For the most part EA's reputation has grown massively over the past couple of years, kicking new life into just about every one of its franchises (Tiger Woods, SSX, FIFA), and while providing the platform for new ones to flourish (Freedom Fighters, Battlefield - we wonder how successful these would have been had they been published, by - with respect - Eidos, for example). It's a far cry from the dark days when it was tainted with the image of a bloated corporate behemoth with a 'never mind the quality, feel the volume' kind of mentality. No wonder people with long memories have such a problem getting over their grudge - for years it really was the Stock Aitken and Waterman of the games world.
But somewhere along the line EA stopped just talking Big and let most of its games speak for themselves and is now in the position where it more of less rules the roost on merit. Sure, it practically owns retail these days and people can't escape the endless TV ads being rammed down their throats either, so it has something of an advantage over, say, Ubisoft, which has by far its best line-up of games ever this year but is still struggling to convince a clueless public to buy them. Sometimes there is no justice.
And turning our attention to the fourth in the Medal Of Honor series, there will be no justice if Rising Sun makes its debut at No.1 in Monday night's chart. None at all, for this latest effort is by some distance the least impressive pillar title it has release for several years.
Where do we start?
It's so fundamentally flawed in so many ways it's hard to know where to even start, and it pains us to deconstruct something that we were looking forward to so much, having immensely enjoyed the dumb intensity of Frontline and its spiritual brother Allied Assault over 18 months ago.
But the writing was on the wall from the beginning, sadly, when the core talent upped sticks and joined Activision to ply their wares on Call Of Duty and its yet-to-be-released console sibling as the newly created Infinity Ward and Spark. And anyone who has played CoD will attest that it takes the linear formula of MoH to new heights of cinematic intensity, even if new ideas are conspicuous by their absence. New ideas or not, it still felt like progression of sorts.
Rising Sun, meanwhile, is a palpable step backwards for the series that has comprehensively outsold every other FPS in recent years, including Halo. Designed to a tired linear template with a now-ageing graphics engine, from an outsider's perspective it looks like a franchise that's had all the creative soul sucked away from it overnight, with the remaining EA LA team and its new recruits unable to fill the breach and come up with the goods at a time when the other EA studios are forging ahead with dazzling technology and tight game design. The difference in quality sticks out like J-Lo's ass after a particularly intense course of collagen injections.
The latest setting for your run and gun WWII antics is the Pacific Theatre, kicking off with the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and the subsequent revenge taken on the Japanese perpetrators. Putting you in the shoes of Marine Corporal Joseph Griffin, the game takes you on a tour of duty through eight missions in the Far East via the Guadalcanal, Singapore and Burma to show the Japs what for. Commencing with the bombing of the USS California, the first task is to get the hell off the thing before it sinks.
Terrifying for all the wrong reasons
In trademark MoH style, the opening sequences are full of cinematic bluster and sweeping orchestral scores as Griffin clambers from the innards of the stricken flaming vessel, putting out fires and saving hapless comrades before clambering on deck to mount a few AA gun emplacements in the vain hope of taking a few enemy bombers down. There is, of course, no way to change the course of events (or fail, other than just getting shot to death), but it makes you feel for a few brief moments that you're involved and can imagine some of the terror endured. EA certainly hasn't forgotten the need to get proceedings underway with masses of explosions a la Omaha Beach.
But like Frontline, the game quickly settles into a pattern of delivering a fairly straightforward, strictly linear experience which could probably be played successfully by a flat-lining brain death victim, such is the rarity that the game requires the use of any thought processes during this mind-numbing, soul-sapping procession that plays out in front of your glazed over eyes.
Played on Medium, we managed to blitz the game in one sitting, but not in an I'm-enjoying-myself-and-can't-stop-playing kind of way, but more of a please-god-make-it-stop fashion. Factoring in toilet, meal and conversation breaks (and glancing at the Champions League action occasionally) we conquered the eight missions in just over ten hours. We'd have managed it in eight, were it not for the game's tendency to hide the save points from you in the most nonsensical way, down camouflaged cul-de-sacs and the like. For some reason, EA doesn't believe in checkpoint saves, and it can cost you dear if a sword-wielding enemy spawns behind you and charges at you screaming - as you'll find out soon enough if you get the opportunity to play this.
