Version tested: Xbox 360
War is serious business, and if you doubt how seriously Medal of Honor developers Danger Close and DICE are taking the conflict their game portrays, consider the public explanation for the decision to change your multiplayer opponents from "Taliban" to "Opposing Force". It was taken "for the men and women serving in the military and for the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice," according to executive producer Greg Goodrich, because "this franchise will never wilfully disrespect, intentionally or otherwise, your memory and service." Serious words delivered with humility, but still words from a man who at some point during the game's development sat in a meeting where someone said, "Yes, let's have a quad-bike level."
Whereas films like The Hurt Locker evade accusations of insensitivity through their dispassionate and meticulous observations of the conflicts they portray, Medal of Honor ostensibly dodges the issue by not really being about anything except what's happening on-screen. There are no politics – there's arguably a subtext about the dehumanisation of US military personnel, but the B-movie story dialogue and CG cut-scenes borrowed from 1998 do little to convince you it was deliberate – and beyond a stylish Modern Warfare-inspired introductory sequence there's relatively little to explain the context of the actions you're taking as a Navy SEAL, a US Army Ranger, a Tier 1 Operator or an Apache gunner.
Still, this tunnel-vision approach to the campaign is hardly disrespectful to the troops Danger Close so venerates. It's set at the outset of the war in Afghanistan and chronicles the efforts of soldiers fighting over the complicated terrain of Shahikot Valley, a sprawling expanse of rock, sand, dust, snow and militants. We see how the conflict begins with intelligence-gathering and surgical incisions into Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds and outposts, before the pressure for results from Washington leads to some bad decisions, near-defeat and considerable heroics.
As is the fashion these days, Medal of Honor is heavy on jargon, burst-firing and switches of perspective. Much of the short campaign is spent pausing behind rocks to shoot at rapidly spawning Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, tugging the left trigger to quickly iron-sight an enemy and then bursting with the right trigger to drop him. You do this in valleys and villages, on hillsides and mountain peaks, and peering through night-vision goggles in the dead of night or darkness of caves. When the next guy is down you move to the next rock. It's slick, if not exotic.
Enemies are pretty daft. These guys are supposed to have incredible knowledge of the terrain, but all they really do is hide behind rocks, helpfully popping their heads up at intervals, or run obligingly across open ground between cover points. When they're supported by gun emplacements or approach in overwhelming numbers you may find yourself tested (at least on the Hard difficulty), but generally you'll already have their number.
That's true of the US Army Ranger sections, in any event, and also for some of the SEAL and Tier 1 elements, but there is more variety to the latter, and it's also where Medal of Honor's obsession with jargon really pays off.
We've heard soldiers inquiring about whether fire missions are danger-close for the convoy before, of course, but fittingly for a studio actually called Danger Close the developer uses military lingo more intensively, and successfully conveys the delicate balance of tension and self-control Special Forces must master to survive and prosper. "Danger close - service targets further north," your SEAL team leader barks into his radio as bombs from air support threaten to blow your squad to pieces in spectacular fashion. "Maintain noise discipline," he whispers afterwards as the dust settles.
Air support is a constant fixture and another element that heightens your sense of involvement. You're frequently invited to paint targets for incoming F-15s ("fast movers") and drones, but it's when the delicacy of that network of assets is stressed and strained that the game does its best line in high drama. There's an assault where you need to suppress a powerful enemy gun emplacement with your M249 SAW, all the while your squad-mates bravely advance to mark it with red phosphorous. Shortly afterward, you're caught out in a valley by an IED and forced to defend against waves of AK-47 and RPG-toting Taliban forces as the world falls apart around you, until you genuinely feel as though you can't save yourself.
The outstanding example of this blend of jargon and multi-faceted warfare, though, is an Apache gunfighter mission halfway through the campaign. It's an on-rails level where you mostly push buttons to fire guns at painted locations, or fire cannons and hydra missiles as your bird swoops and strafes complicated targets, but thanks to the sense of co-ordination and abstract dialogue you lose yourself in the drama of incomprehensibly deft technical warfare.
