If it wasn't before, it really is getting comical now. Do all the US developers and publishers spin a little random game name generator before they start work on their next scripted corridor-based shooter? Or has it been proven scientifically that the game buying public are only interested in games with three words in the title, followed by a colon and two other fairly generic words to give us some further clues as to what to expect. Medal Of Valor: Rising Assault. And so on.
It's hardly surprising though, once you realise that it's largely the same bloody people creating Medal Of Honor, Call Of Duty and now Men Of Valor. Sure, the various teams have splintered off from the original 2015 core that created Allied Assault and Frontline - some stayed at EA's Redwood Shores studio (to create the very disappointing Rising Sun), a chunk fled to start up Infinity Ward and Spark (to create the rather excellent Call Of Duty series for Activision), and an unspecified number kept the faith with 2015 to set up camp with a new publishing partner in Vivendi Universal.
And with this fairly dramatic explosion of talent comes a significant change of emphasis. Whereas Medal Of Honor games always kept things squeaky clean, never straying from EA's policy of not using bad language or displaying buckets of gore (despite being, um, war games), it's safe to say that the first thing you'll notice about Men Of Valor is the shift in tone to a much grittier, more adult and therefore more realistic style than was ever evidently allowed in the family friendly sanitised environment of EA. But then setting a game in the insane context of the world's most deranged, fear and drug ridden war isn't going to be a walk in the park.
Medal Of Duty
Set across four campaigns spanning several years and 12 episodes, Men Of Valor still very much adheres to the basic, well-worn principles of war gaming as laid down by the Medal Of Honor series over the past five or more years. In many respects it's what you'd expect; a grand cinematic vision, often spectacular scripted events, frantic chatter from your squad mates, massive trademark 2015 explosions (think Omaha beach in Frontline), and corridors. You might wonder how 2015 could manage to make a corridor shooter out of an open field, but it does exactly that, consistently shoehorning the player on predetermined path that thanks to the compass point never leaves you in any doubt where to go next.
The game puts you in the boots of a young African American soldier, Private First Class Dean Shepherd, who, like the rest of the young soldiers in his platoon assumes the battle ahead of him will be a lot simpler than it turns out. Kicking off with a light hearted football chucking session, it all gets very heated very quickly and over the course of the 15 or so hours of the single player game it's very much designed in the task-based mould of its rivals; POW search and rescue missions, VC ambushes and booby traps, taking out enemy emplacements with C4, all resulting in bodies piled high in this disproportionate conflict. Throw in on-rails chopper, tank and boat excursions, crawling through VC tunnels and napalming villagers and you'll have some sense of what we're dealing with here.
Interestingly, Men Of Valor doesn't shy away from some of the horrors of the war; with a sensationalist reporter and cameraman in tow you'll witness buddies suffering long agonising deaths, not to mention the ruthless antics of your squad leaders who think nothing of razing an entire village to the ground with napalm if it means stopping the VC potentially using it as a base of operation. Women and children are treated with little mercy. This isn't a nice game, but it wasn't a nice war. It regularly touches on the communist paranoia and ultimate futility of the conflict, the longing for home with letters to and from the family. It flavours the proceedings with a smattering of well-chosen songs from the era, notably James Brown's 'Papa's Got A New Bag' and 'California Dreamin' from the Mamas And The Papas. But the sights and sounds of screaming, shrieking VC women cursing the 'GI pigs' to the strains of 'Woolly Bully' are more than a little unnerving. It stops short of psychological warfare, but nevertheless eliminating hordes of ill-equipped South East Asians doesn't feel good. It's not as if you're fighting an enemy that's inherantly evil or taking down a vile regime. It's an odd experience. There's absolutely no sense of glory attached to what you're doing. You feel a tad numb; maybe that's the intention. A pointless war, and the sense of neverending struggle translates into the game.
