Medal of Honor: European Assault
Back in the old routine.
After the travesty that was Rising Sun, it was pretty obvious Electronic Arts had some work to do to restore the tarnished Medal Of Honor series. Most of the talent behind Frontline had evidently fled to Spark to work on the practically identical Call Of Duty series for Activision and the cupboard was well and truly bare, leaving behind a team that churned out a horrendous by-the-numbers shooter with broken AI and lead-you-by-the-hand level design that was so easy we finished the entire game in one sitting and slapped it in the face with a 4/10 in disgust. Not so European Assault. The fifth console MOH is unlike any previous title in the series, being simultaneously the most intelligently and infuriating designed of the whole bunch.
A lot has changed, and rightfully so. With so much wrong with Rising Sun it was clear EA LA had to clear the decks and start again, and the changes are immediately apparent. Some are for the better, some are for the worse, but it's mainly good news. More about that once we've covered the who-what-where-when.
Ever keen to remind the world of America's role in World War II, EA has yet again shoehorned one of its own into the starring position. In this instance you fill the boots of William Holt, a sort of gun for hire who has been 'handpicked' to be among the first field agents of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). In other words this means you have to fight alongside whoever needs you, including the British, The Russians and eventually the U.S. Army in a suspiciously globe trotting 'European' assault that takes in various famous campaigns during its all-too-brief eleven single-player missions.
Commencing with the Brits in St. Nazaire, you soon find yourself diverted to North Africa assisting the Desert Rats in their fight against Rommel's Afrika Korps, then transported all the way to Russia to help out the Red Army on the eastern front before climaxing with the US forces in the famous Battle Of The Bulge. Although the presentation is up to the usual slick EA standards, it's a bit of a hotchpotch story-wise with no real sense of how everything links together; in real terms it feels like EA's latest edition of the Best of World War II, so it's probably best not to dwell on the premise too long.
What's immediately apparent is how much has changed: a vastly improved control system, wide open levels with numerous optional tasks that reward exploration, much improved enemy AI, an all-new squad control system that give you limited command over your comrades and an entirely overhauled progression system that favours lives over the ability to checkpoint or save progress. All told, lots to take in, a few contentious changes and a gameplay style that feels at once familiar but in most respects a big improvement over what's gone before.
Taking each one in turn, you'll notice immediately how much better the control system is this time around. One of the better joypad innovations of recent years makes a very welcome appearance here; that of allowing you to peek left, right and up as well as duck down - all by just holding down the left trigger and moving the left stick in the appropriate direction. Better still, all of this can be done in any of the three main stances (prone, crouched or upright), giving you an enormous amount of flexibility when you're ducking in and out of cover and returning fire. Frankly it makes other console FPSs feel clunky as hell and we never want to go back. In addition, aiming feels assured and accurate, and the weapons all feel solid and are excellently balanced just when you need them. As is the trend these days you can only carry two weapons plus your stock of ten grenades, so there's a lot of loadout-switching on the odd occasions you need a bazooka.
Strangely the appearance of spinning 2D ammo/health icons over corpses gives it an arcade look that's entirely at odds with the game itself. As is the stupidity of only giving the player a few seconds to pick them up before they disappear for good -something that forces the player to risk death in rushing to pick them up. This wouldn't be an issue if the AI wasn't so damned canny - something of a backhanded compliment if you like. Unlike previous cack-handed attempts in the past, European Assault does a far better job of making your life difficult, with AI that's just as likely to creep around the side of a building and kick your arse for fun as it is to sit there and take the flak for the sake of it. As the game wears on, picking off enemies one by one becomes immensely satisfying as most of them are particularly adept at using cover and some give you the slimmest opportunity to take them down, making for some tense and involving encounters that test your resolve to the limit when you're close to the end of a level.
You can - if you like - command a three-strong 'squad' to go ahead and clear an area on your behalf, but it's a bit of a half-hearted effort from EA. It could have worked in a Brothers In Arms or Rainbow Six sense, but instead it's a slightly weak offering that merely allows you to position them or recall them. Most of the time they're pretty bad at looking after themselves and will all too readily stray into obvious danger; or simply get in your way just as you're about to cap someone.
Another new addition is the new Adrenaline system, which is Bullet Time by any other name. As you build up your kills you charge up the meter, and can only activate it when it's full up. In truth it seems to only be available when you don't need it, and most of the time we wished we could use it sparingly - like in Max Payne - but it's probably one unrealistic addition too many if we're honest.
