Games journalists often gossip about redefining genres and other unwieldy concepts, but Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was the most heavily scripted and beautifully directed first person shooter since Half-Life, and that was more than enough for us. The follow-up, dubbed Spearhead, has been under development at EA's Los Angeles studio for quite some time now, and with a release date set for early December, we returned to Normandy (and Belgium, and Germany) in the shiny boots of one Sgt. Jack Barnes to complete our tour of duty.
Barnes skipped the beach landing in favour of 'chuting in the mixed British/American force scattered behind enemy lines. Beginning with a buffeting ride in an aeroplane, followed by a dramatic landing through the roof of a barn, the good Sergeant is thrust into the heart of Normandy with orders to disrupt Nazi anti-aircraft activities and the frontline supply chain. This roughly translates as the familiar action of planting time bombs on AA guns and popping a certain Nazi Colonel's clogs before he can Luger his way out of the debate.
Like Allied Assault, you go about your business mostly by yourself, gunning down swathes of Nazis in dramatic style, whilst keeping a vaguely watchful eye over a crew of British SAS operatives who landed nearby. They will contribute by instructing you to take point as you scour houses, and getting killed spectacularly when the scripting requires it, much as their forefathers did in Allied Assault.
In fact, on the whole, little has changed since Mike Powell's incursion earlier this year. The most significant alterations to the formula are a handful of new weapons from British and Soviet forces. After palling around with the SAS you'll find yourself in possession of the Enfield Mark 1, a reliable rifle from the turn of the century. Thereafter, you'll come into a couple of new machine guns: the British Sten and the Soviet PPSh-41 (both very reliable guns that fire with tremendous accuracy, but lack the Thompson's punch).
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
The biggest change though is the introduction of smoke grenades. Spearhead adds volumetric smoke that obscures your movements (and those of your enemy), allowing you to charge through Nazi-ridden areas without having to first snipe an entire platoon. Sadly though it also lands a heavy blow in the system requirements department - our test rig, a very respectable 1.3GHz Duron armed with a GeForce 3, failed to run the game at anywhere near the pace of Allied Assault. Shoving a 2GHz Athlon into the fray helped, naturally, but it wasn't exactly what we had in mind.
Elsewhere though, the game is looking a lot more polished. After Battlefield 1942, the character animations, environmental design and the addition of wispy curls of smoke emanating from smouldering tanks, explosions and grenades make a lot of difference.
EA LA has also looked carefully at where Allied Assault slipped up. Arguably the most disagreeable thing about that game was the often psychic accuracy of AI-controlled Axis forces, particularly in that famous sniper mission, and although EA LA hasn't doused them all in a shower of stupidity, they are noticeably less able to headshot you at 200 yards. Which is a good thing.
Spear to the head
Of course we've all heard that the game boasts nine new single player missions and 12 new multiplayer maps, but sadly in bringing the game slightly more up to date, EA LA hasn't found time to emulate Allied Assault developer 2015's spectacular level design. After the dramatic freefall intro, the opening levels, comprised mainly of clearing out houses and sneaking across fields in the dead of a Normandy night, are rather dull by comparison, and although there are some nice scripted moments (a boat ride, a tank attack and more), these aren't enough to lift the Normandy sections.
We're about half way to the end now, working our way through Belgium in preparation for the Battle of the Bulge, with the promise of a Soviet war march and a Mike Powell-esque secret mission later on, and as yet Spearhead hasn't conjured up the amazing set pieces Allied Assault managed - the stroll through a sniper-infested French town, the bridge crossing, the sub pen subterfuge, and so on.
On the multiplayer front, the new levels offer a nice change, taking you across various European arenas including Holland, and instead of nice, symmetric arenas packed with standard issue multiplayer elements (the controllable gun turret, the labyrinthine underground areas, etc), these are built around proper town designs and seem quite thoughtfully constructed. And it's also nice to see the inclusion of some off-the-beaten-track maps, like the woodland Ardennes level.
Although our enthusiasm for Spearhead has taken a bit of a knock back since we first heard about it, the cinematic levels of presentation and the decision to take a different route into the war have delivered plenty of entertainment. New additions and a few tweaks help matters, and we're keen to get our hands on the final script. Sorry, game. When we do, closer to the game's December 6 release date, we'll be sure to let you know how it fares.