Call Of Dishonour
Back to Unreality, it technically pushes all the right buttons.The undeniably impressive use of the Unreal engine to effortlessly render dense jungle scenes to a level never before witnessed helps the suspension of disbelief. Removed from the senselessness of slaughtering waves of VC, up to a point Men Of Valor is very accomplished indeed; visually it's consistently of a high standarc, but the effect doesn't last that long once you get into some heavy duty combat. The chief concern surrounds the reactions, awareness, pathfinding and general AI of the enemy. At times they're absolutely lethal death machines with unerring aim, and at others seem to be half asleep, unable to hit the proverbial cows arse with a banjo. What gives?
Played on the default difficulty level it's not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, With only intermittent checkpoint saves and a unique health system that requires the player to bandage the wound (by holding down the B button) lest they lose even more health you'll find the going a lot tougher in Men Of Valor than other games of this type. 2015 gives you 12 retries for every checkpoint, and although you'll rarely need more than about half that this isn't a game you can blitz through unchallenged. Careful use of crouch, prone and lean becomes essential, as does the need to search every single corpse you come across (before it vanishes!) for canteens that give you that crucial extra piece of health. Finding a medical pack in this game almost always elicits a huge sigh of relief - tempered by the fact that almost any sudden close quarter encounters will have your superiors writing the dreaded letter home telling your folks of your untimely death.
Being careful and finding the right path is paramount. Much of MoV's more challenging encounters play out like the crazy Omaha beach sequence in Frontline - only a fair bit harder, with long range hits capable of taking off huge chunks of your health at a stroke - and once they find their target, getting away from them is often futile. With lots of trial and error, lots of reloading and much tentative creeping around, it's a refreshing challenge, and better for it. It's certainly a damned sight better than Rising Sun, and a league ahead of any other Vietnam FPS we've played lately.
What it can't boast, though, is to be the best wargame FPS around. The AI is simply way too sloppy to make the spectacle look convincing, and the gameplay all too often throws up some quite unlikely, and unintentionally comical results. Take one initially tough section in Darnang, for example, where success depends on taking out a bunch of rocket wielding VCs intent on targeting your chopper. Flanking them via an unlikely route, the AI entirely ignores you and continues firing on the rest of your squad despite being stood 15 feet away from them. Or how about the mission where you take out a bunch of villagers holed up in huts, which respawn for an inordinate amount of time in the fourth of four huts, all taking really bizarre routes like headless chickens while you pick them off one by one until the game decides that's enough. If the game was always like this, we'd be laughing Driv3r style at the missed potential and unfinished nature of the code, but luckily it’s mercifully rare that this kind of event occurs. Still, you can't help but feel the game needed a few months of AI polish to bring it up to scratch, but nevertheless it scrapes by into the recommended category. Just. Only just. Whether it's the challenge, or the bombastic atmosphere, or the sweeping score we can't put our finger on it, but there's something about it that still makes it enjoyable when it's not trying to shoot itself in the foot.
Outside of the single player main event, once again, Live play is available for Xbox owners, supporting up to 12 players online or over the generally impractical System Link. Five modes line up for attention; Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Recover The Documents (CTF by any other name), Search And Destroy, as well as Multiplayer Mission. However, although it's still great to have multiplayer thrown in, the reality of playing in heavily forested, dense environments isn't always as much fun as it should be, providing as it does the opportunity for endless camping. However, offline players don't have to despair as there's still the chance for some split screen action, with the two player co-op mode a very welcome addition and something that more FPSs should include.
The net result for the makers of Medal Of Honor is a game that's a pleasantly unpleasant diversion from old WW2 glories, yet evidently not the triple A game Vivendi Universal would have been hoping for. Still, Men Of Valor is a solid, enjoyable and challenging Vietnam take on the sort of scripted cinematic shooters that the public evidently love to death. It may well be widely-regarded as being up there with the best Vietnam-based FPSs (and we're thinking Vietcong on PC specifically, which shades this), but stood next to the likes of Call Of Duty its bothersome AI leaves the game hamstrung in one of the most crucial areas. But with some memorable moments, some great tech behind it and a plethora of online modes to get to grips with Men Of Valor still has enough going for it to warrant further investigation - but perhaps only once the price is right.