The use of the fabled Tier 1 Operators offers another welcome change of tempo and emphasis as you ghost militants on hillsides, and your partner Dusty carefully measures your assaults to increase the certainty of success while making them more efficient and economical on your supplies. The choreography at work in the Tier 1 and SEAL sections is one of Medal of Honor's greatest assets, and does a good job of articulating the difference between Special Forces and their colleagues lower down the elite scale.
It's a shame, then, that the scripting and storytelling outside the action is mixed. The CG cut-scenes are antiquated, while the story is hammy and a bit "Channel 5, 9pm" in execution. There's even a bit where one of the tech guys cuts off the feed from Langley before a General can order his CO to do something he knows is wrong. "Looks like we lost the feed, sir," he says with a grin. Feel good! That's an order! When one of your mates solemnly notes, "Man, there's a lot of bad guys here, Intel really dropped the ball," you wonder how long the writer had that one on a Post-It Note stuck to his monitor before he found an opportunity to use it.
Medal of Honor's campaign isn't a technical marvel either. Danger Close went for Unreal Engine 3 to tell the main story, and it seems ill-suited to the long draw distances and proposed detail levels, frequently diving well below the 30fps baseline and popping in textures on the console versions. Elsewhere, contextual dialogue sometimes kicks in too late because you did something too quickly for the script, and bits where dramatic things happen to you (falling down a hill, for example) make such a song and dance about wresting control away that it feels clunky. Compared to the sequence in Halo: Reach where you're pounced on by a Covenant Elite, all beautifully in-engine and rendered from your perspective, the absence of polish is jarringly anachronistic for a blockbuster game in 2010.
DICE's vaunted multiplayer, however, uses the Frostbite engine from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and looks much better throughout. There are five game modes - team deathmatch, capture-and-hold, two asymmetrical assault set-ups (one fast, one slow) and a "Hardcore" mode where expected crutches like ammo pick-ups and regenerating health are either removed completely or heavily regulated - and it's set over eight well-designed and varied maps.
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There are only three classes - Rifleman, Special Ops and Sniper - but they complement one another well. The Rifleman's smoke grenade clears the way for Spec Ops, for example, who in turn frightens enemies out of cover and into the sights of the Sniper. DICE rewards progress with new toys, but without giving veteran players too much of an advantage. Support Actions - directed airstrikes, for example - are well balanced following public beta-testing, while weapon customisation is a complex and rewarding experience.
It's a different approach to some of Medal of Honor's competitors, designed to put skilful players on top whatever their experience level, but the result will undoubtedly still be that if you don't get in early and sacrifice time to learning levels and systems, you will struggle to find a foothold without enduring a lot of frustration. Those who do may find the experience a little too close to Bad Company 2 for comfort, but that won't stop them enjoying the remix.
We know that multiplayer is keenly not about portraying the Afghanistan war, of course, given that the developers have said that changing the name Taliban to Opposing Force has no material impact on gameplay. This disconnect is perhaps a good thing; multiplayer runs a much greater risk of appearing insensitive given that you sprint, jump, die and respawn at a fearsome rate, and without the careful scripting of the linear campaign you can do all sorts of things that would look quite bad, in or out of context. All the same, it's hard not to feel it could and should have been completely abstracted.
As a game about the Afghanistan war that does its absolute utmost to avoid being about the Afghanistan war, Medal of Honor is arguably just a shooting gallery spliced with a fairground ride and a solid multiplayer accessory which owes a lot to Bad Company 2. It certainly does little to advance the theory that videogames are responsible enough to tell stories within sensitive contexts - it's compelling and enjoyable to play on a visceral level, but it's a shame it lacks the creative bravery to match the courage of the heroes it so reveres. Having set out to prove that there is another way of doing a first-person shooter set within a contemporary conflict, however, it can lay claim to qualified success as an interesting vertical slice of the US military machine.
8 / 10
Medal of Honor is released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this Friday.