E3 2003: Medal of Honor: Rising Sun
EA demonstrates that on-rails, linear first person shooters can still be spellbinding.
If there was one constant amongst the many, many World War II-based shooters on display at E3, it was each developer's attempts to downplay the brilliance of Medal of Honor, mostly citing its linearity and lack of story-based emotion. And in retrospect, it's easy to remember it their way. It was very much a shoehorned adventure through Private Ryan-inspired environments, shooting things in a particular order and then quick-loading to get a bit further through them, eventually escaping into the next, even more difficult Nazi-popping Allied excursion.
But given 10 minutes in EA's E3-based "theatre of war", watching one of their chaps run through the first level of Rising Sun, we reckon a lot of developers would change their minds - and we can't see their efforts knocking it for six in quite the way they seem to have envisaged.
In the Navy
Even at pre-alpha, MOH Rising Sun grabs you by the eyeballs and drags you across a bed of war porn at a dazzling pace. Set on the dawn of the infamous December 7th, 1941, it begins as the camera whistles over a sleeping Pearl Harbour and into the bunk of an American sailor aboard one of the resting battleships, as he peers sadly at photographs of lost crewmates. All of a sudden the ship is shaken by what turns out to be a marauding aerial force of Japanese bombers, and the player leaps from his bunk, and has to race alongside other sailors through the confines of the ship, shepherded by anxious-looking officers at each bulkhead. Along the way he pauses to douse fires in water, before having his extinguisher visibly yanked from his hands by another crewman - surprisingly something we haven't seen before in an FPS.
As he continues on, water sprays from every busted nook and cranny of the hull, and the interior gradually starts to disintegrate around him under the force of bombs, sending many of his shipmates to their deaths. It's a section of scripted, through-the-eyes-of-the-player cut-scene-style gameplay, the likes of which we haven't seen since Half-Life. The cinematography is truly blinding.
Eventually the player makes it to a hatch with a friend, only to watch him emerge and suddenly spin like a top as he's riddled with bullets from a Japanese fighter, collapsing back into the ship like a ragdoll. A few seconds later the player braves the fire and hauls himself out onto deck, just in time for a Japanese plane to crash land on the bow ahead of him, cart-wheeling along in slow motion to the dull throb of the player's heart. It's time to put down the invaders, so the player races to an anti-aircraft gun and lets rip.
One of EA's biggest innovations here is AA guns that work. Other FPS games seem keen to emphasize how useless they are, but in Rising Sun you can genuinely send the enemy ploughing into the seas with spurts of well-aimed gunfire. Still, it isn't long before a massive explosion sends our hero careening through the air, flipping the screen around the player's viewpoint so he lands upside down in the water. Now the player has to get to the surface, and swims in the direction of a motorised dinghy silhouetted against the red sky above, and the outstretched arm of an officer trying to pull him aboard to safety.
What follows is a Black Hawk Down-style on-rails shooting section as the player is dragged through the horror of Pearl Harbour, firing a massive AA gun at the prowling aerial forces of the Japanese, ducking beneath the shattered, listing ships strewn across the ocean as they topple in the dinghy's direction, all of which culminates in the destruction of the USS Arizona, which takes a direct hit right in front of the player.
EA has clearly worked very hard to show us all why the Yanks get so worked up about Pearl Harbour, even 62 years later, and even closes out the level with a bit of cheesy dialogue from the player's CO, who asks everyone to take a good hard look at the destruction in front of them, because apparently nobody who wasn't there will ever know the true sight of these events. He stops short of saying that the day will live in infamy, but he challenges us all to remember those who didn't make it through.
Drum-beating aside through, Rising Sun is technically magnificent, with the sort of war-torn vistas that Frontline can only dream of rendering - and on the PS2 to boot! The sight of massive explosions and oil fires softly reflected in the water ahead as the player rounds the damages hulls of a hundred ships is an eerily beautiful sight, and everything is soaked in detail (and water), from the squadrons above to the ship interiors and deck furniture, which wouldn't look out of place in the PC version.
And although it's hardly going to trouble the likes of Half-Life 2 and Doom III for visual prowess, EA's development studio has a real eye for games that rival Hollywood for film-making, and as long as the rest of the game keeps it up, this will be one heck of an adventure. We can hardly wait for the pre-Christmas release, on PS2, Xbox and Cube, and as we exited the Rising Sun cinema last week concerns about linearity couldn't have been further from our minds...