Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a game that virtually everybody on the staff here at Eurogamer has conquered - a rare feat given the high volume of software that crosses our desks. However, a quick tour of duty in EA's Spearhead expansion robs us of our rose-tinted spectacles. It's a spectacular and well-decorated broth as ever, but how easily its flaws bubble to the surface.
Usual EA slickness
What we have here is EA's slick presentation (minus a few points for the cumbersome menu system) binding a brief campaign through Normandy, set in the wake of a botched parachute landing. Although development has shifted to EA's Los Angeles studio (with 2015 now working on something secret for Vivendi), none of the spirit of the original has been lost - every soldier's a hero with no qualms about walking into certain death for his country, you still find yourself taking on vast swathes of Germans in increasingly elaborate set pieces, and it's still hair-amputatingly frustrating from time to time and book-ended by gravely narrated wartime footage.
Despite EA LA's adherence to the formula though, a number of unwanted changes have crept into the game's make-up, starting with the one major technical amendment - the addition of smoke. As we told you last month, France, 1944 is a very smoky place. Grenades line your belt and each explosion sees enormous, volumetric wisps of the stuff gorging themselves on the cold winter's air. But it's a throwaway effect in the grand scheme of things, and merely leads the gameplay to stutter.
It made our PC sweat blood
One of our chief concerns with Spearhead is the peculiarly heightened system requirements. If Allied Assault and Spearhead's respective manuals are to be believed, then nothing has changed, but even a cursory visual comparison is enough to convince you otherwise. Playing on a regularly watered 1.2GHz Athlon system with a 32MB GeForce3, a system Allied Assault was quite comfortable with, Spearhead shudders and heaves whenever smoke billows or soldiers congregate. Drop the detail and it's still no good - there's something fundamentally chuggy about it. This quickly interferes with your fun, too, especially when you realise that each set piece is preceded by the whole rig lurching violently, and as a result you work out how to spot them...
It isn't just the engine that needs tuning though; it's grey matter on both sides of the conflict. Your squad mates are still totally useless, killing a token German for each situation and leaving you to trawl through houses with a full magazine, but as long as you can keep them alive you're happy. (Don't you just hate it when the game auto-saves three seconds before your squad is wiped out, thus automatically failing the mission for you?)
Now, the Germans themselves, well, they've lost a lot of their guile and quick wits. Admittedly Allied Assault was often guilty of being ridiculously hard, with snipers in every window attuned to your presence before you even arrived, but it seems that EA LA has taken things to the other extreme. Guards still pop up from nowhere and open fire, but now it's only the machine gunners and mortar-wielding bastards that are hideously accurate, with some of the Germans failing even to fire once. During a routine trawl through a French village early on, we found ourselves out of ammo and facing a German guard in a doorway. He flatly ignored our soldier. It wasn't until we went up and smacked him with a rifle butt that he noticed.
That said, quite why anybody would notice someone with a total lack of personality like our Sgt. Jack Barnes is anyone's guess. As with Allied Assault's nameless hero (well, he had a name, but we can't remember it), Barnes is a man with words only for the intermission, and again Spearhead is completely devoid of story, companionship, heroics, or any form of compassion. And in achieving a 15+ rating from the ELSPA it avoids any form of blood or gore - shoot an enemy in the neck and he'll gurgle his way to the ground double-quick, but he won't spill an iota of claret. With so little cleaning up to do it's a wonder that 'quick load' takes any time at all.
It's not all bad though. There's a lot to be said for the cinematic parachute landing, the trip through Belgium and the predictably explosive finale. Missions and objectives are constantly varied albeit linear, and playing through it with the volume up and the visuals maxed out (assuming you upgrade to a cutting edge machine), it's difficult not to be immersed once again in the rigours of warfare. As long as you liked Allied Assault and can handle the cut and paste presentation (complete with the same sound and the same mix of English, American and German voiceovers) and the sensation of 'same old, same old', then the only thing that stands to halt you is the game's worrying brevity.
Allied Assault Blue Shift
Rather like Half-Life's Blue Shift expansion, Spearhead is over in barely three hours. That's less than 200 minutes, about two footy matches, less time than it takes me to drive home from work and about eight hours shy of its predecessor. Of course it was to be expected, and EA has also tightened up MOHAA's net code and introduced 12 new maps to spice up the multiplayer side of things, but the parts aren't enough to make a valuable whole. It's only because Spearhead chimes in at 20 quid or thereabouts that we don't rip it apart - as it is, it's rather like buying a DVD of your favourite war flick. You know its flaws and you tolerate them because it's entertaining in the short term, but you probably won't get much out of your investment in the long run.