Danger Close - the developer formerly known as EA Los Angeles - has been adamant about one thing throughout its work on the single-player campaign for this Medal of Honor reboot: it's not about the setting, it's about the individuals.
There's a group of Rangers, who go in hard and fast and leave in a cloud of brickdust and cordite; a pair of Apache gun crews, who back them up from the air; and the Tier One Operators, the best of the best of the best to infinity recurring. It's about them. It's about their story.
So why is it set in Afghanistan?
"The story that we wanted to tell was about these guys in this initial fight, and the [Tier One] individuals that we hooked up with happened to be doing it there, so that was the story we wanted to tell," says executive producer Greg Goodrich. "It's an historical fiction inspired by these guys in an historical event, like Saving Private Ryan. That's where they were."
That's where we are today, prowling through the variable conditions of the 12-kilometre span of the Shahikot Valley in Afghanistan which Danger Close has recreated in Medal of Honor. We're looking for the authenticity, respect for the soldier and reverence for the material that Goodrich insists were the developers' only motivations for using a current conflict as the backdrop for the game.
We're also looking for signs that Medal of Honor is more than just Call of Duty with beards and goats instead of nukes and skidoos. After all, were the game set somewhere else, that would be all anybody cared about.
Goodrich describes the game's first act for us before we sit down to play. The sledgehammer that is the US Army Rangers arrives in Shahikot confident and gung-ho, but no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
We pick up the controller as a Ranger squad led by Jim Patterson - grandson of Lieutenant Jimmy Patterson from the original Medal of Honor, released in 1999 - drops in and discovers that the military has underestimated its opponent quite considerably. As the Rangers advance through a valley they're assailed on all sides and take heavy casualties.
It leaves our party in a position where it's necessary to clear a landing zone for a Casevac helicopter. To do this we have to break through a run-down mountainside village overrun by insurgents. From behind the sights the Rangers are exactly as you would expect: there's lots of chatter, moving up, instructions to cover each other and enemies at every hand of the clock.
Armed with a SAW machine gun, you're a heavy weapon within a blunt instrument. Having cleared the village and moved through a gulley, your squad of four needs to take out a DShK gun emplacement by calling in air support. You're danger close, however, so you first need to lace it with red phosphorous before nearby F-15s can blow it off the mountain.
What follows is the Ranger experience in microcosm - rather than picking off insurgents as they appear on rooftops and behind sandbags, and inching toward a turret gun in the gaps that it gives you while it reloads, you just need to suppress. So you point your stack of 200-round clips at the big gun and paste down the fire button.
It's an unexpected direction, it's scripted, and it's simple. It's also immersive. As you strain to hold the barrel on target, your squad mates Patterson, Hernandez and Ybarra yell encouragement and instructions to one another and struggle to within throwing distance of the enemy.
With the target painted, there's more comms chatter, then the rush of air support, a loud crack and then silence as the air fills with dust and smoke and the planes disappear over the horizon. Do they need another pass, HQ asks over the radio? Negative. Elation, then self-awareness. "I don't ever want to be that close again."
We stick with the Rangers as they descend, cautiously now, toward the new LZ, Betty. They're taking no chances - they're going to clear two small buildings before they call anything in. As we're advancing, our confident leader's voice hangs in the air and I suddenly think it sounds rather loud.
We take up positions outside the first door. We've already done this routine several times - two guys on either side, one kicks down the door, and I'm holding a machine gun that fires more stuff per minute than Alan Sugar on timelapse. One, two, three, ring! "Is that a cellphone?" IED!
Now we're in trouble. I'm being dragged to cover by the others - apparently my kevlar vest took most of the blast - but our cover's already disintegrating as dozens of insurgents descend the nearby hills.
The action becomes manic. RPGs tear scripted holes in the mud hut we take refuge in, enemies come in waves from every direction, and we're denied air support (the F-15s are too close to bingo, meaning they're out of fuel - the jargon is saturating and enthralling, even under fire). It's all going to end badly. We've begged for support from the people we're supposed to be securing this LZ for, but as we run out of ammo we tell them not to bother. We're done.
Boom! Apache Gunfighter teams strafe out of nowhere and open up on the hillsides. We're no longer toast, and we snap out of our delirium quickly enough to direct their fire. Friendlies in structures!
Then we get to see how Medal of Honor does its handovers. "Come back Gunfighter 11, we love you!" It's a girl, innit. "Every time," her colleague in Gunfighter 06 notes. Now we're riding with the Apaches, manning a gun in 06, on the way to dispatch mortar operators pinning down our Casevac friendlies.
When it's not the jargon, it's the tech that draws you in. The gunners zoom in thousands of metres to pick out mortar operators totally oblivious to us. Gunfighter 11 spots the targets, and we get a box on-screen. "Good mail." We move over it and hold a button to fill a bar, then a couple of seconds later Hellfire missiles rain down from the heavens.
Next we get involved in a sustained battle over a hillside village declared cold by HQ. It's hotter than the sun. As the music goes a bit Platoon we dance around the mountains and evade RPG fire before clearing an ammo dump with missiles.
Gunfighter 11 takes a hit and loses her main gun. 06 suggests we RTB. 11 says it would be a shame to RTB without hitting those targets at The Whale, another part of Shahikot packing lots of heat, and in any case she's not quite bingo. "Why don't we try hunter killer?" Wilco.
Later, as 06 and 11 limp home after smashing The Whale ("we nearly melted the barrel"), they come under fire and this time neither of them has a main gun. But it's okay, because the enemy triggerman's head suddenly explodes. "That wasn't me," 06 notes. "Whoever it was, they saved our asses."
Somewhere in the hills, 1050 metres away, the man from the Medal of Honor box with the beard of all beards is spotting for your next character, Deuce, who has just registered a perfect headshot. Beard man, otherwise known as Dusty, says well done, then continues to spot enemies on the opposite side of the valley.
Where the Rangers were cautious but direct, and roaring with adrenaline, and the Apaches were distant and abstract, as though they were watching the war from another room, the Tier One Operators are cold and laid back. Wind six metres east. Hit that guy first. Even when their claymore mines - deployed to provide early warnings at their perimeter - start going off, they're in no rush. They have three claymores - they have time for another shot.
Dusty and Deuce might as well be in another war; they're certainly in another class. Dusty gently reminds Deuce to avoid cliff edges so he's not silhouetted as they crawl along tiny mountainside pathways scoping out their visitors. There are shades of Bad Company 2 as Dusty suggests they draw them out, then divvies up targets with Deuce. They're all dead before they know what hit them.
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Dusty phones home and says that he didn't hear the guys speaking Pashto, he heard Chechen, so they're going to rifle through the bodies. Yep, these guys are from somewhere else, and they're packing top of the range kit. "What do you suggest?" asks HQ. Dusty suggests we go kill more of them and see what's what.
But it's not gung-ho. This isn't the video nasty some were worrying about - not yet anyway. We left "Hua" back with the Rangers. Dusty just wants to know what's going on. The Rangers are fighting a war, the Apaches are playing a videogame, but the Tier Ones are just working.
Videogames should be mature enough to tell stories in modern conflicts. The big worry about Medal of Honor was that, having made that case, it wouldn't be able to do so responsibly. It's less of a worry once you've played a stretch of the campaign, although the proof will be in the full thing.
As Dusty and Deuce clamber on, off to see what's next, I'm reminded of something Greg Goodrich said before we started playing: "Our intent is to honour the soldier and do so from their point of view." The contrast between these individuals is already striking.
As for the game built around these characters, the action in Shahikot may be linear and scripted, but it's also varied, interesting and coherent. It's not Call of Duty. We'll find out next month whether that ends up as a compliment.
Medal of Honor is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 15th October.