor at the moments is a competent looking game, with solid looking guns and a keen eye for aesthetic detail. But my main concern is that it feels like EA are attempting to make a modern action game by numbers, and while they’re probably keeping their most impressive tricks up their sleeve, I’m impatient to see what else Medal of Honor can do. The gritty, muted take on modern warfare might be an intelligent and interesting route to pursue, but I worry it will just function as a pretty frame for a regular-looking photograph. Still, nice explosions.
Medal of Honor is currently scheduled for a fall 2010 release.