Medal Of Honor + Japs = cash
As with all the previous games in the series, you're given a series of mandatory objectives that you have to meet, such as destroy four of X, find five of Y, along with a bunch of often hidden sub-objectives that gain you a better 'medal' at the end of the level if you chance upon them. For the most part, you can't really fail to work out what it is you're supposed to do, such is the tightness of the level design, and if the buddy AI hasn't already prompted you, hitting the Select button tells you exactly what you're supposed to do. It's not lead-you-by -the-hand to the extent of Call Of Duty and its compass pointing system, but at no stage were we ever left wondering what to do next.
Apart from the odd on-rails shooting (including an elephant ride, bizarrely), it's simply a case of trudging along a winding path, wiping out everything in your way, moving on, picking up endless amounts of ammo and unfeasible quantities of health and rinse, repeat to the end of the game. On the rare occasions you find yourself short of ammo or desperately low on health you can choose to seek out one of the many cul-de-sacs that inevitably contains more enemies and some pick-ups, but only if you really want to gain the best possible rating and unlock some documentary footage and the like. Taking these minor diversions never once changes the course of events, and you'll be blissful in your ignorance of them for the most part.
Although you might be thinking that Rising Sun adherence to the scripted FPS rule book isn't necessarily a bad thing, that's before you take into account the other areas where the game blots its copy book. On a superficial level, the game visuals are rooted firmly in the past. Unless we're very much mistaken, EA has simply taken the Frontline engine, modified it to handle the undulating terrain of jungle environments, designed reasonably effective foliage and left the rest alone. The flat texturing (for all versions) fails to bring life to any of the environments, evident texture seams remind you of the bad old days, while the ostensibly angular nature of basic scenery items underscore the limitations of the toolset and the lack of progress. Populate this lacklustre environment with awkward looking character models (admittedly with nicely detailed faces) with questionable animation routines (check out some of the walking animations for true laugh out loud moments) and you're given a few clues to the painful genesis of Rising Sun.
Rising from the mire
Occasionally the game rises about the mire to create some memorable scripted set pieces (such as the start and the end of the game), with tremendous explosions and massive planes soaring around to create spectacular scenes, but this high standard doesn't appear often enough, and only serves to show up the rather dull standard for the remainder of the game. For a true indication of where this game should be at technically, it'll be telling to see how Call Of Duty compares when it emerges next year on consoles. We know EA must be secretly gutted that it managed to let such talent join a competitor.
We'd tolerate the less than stellar visuals, however, if the core gameplay was worthy of our attention. And the really crippling disaster area in Rising Sun is its outstandingly poor enemy AI. It's quite possibly one of the most outrageously blunderous examples we've come across in years, and quite unforgivable in such an important title in the Christmas release canon. Literally millions of fans of the series are going to have their minds boggled at how EA has managed to bodge this up so spectacularly, and it'd be comical if it wasn't so tragic. Right from the second level onwards, the onslaught is an embarrassment of old school thinking, and game design that beggars belief from a company of such strict principles. The standout design cock-up rears its ugly head whenever you decide to man a gun emplacement. For some startlingly dumb reason, the second you climb aboard one, a barrage of Japanese soldiers appear screaming for you to mow down one after the other until they eventually disappear for good. "Oh look, there's a Yank behind a gun emplacement, let's run towards it". Oh my aching sides. The first time this happens you just take it as part of the scripting, but as you work through the game it's obvious that it triggers them off every time. This might be acceptable if it achieved anything, but for the most part you don't even have to bother mounting them, because if you ignore them, the onslaught simply doesn't appear. Mental.
Aside from that obviously dreadful piece of design, the general close quarters combat is just laughable. Well-hidden enemies dug in underground burst forth so you can cap them, or just charge at you with bayonets with nary a care for the fact that you're armed with a rapid fire Sten gun and are riddling their torso with lead. It's all supposed to mimic the tactics the Japanese employed back then, but in the context of this game it's ridiculous. What happened to the principles of taking intelligent cover and providing a tense battle? It seems all these cretins can do is rush at you in groups of three or four and scream. Even when you've got a sniper rifle, capping a solider has no effect on neighbouring enemies, who will stand rooted to their spawn point considerately while you line up their bonce in your sights.
