There is a moment in the Medal of Honor campaign when one of your squadmates takes down a Taliban fighter with what looks like a mountaineering axe to the back of the head. It’s right in your face, gritty, brutal, and an excellent metaphor for what differentiates Medal of Honor from other modern shooters on the market. It’s also what ultimately may prevent the game from being a long-term player in the genre, as Medal of Honor doesn’t follow through enough on this promise.
If you are familiar with Medal of Honor: Airborne, you will see its fingerprints all over the franchise reboot. Medal of Honor very much feels like a game built on Airborne’s frame in terms of the graphics and weapons handling. This time the battle is not against the Nazis, however, but the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the campaign is set during the initial invasion by the United States shortly after 9/11. Players will spend most of their time in the boots of a Tier 1 Operator, the tough-as-nails special forces who were frequently touted by Electronic Arts as being key advisers in the development of Medal of Honor. The rest of the missions take place from the perspective of an Army Ranger, called in with his buddies to back up the Tier 1 teams seeking out Taliban bases and camps in the mountains.
Even played on the hardest difficulty setting, the campaign may not be challenging for seasoned shooter fans. The single player mode features a “slide into cover” mechanic which is extremely effective at giving you breathing room to regenerate your health when wounded, and leaning out of cover makes it much easier to pick off your enemies without exposing yourself to danger. A smart player can navigate the entire campaign on Hard without running into more than a few challenging situations.
The weapons are very satisfying to shoot as the sound design in the game is excellent. I spent most of my time using the default M4A1 assault rifle as it’s extremely versatile, and you can get a complete refresh on your ammunition from American weapons simply by asking your squadmates. It’s good that everyone in your squad has a seemingly unlimited number of magazines to refresh your stores with, but it also immediately takes the player out of the gritty, “more-true-to-life” vibe that Danger Close Studios was going for. It also removes any impetus to try out Taliban weapons unless you’re feeling adventurous, as American weapons feel clearly superior to anything your enemies have to throw at you.
There are no real heroes to the story, or much of a story at all for that matter. There’s a semblance of one about two thirds of the way through involving a General who is Stateside and portrayed as showing disregard for the safety of his troops in a sequence that is as stereotypical as it gets. None of the soldiers in the game are ever fleshed out. The closest we get is a single Tier 1 Operator whose fate may finally draw some emotional response at the very end of the campaign. If Medal of Honor was meant to be a salute to our men and women in uniform, there’s an argument for portraying real characters in the story to make the player care about them. Instead, we get more-or-less faceless protagonists to run around and shoot bad guys with.
There are few set-pieces in the game, which may go along with its stated mission of saluting our troops in the sense of not portraying them in situations that American military personnel wouldn’t actually be facing on a regular basis in Afghanistan. The Tier 1 Operators, rather than always being commando bad-asses, very often felt muted, carrying out extreme-distance sniper attacks and other tasks which may be realistic, but aren’t quite the high octane action that shooter fans have come to expect. Even the final level, which should feel like a desperate battle, didn’t feel climactic or exciting, to the point where I was shocked that the campaign ended where it did because I was given few cues that the end was coming.
Some key moments in the campaign include desperately holding off a Taliban assault while waiting for Apache gunship support, and then taking the role of an Apache gunner squeezing off rocket, chin-gun, and Hellfire missile rounds into prepared Taliban positions in the mountains. These two back-to-back levels in the middle of the game provided some of the only adrenaline in the campaign. At the end of a battle to take an airfield early in the game, players have to call down AC-130 gunship strikes on Taliban positions. These enemies can actually kill you if you don’t tend to them quickly enough, which creates some sense of urgency and is a welcome change from more sanitized depictions of calling in air support, but it’s the only other memorable moment I can recall from the campaign.
If you’re a Medal of Honor fan the campaign may be fun even without a plot or characters, but the multiplayer is likely the biggest draw for shooter fans. Just as one can see Airborne’s fingerprints all over the campaign mode, fans of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are going to instantly recognize similarities between that game’s multiplayer and Medal of Honor’s. This isn’t a brilliant observation as Swedish development studio DICE, who created the Battlefield series, also made the multiplayer component of Medal of Honor, but I wished it wasn’t quite so transparent from the very beginning. Also, mechanics like sliding into and leaning out of cover from the campaign didn’t make it into the multiplayer, which did begin to make campaign and multiplayer feel like two completely different games rather than complementing halves of the same product.