In terms of the level design it was obvious the old-fashioned contrivance of corridors and simple A to B handholding had to be ditched, and finally EA has listened. That's not to say the overall level design isn't linear, because you still have to negotiate your way from A to B to C as before. The difference with European Assault is it gives the illusion of freedom, offering up a handful of branching side quests that reward the determined explorer with extra medikits or 'revives'. Revives? Essentially this is just EA's way of introducing lives in to the game design, giving Holt the ability to stagger to his feet when his energy runs out with half his health intact.
With no mid-level saves or checkpoints in European Assault it becomes utterly essential to build up a good stock of Revives or you face the dark spectre of having to replay an entire level right from the verrrrrry beginning - which is something few gamers are used to in this day an age, and a design decision that makes an otherwise exceptionally well balanced game a little on the unforgiving side. While the first half of the game is relatively easy to pick your way through, once you hit the Russian campaign and beyond the game starts to require old-fashioned trial and error as you suss out where enemies spawn from, and are forced to bitterly remember all the different bits that trip you up. While playing it on Easy might take you six to eight hours to rip through, most players will most likely be forced to replay each of the last five levels multiple times before they finally scrape their way through - all thanks to this somewhat questionable decision not to checkpoint progress or allow any save game mechanism whatsoever.
It's a contentious issue to debate, because while we admire the fact that European Assault becomes one hell of a tense affair that forces you to play it 'properly' and take proper care every step of the way (as you should in a game that's about shooting and not getting shot), we had to endure multiple occasions where the joypad was almost thrown out of the window upon the realisation that 45 minutes of painstaking play had to be replayed from scratch. Again and again and again. We can't even remember the last time an FPS did that, but it's a brave decision that both makes and breaks European Assault's appeal. There really should have been a middle ground rather than this all or nothing approach. Was optional mid-level checkpointing really not the answer? EA should realise that for many people the absence of a save game option is a deal-breaker.
What isn't in any doubt is that the graphics could have been better. On the plus side the particle effects are used superbly, with grand explosions obscuring the screen in a hail of dust and smoke, and the building design is varied and authentic. Sadly, the lack of texturing and deformation makes some of levels appear quite bland compared to rival offerings. The thing that's a real disappointment, though, is the bland character models. Worse still, the buggy death animations regularly result in dead players lurching comedically for no reason at all, often doing dramatic somersaults mid-cycle when it appears that slumping gracefully was more called for. Perhaps we're over-emphasising a rarely-seen glitch, but we really shouldn't see things like that in a game this far along in the console cycle.
Audio-wise EA deserves a warm round of applause for a dramatic score that lends a welcome air of drama as and when it's needed, ebbing and flowing with the action in a subtle fashion that many other developers should take note of. Voice work is also pretty decent, although we have to laugh at the generic cockney Brits roped in (Note to EA - there are other accents in the UK, you know, although few can be understood, admittedly).
We have to admit we're slightly bewildered at the absence of online play, given that the game does actually have a fairly beefy split-screen multiplayer mode (for up to four players) with no fewer than 15 maps and nine modes. The usual favourites like Deathmatch, CTF and King of the Hill make it in there, with several familiar variations on a theme, such as the Counter-Strike-esque Face To Face (plant a bomb in your enemy's base, try and defuse it), Nemesis (pick up the Bazooka, try to take out everyone with it), Blitzkrieg (capture three flags, hold them for 10 seconds), and various other flag-capturing modes like Getaway, Survival and Artillery Flag. On top of that there's a welcome degree of customisation, so there's fun to be had but nothing you haven't seen dozens of times before. There's really no excuse for a game as big as this not to have online play, and as such it's a disappointment that EA literally can't be bothered to implement a feature that's standard issue these days.
Having said all of that, the single-player campaign - as small as it is - is still worth checking out on its own. In an era when most publishers are content to churn out games you can complete on autopilot, it's quite refreshing to be presented with an FPS that hands your arse back to you on a plate. Equally, though, it's also devilishly frustrating to be forced back to square one regardless of the progress you've made and it's baffling that EA would opt for this approach. Still, even taking that into account, the excellent control system and degree of tension European Assault inspires marks it out as a game worth checking out if you're into traditional WWII shooters - although its lack of originality or longevity makes it more of a recommended rental than a full price purchase.