In all their interviews regarding Medal of Honor, the folks at DICE have been adamant that just because they've been brought in to create the multiplayer component doesn't mean it's going to be a clone of Bad Company 2. While that may be technically true, you'd be forgiven for thinking the two games were twins, at least.
Created using DICE's proprietary Frostbite engine, and now snuggled up in a beta test for PC and PS3 players (Xbox 360 has been delayed, but should kick off this week), Medal of Honor's modern-day makeover can't help but look a lot like its nearest genetic relative. Partly, this is because DICE is pretty hot at FPS multiplayer, and if it ain't broke, blah blah blah.
That certainly explains why the two maps on show in the beta - Kabul City and Helmand Valley - bear all the hallmarks of the Swedish developer. These are organic, sprawling locations, jam-packed with hidey-holes, rat runs and sniping spots that change the gameplay on the fly. They're fun to discover, and even more fun once you've memorised some of the more useful spots and start to lure enemies to their doom in confined alleys or bullet-hell bottlenecks.
Visually, though, they couldn't be more distinct. Helmand is all scorched grassland and sun-bleached wreckage, a desolate rural hellhole dotted with ramshackle outposts. And where Helmand is all open skies and broad horizons, Kabul City is dense and claustrophobic, with ruined and half-built structures tumbling into abandoned market squares. Cover is plentiful but mostly small and ineffectual, forcing you to dash from one spot to another, minimising your profile from the enemy snipers that have surely made their nest in the scaffolds above.
Both maps are fun, and lend themselves to the sort of ebb and flow of combat that DICE seems to capture instinctively. Already in this beta I've experienced instant tactical connection with other players, where the action moves beautifully, seemingly through your own actions but in reality thanks to the subtle hand of the designers - guiding you into the most exciting situations with their sly player funnels.
What is missing is the epic environmental damage that Frostbite brought to Bad Company 2. No doubt the decision to leave it out was to better differentiate the two, but it's sorely missed. For a game that looks and feels similar, being able to shrug off RPG attacks by crouching behind a small wall feels weird.
In terms of options, things are deliberately simple. You get three combat classes - Rifleman, Special Ops and Sniper - and each does exactly what you'd expect. Rifleman is the standard infantry choice, the all-rounder for holding ground. Special Ops are the heavy lifters, the ones with the big guns that move into enemy territory and force the frontline backwards. Snipers, well, we know what they do: headshots.
Each class has 14 levels to move through, with a new unlock at each threshold that can be equipped in the relevant weapon slot - Rail, Barrel and Base - before you head into battle. New kickass guns and vital inventory boosts are the norm, and you'll notice the difference once you start earning better gear.
Two modes are available, one for each map. Kabul City plays host to Team Assault, the straight deathmatch option. Helmand Valley is where Mission takes place. Mission is, frankly, the same as Rush in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. One team defends, the other attacks. As each control point falls, the defenders are pushed back. If the attackers advance far enough, they win.
Control is nimble and intuitive, though DICE's continued aversion to the prone stance will surely stir up more debate as players weigh up the advantages of being able to hit the ground to avoid fire against the potential for campers to make themselves even harder to spot. Personally, I always miss it, if only because dropping to the floor is such an instinctive response. Maybe these soldiers have really dodgy knees.
It is, surprisingly, the weapon handling that feels skewed at the moment, but for now we're happy to file that under the "it's a beta test" defence. Minor lag issues mean that it's possible to be shot by an enemy before you actually see their weapon fire, and I emptied five sniper rounds into one foe to no effect while he polished me off with an impressive 150-foot headshot using an assault rifle.
Explosive splash damage also feels weak, meaning that RPG and grenade hits have to be very precise if they're to have any effect. Given DICE's pedigree, and the amount of time to go before the game ships, it seems fair to trust that such balancing quirks will be ironed out.
The unanswered question is what Medal of Honor will be bringing to the multiplayer party that we haven't seen already. In its present state it seems like a promising riff on a familiar formula, but nothing that would demand your attention over the current market leaders, especially with DICE's Vietnam expansion for Bad Company 2 arriving a few months after Medal of Honor hits.
This might well be enough, but it would be a shame for DICE to be reduced to performing its multiplayer party piece in other people's games rather than moving the genre forward.
A less tangible complaint, and one that still lingers after I've put the joypad down, is the general matter of taste. The hardcore online FPS crowd is not known for its tact, and I can't help but wonder just what sort of epithets will be flying across PSN and Xbox Live when armchair Andy McNabs are shooting at players openly identified as Taliban.
Watching virtual Coalition troops gunned down by insurgents in the ruins of Kabul, I felt more than a little weird, especially since a friend lost his brother in Afghanistan only a few weeks ago.
This is a real war that is happening right now, real blood is being shed, and simulating that for fragfest fun while being rewarded for kill streaks... Well, there's just something a bit icky about that. In single-player, there can be a story that adds context and meaning to the carnage. In multiplayer, it's all just for fun. At least the World War II games have the distance of history, and the fact that their conflict has been absorbed into popular entertainment for over 60 years.
Even the likes of Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company hide their bloodlust behind a figleaf of fictional "what if" scenarios. Medal of Honor turns a real tragedy into a social shooting gallery, and is going to have to tread carefully to avoid belittling the reality it borrows for our amusement.
Medal of Honor is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 15th October.