Funny ha ha
Closer up, things get even more comedic, with one solider after another just standing stock still blasting wildly back in your direction but almost always missing. The need to adopt tactics, stealth and planning are almost nil, as you usually get ages to blast away at them, even if your aim's a bit off. Even when you do get hit, there's always a ready supply of canteens, medi-packs and so on to patch yourself up. After most levels, the stats will reveal you've been hit over 100 times, sometimes more. Just imagine, for one second, what the human body would look like with 200 bullet wounds in it. It's just nonsense.
What's even more bizarre is the enemy response to your blasting. Having recently fired a shotgun for real, it's just hilarious to see your foe recover like they've just been hit with a stone, as opposed to 200 pellets of lead at high velocity. The same goes for every other weapon, with numerous headshots brushed off as if they never happened, and with no discernable effect, visual or otherwise. At best they hop up and down when hit in the leg, but that's it. They never go down, their performance never wavers, and it's just appalling to see. At least the aiming feels a lot more assured than in Frontline, but that's about the only good thing you can say about the combat, and we're frankly stunned that such a compelling gaming franchise can be systematically destroyed in one fell swoop.
Having sat with the game designer for an hour or so back at Camp EA, who took us through one of the best levels in the game (Bridge Over The River Kwai), it's easier to appreciate what EA was trying to achieve with Rising Sun. The involvement of the buddy AIs has been given a greater emphasis, with various characters re-appearing throughout the game, giving it a more structured sense of narrative. But laughably, when they show up they can't be shot or injured in any way, so you rarely give a flying toss about their survival or the fact that they're fighting this testosterone fuelled war on your side.
Put another tinny on the barby, oo arr
Compounding the lack of compassion for their existence is the ropey dialogue and immensely poor regional accents. Seriously, we swear we heard an Aussie with a West Country twang, if you can imagine that. Tom was literally struck dumb for about a minute. A rare acheivement. [Oi'm just orf down the beach to sling a tinny on the combooine 'arvester! -Tom] EA really did intend to spin a more compelling narrative, with characters you actually care about, and they told us so. Tragic, then, that it's ended up so utterly ham fisted and unintentionally funny.
Another area EA was keen to boast about back in July was the scripted elements, claiming it had upped them tenfold to around 300 separate incidents in the game. We can't verify this claim for sure, but if being able to click 'action' on a boulder and send it rolling down a hill counts, then we probably came across less than a dozen of these incidents. The claim simply doesn't ring true, and in truth it feel like there's actually less of a sense of cinematic immersion this time around than before. Compare it to Call Of Duty and it feels positively empty.
We like to try and balance up critical hammering like this with some encouraging words for those forgiving enough to overlook a catalogue of show-stopping design ineptitude, and there are admittedly a few points we should graciously acknowledge. First of all, the masses probably won't care about the linearity, the zombie AI and the lack of technical prowess. On the surface it does exactly what it says on the tin; it's another Medal Of Honor, and probably won't seem massively different from the last one, apart from rushing enemies and leafy environs. For the undemanding gamer that isn't aware of the quality available elsewhere, they might be happy.
Thanks for the effort
Add to that the multiplayer element; online no less, with co-op support and basic nine map deathmatch and team based modes to get to grips with, as well as split screen. It's better than not having it, and given that the original PS2 Frontline lacked any multiplayer at all, we congratulate EA for bothering to include this feature. It's nothing you haven't seen before, however, lacks ranking or anything but the most basic options. As usual, the servers are pretty barren compared with Xbox Live or PC online gaming, but with some mates in tow this is a fun-for-a-while diversion.
Also, the standard of presentation is up to the usual EA standards, with the usual movie-style sweeping score chugging away in the background and dramatic between mission WWII footage voiced admirably to set the scene. The presence of unlockables is also a nice touch, with plenty of interviews with WWII vets to detail what it was like at the time, as well as the opportunity to go back and access previously inaccessible areas of certain missions once, for example, you acquire the machete.
But ultimately Rising Sun strikes us as a massive, crushing, incredible disappointment. We can't state our sense of startled shock any more honestly. We didn't want EA to fail; on the contrary were expecting so much more after the promise of Frontline and all of its recently solid successes, but the net result is a formulaic, by the numbers FPS with zero innovation, demented AI and a crushing lack of inspiration. We can only pray for the fate of Pacific Assault. Categorically avoid this one unless you enjoy the sight of a franchise crashing and burning in a seething ball of flames. Unacceptable.