War is hell. And the Medal of Honor series has been serving up fresh versions of that hell since 1999, because from behind a TV, it’s perfectly safe. Typically set in World War II, MoH games are some of the most realistic shooters on the market. They attempt to re-create as stringently as possible the atmosphere of hot combat. Certainly there’s no claiming that the 2010 version doesn’t live up to the latter part of this legacy - the hornet-like hum of rounds ought to cause adrenal liquefaction in the most hardened gamers. But it does take a step out of its comfort zone in one important respect: Medal of Honour, by Danger Close, is set in Afghanistan.
This is not a recent conflict. That would imply past tense. This conflict is happening right now. You have to appreciate the cojones on the developers and publishers, in making a game they had to know would attract detractors the way Apaches attract RPGs. It’s not for me to pontificate about the rights and the wrongs, here. But it did make me wonder whether MoH could potentially turn people off modern conflict, or turn them on to it (and perhaps incite a mad rush at American recruiting stations). But that’s not about the setting or timing. That’s simply about how intense and visceral this game is.
Now, you’ll either be the kind of gamer who finishes up a session at the controls of an intensely realistic war game and thinks, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not in combat for reals,” or the kind that goes “Point me to my imminent doom, Sar’nt.” But that doesn’t even matter. If you like tactical shooters, your decision is as good as made.
The story goes that Tier 1 Operators are the elite of the elite, and it’s the shoes of these men you wear into the war-torn mountains and wadis of Afghanistan. These are soldiers who know more ways to kill you than you know cheesy pick up lines, but fortunately their focus is on eliminating the Taliban. In consultation with actual military professionals, the devs have created a campaign in which you’ll get to play as a range of different characters, attached to different squads, with a range of brilliantly laid out missions. The way they have tied them together is fantastic; an overarching storyline cut through with superb cutscenes. In doing so, they have also managed to create a real bond between player and character, and a seamless flow from one mission (and part of the story) to the next.
After your pinned-down squad is relieved by a pair of Apaches, for example, you’ll find yourself in the gunner’s seat of one of the birds in the next mission. The radio chatter will continue as you move from chapter to chapter, so you always know what’s going on with the other teams. You’ll use accurate weapons, fight against Taliban speaking accurate dialects, in extremely believable terrain and weather conditions. The scripting in MoH is excellent, without any of that hammy bonhomie you so often get in squad-based shooters, and delivered through the squelch of a radio, it too, is extremely authentic.
MoH also includes an online single player mode, called Tier 1. Unlike regular single player, there are no checkpoints, which means if you die, you have to restart the level. Just imagine how your friends will mock you - and that’s the rub with Tier 1 mode; you’re competing against people you know to get the most kills and the best time in each of the campaign missions. You can track your friends’ progress by markers throughout the level, and the difficulty is ramped up too: you can’t beg ammo from team mates, health regenerates more slowly and there is no “Snap” feature on your weapon sights.
That’s not to say the game’s easy in regular old offline single player. In fact, this game is damn hard, even on the easiest difficulty. I died lots. Fortunately, forgiving checkpointing means you don’t have to backtrack too much, which is a very good thing. I probably couldn’t have had nearly as much patience restarting missions, otherwise. But, you know, that’s all part of it. Again, those military consultants come into play with their bold stories of war and the developers set the effect of taking too many rounds accordingly.
Naturally, a massive drawcard for this year’s MoH gamers will be the multiplayer modes. There are a stack of modes included, along with the ability to play as a range of character classes, gain experience, customize weapons and battle it out across a number of different maps. Due to a lack of competition during the review period, I actually spent precisely zero time in multi, so can’t give any impressions from the public battlefield. On paper, it looks fantastic, but soon after the game is out I am sure you won’t need us to tell you that. When a game comes stacked with so many multi options, it’s a tough thing to review anyway: we can say it’s varied just by looking at the PR material, and the experience will be completely unique from player to player. Among good devs, that’s often the intent.
The two things that really bring MoH to life are the graphics and the sound. Both are excellent, but the star really is the frantic, gut-churning sound effects and excellent - almost haunting - use of music. MoH has often done this exceedingly well - you won’t hear a single rifle report that doesn’t match more or less exactly to the real thing; the chatter of the enemy as you cower in the shadows is frightening; the explosions, jet engines and buzz of your comms, exhilarating. In addition, and this is something I actually mentioned this in my review of Enslaved last week, sometimes the absence of sound is just as important: silence is as terrifying as it is golden.
Bullets find their mark with the trademark kicks of dust, or, if you’re sharp, a gout of blood. The physics in the game are almost always good - except when bodies are blasted, seemingly frozen in shape, into the air by hellfire rockets. The environments could have maybe used a bit more work; this is mostly in terms of up-close vegetation, but this is something we see artists getting wrong in the best of the best, so it’s no big concern. Best (or worst) of all, is that your foe is unmistakably human in the way they move, interact with each other and react to your presence. This keeps the intensity at a fever pitch for the entire game, but unfortunately that human element isn’t seen everywhere.
Those unmistakably human enemies sometimes becoming unmistakably stupid as they charge right into your position, only to fire off a couple of rounds and then run away again. What makes this even more infuriating, is that they’ll usually be shooting you, while you’re peering down the sights at their mates. Your own team won’t do jack about it, and won’t even shoot them in the back as they scarper.
Your buddies also have an infuriating habit of jumping into your field of fire then having a go at you shooting them, “I’m on your side!” they moan, after jumping in front of your SAW when you’re already halfway through a clip. “I’m only laying suppressing fire LIKE YOU ASKED!” you’ll scream, before you realise you’re the only one in the room.
Miraculously, it seems Tier 1 soldiers can’t make their way up small slopes or through gaps that should be no problem. What I’m getting at here is that the linear paths you have to travel with your crew (or in some cases to rally with them) allow for very little deviation. This can sometimes mean you spend ages trying to walk fruitlessly over or around an obstacle that should pose absolutely no hindrance to a military man of your calibre. Very annoying.
Fortunately, there is very little to be said about the controls that’s negative. Sometimes it can be a bit fiddly using the control pad to change the fire rate on your weapon in the heat of battle, and getting your meagre HUD to appear by the same method can feel a little unnatural. Other than that, it’s plain sailing.
Between sniper missions, marking targets for air support, gunning from choppers, warming your knife, close combat and laying suppression from a distance, MoH should deliver everything shooter fans are looking for. The single player campiagn isn’t huge, but if the multi has the distance it appears to (again, on paper) then it should provide plenty of game time for eager armchair soldiers.
As I go on to replay MoH, I will be asking myself again if it is just maybe a little too realistic. But in a market as saturated as this one, developers need a hook. Danger Close’s is surely something along the lines of “it’ll make you want to go.”
Either that, or, as I said, “keep me the hell away from there.” Happy hunting, everyone.
Note: More impressions of the online multiplayer will be coming with our PC version review in the coming days.