Players choose between three classes: Rifleman, with mid-range assault rifles and unlockable Light and Heavy Machine Guns; Special Ops, with short-range carbines and shotguns; and Snipers with…sniper rifles. Rifleman carry smoke grenades and have grenade launchers, Special Ops have missile launchers or RPGs, and Snipers have explosives they can plant and detonate. None of the classes are very deep. They use an experience system to advance from Level 1 to 15, unlocking new attachments and weapon choices as players advance, but it doesn’t strike me as a system that will keep players coming back for more just to max out their three classes.
Players earn points for kills, assists, or related to taking and defending objectives, and earning enough points without dying will garner Score Chain rewards, which are Medal of Honor’s version of kill streaks. They differ in two important ways. If you earn a Score Chain reward and die without using it, your score still goes back to zero but you retain the reward when you respawn until you’ve used it. Each reward also has a defensive and offensive option, for instance either calling down a mortar strike or sending up a UAV to temporarily reveal enemy positions on the radar.
The mutiplayer modes are Combat Mission, which has one team attacking a set of five objectives taken sequentially while the other team defends and is reminiscent of Rush mode from Bad Company 2; Team Assault (read: Team Deathmatch); Sector Control (read: Domination); Objective Raid, which uses only two objectives that attackers may assault simultaneously; and Hardcore, which runs all the other modes but with more challenging difficulty settings.
Medal of Honor multiplayer is quite punishing. Bullets seem like they do slightly more damage than in other shooters. Running up to the front after respawning is a sure fire way to quickly get killed. Instead, you need to use cover smartly and pray that a sniper doesn’t have that position dialed in. Most of the combat seems to take place at medium to long ranges which is much more authentic in terms of how actual infantry battles tend to go in modern combat, but this can also get rather frustrating when Riflemen only have one smoke grenade until level 15 and can only throw them by hand rather than in a grenade launcher.
Snipers feel much more powerful in Medal of Honor compared to other shooters as the maps are tight and funnel players along clear paths while also being sparse for cover. There are only a few maps with decided close-quarters potential, but even on those maps I seemed to fall to snipers 4 times out of 5, much more often than in any other shooter I’ve played in recent years. In other shooters snipers are a nuisance but easy to deal with. In Medal of Honor, with no killcam to give a sniper’s position away, they can rapidly become unbearable; and Taliban fighters blend very easily into the rocks in the multiplayer levels that take place in the mountains, making it doubly-difficult to find and nullify snipers unless you counter-snipe.
Players can respawn at the front of the battle or back at their base, and very often spawning to the front gets you instantly killed, to the point where I wonder why the option is even proffered. Respawning at base isn’t entirely safe, either, however. I encountered much more regular spawn killing in Medal of Honor than I have in other shooters as of late.
The multiplayer in Medal of Honor is brutal and challenging, which doesn’t make it bad, but rather means this game is likely to have a more specific long-term audience than other shooters. It actually feels like something I’d suspect PC shooter players to take to more readily than console-only gamers, so tracking long-term sales and player numbers between the formats will be interesting.
Resisting the urge to make comparisons to other recent shooters, taken on its own merits Medal of Honor is a decent game, and I had fun playing it, but it never left me in awe or otherwise impressed me, and I wonder if trying to stay “authentic” isn’t to blame. Not everyone wants a Tom Clancy novel on steroids in their military FPS titles, but some sense of adventure and overcoming odds is certainly called for, and Medal of Honor never delivered that for me. Fans of military shooters should at the very least pick this up used or rent it, but I don’t see Medal of Honor as being anything more than a stopping-off point between blockbuster releases this Fall.
The environments look excellent, as do in-game character models.
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Medal of Honor is a solid, fun shooter, just not very challenging.
Sound engineering has always been a strength of the Medal of Honor series.
The game has enough multiplayer modes to keep fans busy for a while.
It's not a bad first outing as a series reboot, but EA has a lot of work to do if they want that number one FPS spot back.