There's no doubting the continuing popularity of the World War II first-person shooter, but you couldn't exactly say the genre has driven innovation, since the marketplace is swamped with the games. The typical WWII game presents a linearly designed level that relies on you following a path from a start point to an end point - but with Medal of Honor: Airborne, the latest entry in the long-running WWII franchise that arguably kicked off the genre, the developers intend to do away with that linear mission structure in favor of a more dynamic experience that will hopefully give diehard fans of the genre something new to think about.
The big difference between Airborne and past WWII games, including those in the Medal of Honor series, is that the new game's missions don't have specific start and end points. As the title implies, the new game places you in the role of a paratrooper who's part of the Allied airborne forces that dropped behind enemy lines, often in advance of the main ground-based invasion force, throughout the European theater of the war. Every level will thus begin with you and a bunch of other paratroopers squeezed into an aircraft, awaiting the drop that begins your mission.
You only have vision control while you're in the plane, so you can observe the nervous pre-combat chatter of your comrades. But the gameplay doesn't really start until you hit the open air. You'll be able to see the entire mission area below you, and as soon as you deploy your chute, you'll be able to control your descent to choose where you land on the battlefield. And this is where Airborne really diverges from the WWII pack, because your choice of landing points will determine how the mission proceeds. Each mission will have around a dozen objectives, some of which must be tackled in a set order, but how and from which direction you come at these objectives will be up to you.
Since you can begin a mission from anywhere on the battlefield, and since there are no scripted action sequences, Airborne's developers have been forced to create a more robust artificial intelligence system for the soldiers on both sides of the battle. All AI characters will have an awareness of affordances in the environment, which are simply features of the terrain or urban infrastructure that provide a tactical advantage.
Furthermore, Airborne will track the tug-of-war battlefield dynamics between the two sides throughout the entire level, not just where you're currently fighting. You can pop up a tactical map of the level that indicates different types of friendly and enemy units, which move around on the map in real time as they push each other back. The game won't re-spawn an infinite number of enemies to stymie you - instead you'll have to clear out and hold a territory to stop the enemy from appearing.
Airborne takes place over five campaigns. There's Operation Avalanche, the rescue operation in Solerno, Italy, as well as Operation Husky, which also takes place in Italy. There's Operation Neptune, the airborne component of D-Day in which paratroopers dropped inland the night before the Normandy beach invasion and fought backward to clear the infantry's path into France; Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt to secure Germany's roads and bridges; and the game's finale, Operation Varsity, which saw 30,000 soldiers parachuting into Germany in the single largest military airdrop in history.
Airborne is looking like the most detailed and realistic Medal of Honor game yet in the series, and it's certainly nice to see the designers paying real thought to evolving the genre rather than simply filling in the status quo for yet another game. With some spit and polish, this should turn in to a must have game when it releases in New Zealand sometime around April 2007.