With Call of Duty so conclusively dominating the first person shooter genre in recent years, it's going to take something very special indeed to overwhelm the all-powerful Activision franchise. Electronic Arts' response has been to launch a new attack on two fronts: firstly via the simply sensational Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and now, with a reboot of the classic Medal of Honor for PC and HD consoles.
The Medal of Honor package is a curious beast. It's actually two games in one, with EA's Los Angeles studio using Unreal Engine to create the single-player game, while Battlefield veterans DICE are crafting the multiplayer experience in Sweden, using their own proprietary Frostbite engine. Closed beta invitations for the online portion went out this week allowing us to get our first look at the game away from the canned footage and the solo-player E3 sampler we played last week.
Eurogamer has already run hands on impressions of the code, but it's fair to say that the beta accurately represents the dilemmas DICE must be facing with its latest project. With Battlefield: Bad Company 2, it's clear that the team worked incredibly hard to produce a multiplayer game that differentiates itself substantially from the Call of Duty template, while at the same time offering gameplay likely to tempt the Modern Warfare veterans to jump ship.
However, with Medal of Honor, it's difficult to pinpoint what the unique features are that will make this game stand out in this most fiercely competitive of game spaces: it's very similar indeed to DICE's recent Battlefield masterpiece. So on the plus side then, by default you get a great multiplayer game: the DICE DNA established so strongly with bad Company 2 basically makes that a given.
There's definitely a strong sense that the basic proposition here competes too closely with Bad Company 2 rather than attempting to take on the Infinity Ward offering more directly, or better still, carving out a distinct identity of its own. DICE is one of our favourite developers and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a DF game of the year contender; we just hope that the team isn't being spread too thin here.
Onto more DF-specific matters then. Bearing in mind that the Frostbite tech is pretty mature, it comes as no surprise to see that the general performance spec is similar to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, as you'll see in this first video from the Helmand province.
So, we have the DICE Frostbite standards then: native 720p with no anti-aliasing, highly detailed, vast environments, an implementation of the dynamic destruction model and performance capped at 30FPS. As it's beta, you'll note that the overall frame-rate is far from solid though: more lost frames and more screen-tear than you'd hope for, plus a somewhat strange pause every time you get fragged, hence the sustained dips in the frame-rate graph: the game is literally freezing at this point.
This Medal of Honor code is probably the most "beta" beta we've played on PS3 for a long time and certainly not up to the polish levels of the Bad Company 2 multiplayer test released at the tail-end of last year. In just a few hours of gameplay we had crashes on the loading screen, crashes on killstreaks and random hanging that could strike at virtually any point. Lag was also more clearly pronounced that in Bad Company 2, and as you'll see in the video above, we even had a tank literally appear out of thin air right in front of our eyes.
There are noticeable improvements in the narrow Kabul street stage, certainly in terms of the performance level: screen-filling buildings occlude plenty of background detail lowering the load on the engine. There's also the sense that the game's bugs are less intrusive. However, even here there are LOD issues with scenery detail levels popping noticeably and rocks on the ground just ahead of you appearing out of nowhere. However, in terms of gameplay, the variety in tactics required between the two levels demonstrates that the raw materials in terms of great level design are all there, just as they were in Bad Company 2. It's just a question of whether Medal of Honor can elevate itself from this unpolished beta into something truly great.
In short, DICE has its work cut out here turning what looks to be a worthwhile multiplayer game into something as stand-out and spectacular as Bad Company 2 was, is, and most likely will remain with the upcoming launch of its Vietnam-inspired expansion pack. Performance and bugs-related issues aren't primarily the concern - good QA will sort these out - but perhaps the biggest worry is that for a company looking to share-steal gamers from Modern Warfare 2, the overall sensation you get from the Medal of Honor beta is that it's perhaps rather too close a competitor to the existing Bad Company 2, which itself is set for a major multiplayer upgrade later in the year.
Of course, this is DICE we are talking about, and clearly Medal of Honor is an enormously important tentpole title for EA for which we've seen just a tiny representative sample of clearly unfinished gameplay. The resources are there, the talent is there - that's beyond doubt. With the full game set for release in October, it'll be interesting to see the full scale, scope and quality of the final release.