Version tested: Xbox 360
Today is a good day. Today is a day we don't have to begin a Medal of Honor review with a tired reflection on how there are too many World War II games, on how many Germans we've shot over the years, or on how the series went downhill as soon as the ranks that make up Infinity Ward jumped original developer 2015's ship. No. Today, we'll just get on with telling you how much we really enjoyed Airborne. We're as surprised as anyone.
Presumably it's down to critical violence. That is, if you verbally beat EA around the face and neck often enough, they actually pay attention to the feedback people give them. That's certainly the impression you get from playing Medal of Honor: Airborne, because it systematically addresses so many of the niggly flaws that we've all harboured for years. However hardened your cynicism might be for the series - and WWII games in general - Airborne is refreshingly engaging from start to finish.
You play Boyd Travers - Private First Class of the US 82nd Airborne Division - or, in other words, a random young chump who's booted out of aircraft for a living and tasked with parachuting into the heart of enemy strongholds to kill men with different hats. You, as Boyd, fight six distinct real-life battles during the latter stages of the war, from Operation Husky in the Sicilian village of Adanti, through mainland Italy along the Amalfi coast, through to a 'D-Day in reverse' mission on the approach to Utah Beach. From there the game takes in other famous battles, including Operation Market Garden in Nijmegen, the epic Operation Varsity in the heart of a war factory, through to the hugely memorable climax in the concrete behemoth of Der Flakturm (the flak tower) - without doubt one of the most intense World War II missions you'll ever play.
One of the much-vaunted features is the apparent freedom to 'engage anywhere' from the point where you leave the aircraft. To a certain extent that's true, but obviously within certain parameters. For example, you might have five different objectives marked on your mini-map, and what the game allows you to do is parachute towards any one of those and tackle the tasks at hand in the order of your choosing. Helpfully, there's green smoke billowing to indicate the 'safe zones' to land in, but if you want you can simply land right in the hot spots and take your chances. If you're feeling really brave, you can even kick a Nazi in the chops on your way down. In fact, you get an Achievement unlock for doing just that.
What you'll appreciate from the word go is a remarkable sense of freedom - more so than most shooters full-stop, never mind the linear-to-a-fault World War II game. There's an appreciable next generation leap here, with large, open environments to explore, and no more stupid, narrow corridors and artificial walls to restrain your gameplay creativity. If you want to work your way onto a rooftop and snipe at everyone, that's fine. If you prefer a more up-close-and-personal approach and want to go around pistol-whipping and stabbing everyone to death, again, it's your call. Also gone are the horribly scripted enemies who take up the same cover points and provide no real challenge. In Airborne, you'll soon appreciate that AI behaviour is refreshingly dynamic, and more than capable of running rings around you if you're not smart enough to second-guess their intentions.
For example, it's relatively rare to see them just blundering like lemmings out into the open, like so many so-called cinematic WWII games. These guys know how to make good use of cover points, running between them and waiting for the right time to fire back. They certainly have a decent grenade-throwing arm too, and constantly flush you out from your own hidey-holes in a way that's delightfully reminiscent of the AI in the original Half-Life. Thankfully the default normal difficulty doesn't stray too far into the realms of uber-realism, and hits that accessible mid-point between fun and credibility square on the nose. Simply the way the AI is rated in terms of their abilities (visible on the game's loading screen prior to the level) gives you a clue to the kind of challenge you'll face. Needless to say, at the start of the game it's fairly forgiving, but by the time you hit the latter half of the campaign, you'll know you're in for a fight.
Another part of the game that has been buffed-up considerably is how Airborne deals with weapons. Rather than just boringly give you a standard load-out of Axis and Allied weaponry to choose from, the game actually tracks how much you're using a specific firearm and automatically rewards you with three tiers of upgrades as you go along. Say, for example, you really wanted to prove your worth with the various pistols in the game, you'd eventually find those weapons becoming more useful. A scope might be added, or you might be able to reload quicker or benefit from reduced recoil. Although you might argue it's not especially realistic, it's not outside the bounds of credibility, yet gives an added incentive to try things differently, and play around with various weapons throughout the game to see what the upgrades are like. In addition, it adds an even greater degree of variety by effectively tripling the amount of weapons available in the game, with the ability to remove upgrades as you see fit. In a sense, EA has massively improved an area that has been neglected ever since it created the sub-genre, and leaves the competition with work to do to improve on this excellent new system.
And underpinning the delightful sense of freedom, the excellent combat, and the buffed-up weapons system is a control system that has to rank as one of the best ever devised for a console FPS. Essentially borrowed wholesale from the long-forgotten European Assault, the so-called Ironsights system is easily the most flexible and intuitive method anyone's come up with, allowing the player to easily duck, lean and pop up from behind cover without resorting to complicated button combos. Simply holding down the left trigger enables your gun sights, and from there you can use the left stick to peek up, left or right from behind cover. Used when crouched, it's an exceptionally useful action to be able to perform in a game which demands that the player makes sensible use of any cover points you come across. And as well as being easy to pull off, the sensitivity is set perfectly, allowing you to lean out just as much as you need to - vital when you're sniping and need to nail that git right between the eyes.
If this is sounding improbably impressive, then the fact that the graphics engine does the business only adds to your overall appreciation that EA has really pulled out all the stops to get the Medal of Honor series back on top of the WWII pile. The sense of awe as you dive from a plane is certainly something that never gets dull, with jaw-dropping detail levels, flawless draw distance and none of the horrible pop-up glitchiness that used to jar the immersiveness in past WWII efforts. We're used to cinematic chaos in WWII games, but this definitely cranks it up to another level, with so much going on you'll struggle to take it all in.
Up close, the general architectural craft and ambition on display is so far beyond the kind of limiting rubbish we're used to that you want to shake the level designers by the hand for finally taking the shackles off. While there are, of course, still limits to what you can do and where you can go, it's now big enough, and sufficiently multi-layered to give such an incredible depth to each of the game's six campaigns that you don't need it to be any bigger. By the time you feel like you've seen everything there is to see, you're whisked away somewhere else, and have fun exploring all over again. The best feeling, though, is piecing together a map of your environment in your head as you go along - that simply never happened before in WWII games, but now there's this real sense of place when playing Airborne. It's the same feeling of playing multiplayer in an intricately constructed map, only with the focus and immersion that comes with a good single-player campaign. The vistas you look out upon don't hurt, either, giving the impression of proper geometry, rather than some cheap bitmapped cop-out. It's a title with a lot of love lavished on it. Being extra critical, the environments still lack that extra degree of destructibility that we call long for, but that's arguably one for the next generation. Let's not get too picky.
Having said all that, Airborne's not without its own niggles. Chief of these is the save/checkpointing system, which demands that you've completed one of the objectives before it will save your progress. What inevitably happens is that you'll often fail in a given task and find yourself not only back in the aircraft, but tasked with taking down the dozens of Germans you just painstakingly picked off. For the first half of the game, the challenge is sufficiently easy for it not to matter, but by the time you hit the bridge on Operation Market Garden, or slog through the brutally tough Operation Varsity, you'll scream at EA LA's studio leads for allowing such unnecessary frustration to spoil what was shaping up to be an almost flawless experience. At the very least, the game should be capable of knowing which enemies you just took out and allow you to carry on - but having spent 15 minutes taking out snipers, only to find yourself with no choice but to do it all again...well, it's sofa-punching stuff of the highest order.
What's important, though, is to not get bogged down in the detail too much. It's a game that, when played under pressure, can be a real pain, but taken at your leisure is one to savour. With an excellent mission-rating system in place, it's also one of the few games that gives you an incentive to go back and do better. If only more shooters had such in-built replayability. With 12-player online team deathmatch and capture the flag thrown in there for good measure (that we couldn't test because, well, no-one was online yet!) across all six maps, there's even more reason to cast off your Medal of Honor prejudice and enjoy the best World War II game to date.
8 / 10