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Monday, January 3, 2011

Medal of Honor (9.0/10)

Here's a riddle: which came first, the chicken or the egg? While this causality conundrum has perplexed philosophers for centuries, we gamers have a similar question... of the brilliant World War II shooters which came first, Medal of Honor or Call of Duty? The answer is, and I didn't know this, Medal of Honor. But when CoD departed from its WWII roots and changed the landscape of the industry with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the MoH franchise was left in the dust. However, having played their newest attempt to wrest control from the CoD behemoth, I'm surprised and happy to say that I really enjoyed it. While you could say it's just another fish in the overpopulated pond of military shooters, the gritty realism of Medal of Honor spoke to me... more so than the over the top action of recent Call of Duty titles.

But let's not beat about the bush, Medal of Honor shares a great deal with Call of Duty. The controls are exactly the same. The action is, for the most part, almost identical. The gunplay is obviously similar. The level design and set up is virtually a carbon copy, right down to the obligatory sniping missions and flyovers by C-130's. All in all, there are far more similarities than differences. But I think the story in MoH is far more believably realistic and, in its way, far more scary...

You follow the exploits of the elite special forces operatives of Tier 1 as they battle tooth and nail against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Because the location is in the news everyday, most people have a passing understanding of not just the unforgiving environment, but the tenacity of the enemy. The plot is a standard 'war' tale, typical fodder for movies and games for ages now. It revolves around a group of soldiers who get screwed over by the top brass. The pencil pushers in Washington, drunk on American superiority, are concerned with logistics and the overall outcome nevermind the situation in the field. But because they are the ones who ultimately call the shots, tragically those soldiers on the ground sometimes suffer from their shortsighted ineptitude. It turns into another "We don't leave our people behind!" story. But a true soldier doesn't leave anyone behind, regardless of orders, no matter the how overwhelming the odds...

I think the reason I found it so compelling is that you can actually imagine it happening. The infamous, over-the-top action scenes that CoD are more for entertainment purposes than being anchored in reality. In MoH, those sequences are replaced by what I would more naturally associate with what really happens in war, or at least what I assume it to be having never been in battle myself. There is one scene in particular where you are in the boots of an Army Ranger and everything has gone FUBAR (look it up if you don't know what it means). Your squad has fallen back to some dilapidated huts and the Taliban are pouring out of the mountains to overwhelm your position. Your ammunition is running low, and there is no hope of survival... well, it's more than a little intense. When I finished Medal of Honor, I sat there for a moment, although it was 2 AM, and thought about the people who actually do this... who are actually fighting half the world away. I'm no fan of the wars that we are currently involved in, but that's not to say I don't respect the men and women of our Armed Forces who are risking everything to bring liberty and stability to those parts of the world that suffer from oppression and tyranny.

Aside from the narrative, there are some other minor design differences to CoD. First, while there isn't a true cover mechanic, you can now 'slide' into cover if you are sprinting and then crouch. Thank you DICE, I appreciate that... it's nice to be able to get out of the line of fire more quickly. I also really liked the grenade effects. If one goes off near you and you manage to survive the blast, the concussion will mute the surrounding chaos and cause the screen to shudder. I hope and pray I'm never on the business end of a frag grenade, but I imagine that to be a fairly accurate representation. The ally AI is pretty good, although these Tier 1 guys still can't seem to get out of your line of fire. Sorry I shot you in the ass mate, you probably should have looked before you moved up! Another addition I liked is the ability to request ammo. In most games in this genre, you end up using the enemies weapons against them because you run out of ammunition. By giving you the option to borrow ammo from your squad mates, you get to keep your superior weaponry. That is greatly appreciated, I'm sick of dusty AK-47's...

Graphically MoH looks very good, but I think that I'd have to give the nod to the CoD franchise on this score. The environments, especially the infamous tunnel riddled mountains of Afghanistan, are very impressive. But sadly, I think that the explosions, specifically the debris, are far too pixelated and don't appear nearly as believable. But ironically, when there is a major explosion and there is dust in the air it looks quite realistic. There was also some minor texture loading issues at the beginning of some scenes which was mildly annoying, but the action was pretty smooth over all.  

The sound work is good as well, although I had the same problem with MoH that has plagued me with most military shooters... when the action really heats up and the bullets are flying, I can't seem to focus on what my commanding officer is telling me to do. As a result, I keep nailing wave after wave of Taliban, but not actually getting anywhere. It's easy to lose track of your next objective until you finally get shot one too many times and have to do it all over again. Apart from that minor complaint about the genre in general though, MoH sounds great. The voice acting, while laden with familiar 'war' cliches, is well done, and the soundtrack is pretty decent.

One of the reasons I think MoH didn't get reviewed as well as it's contemporary counterparts is apparently the multiplayer isn't up to par. Considering that online multiplayer is really the reason most people by these sorts of games, I'm not surprised. But since I don't play online much, this isn't an issue for me. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed the single player campaign more than I have the last several CoD games...

In an over-saturated market chalked full of similar product Medal of Honor doesn't really do much to distinguish itself from the competition. Is that necessarily a bad thing though? I'm gonna say no. It's comparing apples to apples in my opinion. If you like these types of games, it's definitely worth checking out, but don't be surprised if you catch yourself sighing at some points and thinking you've done it before, because you have. But the plot provided me with a surprising insight into what our service men and women might actually be facing, and I surprised myself by how much I was affected by it. The camaraderie, the horror of battle, the sacrifices that are made without hesitation because it is their duty is delivered to the player in a way I haven't experienced quite like this before. Perhaps it's a lack of pretension in the presentation, perhaps it's just the subject matter... I'm not sure. I know a few people in the military, and whenever we talk about what they have endured I can always tell it's with a forced patience... like explaining something to a child. The fact is if you haven't experienced what they have, you have no frame or reference and can't possibly understand. While I've always understood that to some degree, it's surprising and impressive that a video game could drive it home so forcefully.


Score = 9.0 / 10

P.S. After the story has ended but before the credits roll, the good people at DICE have put in some text talking about the real service men and women currently fighting for us around the world. I won't tell you what it says, but please... take the time to read it. It made me think... we mustn't forget to appreciate what we have, and what others have given so that we can enjoy the things that make us happy no matter how ultimately inconsequential they might be... like video games;^)