August ought to be as quiet as the grave for new games, but the gaming behemoth that is EA has changed all that. By wisely pulling the release dates of its portfolio forward by, on average, a month, we've suddenly found ourselves positively under siege as a slew of its pre release code rains down onto our desks.
It's unquestionably getting a little old in the tooth, but the appearance of a second expansion pack for Medal Of Honor was still welcomed at Eurogamer HQ like a returning friend. Especially one that apparently aims to atone for the errors of Spearhead, with beefed up content purportedly offering around 12 hours of single player content across eleven new single player missions and nine multiplayer maps.
The Alpha build (dated July 7th) supplied features five of the eleven single player missions, and was clearly in need of some optimization, but nevertheless gave us a clear indication of what developer TKO has in store when it arrives in about a month's time.
Shouty blokes says: "Oi! Shoot stuff"
The single player campaign starts in Tunisia in the battle for Kasserine Pass, via a crash landing in Sicily before concluding in Italy in Monte Cassino and Anzio. The very first level kicks off in the dust tracks of the North African desert with the usual shouty mission briefing on the back of a jeep en route to your destination.
It's typical MOH territory from the very beginning, with the seemingly endless rattle of enemy fire whizzing past your ears reminiscent of the infamous Omaha beach landing level. Taking cover behind blown up vehicles and in mortar craters, you follow your compass bearings to one cluster of enemies after another, before mounting a tank and both steering and blasting your way through to the next area to take out an enemy bunker and destroy their radio equipment. So far so familiar.
The next level we got to play - the third - sees you crossing a canal, clearing out a building of enemy troops, setting some Brit POWs free, shelling a tank before hooking up with Klaus, who you have to protect en route through the Bizerte city back streets. Once you've fended off the attentions of a posse of Nazi pursuers, you end up at a house that contains a German uniform and papers that enables you and your ally to give the Nazi guards the slip on your way out to an awaiting truck.
Be patient, young solider
Next up, the first level of Episode 2 sees you and your soon-to-be-dead squad mates coming under fire while flying over Sicily. Upon crash landing, you have the somewhat arduous task of blowing up the heavily guarded anti aircraft guns that litter the environment. If ever there was an argument for the quick save it's on this level, where the almost total darkness calls you to delve deep into your reserves of patience as you slowly pick off each baddie with tedious persistence.
Eventually we saw off some strong resistance before jumping to the first level of Episode 3, which seats you on the back of a jeep in a typical and straightforward on rails section that eventually drops you off in Monte Cassino in Italy, at a heavily guarded ruined town packed with difficult-to-spot snipers ready to plant some lead in your eye if you hang around too long.
The preview build then jumps to a railtrack in Anzio, the penultimate level of the game, which tasks you with blowing up a procession of approaching trucks, before taking out a pair of giant K5 cannons that are blowing merry hell out of anything in their path. This entertaining level then concludes with you at the wheel of an armoured truck equipped with a rapid fire machine gun and rocket laucher as you cause mayhem blowing the crap out of everything in your path before being forced to eject the imminent crash.
Having blitzed through almost half the expansion pack in a little over three hours, it's hard to see the experience lasting too long if you're well versed in your Quicksave strategy. In common with previous MOHs, there's always a ready supply of canteens and medi packs to top up your health, and ammo is always in plentiful supply should you find yourself in danger of being caught short in the heat of the battle. Only towards the end were we forced to be a mite more careful on the default Normal setting, so anyone hoping to extend the life span of this episode might want to consider opting for the Hard setting for once. You could try and resist the temptation to Quicksave, but the game insists on auto saving at checkpoints to help you out even if you forget.
In just about every respect Breakthrough is a case of more of the same. Broadly similar multiple objectives, linear levels, on rail shooty bits, sniper sections, against the odds open battlefield scenarios, and a procession of scripted sequences, with your squad leaders and expendable allies always arriving on cue to deliver the next set of mission objectives in either gruff American bluster or stereotypical Brit stiff upper lip fashion. There's nothing really on show in the single player campaign that takes the series into new territory, but we're guessing that will hardly come as a surprise to anyone.
If more of the same is all you want, then you'll be more than happy with Breakthrough. Sure, the visuals have had a minor makeover, but it's barely noticeable even with the detail level turned up to the max. It's still a good looking game, but it's the gaming equivalent of a dumb action movie for those that don't want to have to think while they shoot.
Now that the two year old Allied Assault saga has reached the end of its life, where next for this incredibly popular series? One of the main areas that EA is promising to overhaul in the next MOH, Pacific Assault, is the character development and association with the NPCs. In Breakthrough, the sense of narrative is minimal with squad mates and allies departing before you've even remembered their names. To make matters worse, they usually sport such primitive AI routines that any true sense of immersion is lost as they die ingloriously in a hail of enemy lead as they run on the spot into a wall.
With the promise of grand intelligence and greater emphasis on plot ahead in the next generation of FPSs (including EA's), we can't say we're sorry to see the back of this sort of predictably woeful behaviour. In 1998 Half Life introduced subtle scripting into the game and it felt like a revolution, but even now no-one's topped it.
Another area in dire need of an overhaul in the MOH series is the rigidly linear level design. Some would argue it makes the game more accessible to the masses, and no doubt easier to design, but for the PC veteran it feels so painfully on rails most of the time you're left with very little to work out except who to shoot next. Its still mildly entertaining if the set pieces are intense, but it makes it feel painfully predictable and repetitive. Let's hope EA finally takes the stabilisers off its FPSs for the next incarnation.
A fully formed build of Breakthrough is expected to come down the pipe any day soon, at which point we'll be keen to plough through the remaining six single player levels and examine the multiplayer element, which is played out over nine maps levels, split between objective, Tug of War, and the new Liberation mode, as well as the obligatory Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes.