Developer: Danger Close/DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Game Rating: M
So, it seems that stirring up a piranha tank of controversy isn’t the best way to sell a bazillion copies of a new game. Just ask Electronic Arts. After all, Medal of Honor’s sales of 1.5 million copies in the first five days would be considered awesome for many game releases, but when you’ve been marketing the ever-living snot out of an upcoming release and slinging bombast about blowing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 away, 1.5 mil is kind of crap. Especially as MW2 apparently hit 7 million in one day. Activision: 1, EA: 0.
Medal of Honor is constructed from compelling pieces, but somehow it just doesn’t come together. It’s actually two separate games that use two different engines and offer two distinctly different playing experiences. The single-player campaign puts you in the boots of several different US soldiers as you progress through the levels. So, as a Tier 1 operator, Ranger or a Navy SEAL, you infiltrate enemy territory to hit key targets and put beacons on trucks, set up an observation point from which to co-ordinate fire support and generally cause mayhem. As a helicopter pilot, you get to rain down an unholy inferno on an enemy mountaintop installation. Multiplayer puts you on the ground as either a NATO or Opfor combattant and gives you goals to attain or protect, or asses to kick, depending on the map.
The single-player campaign is on the short side, clocking in at about six hours if you’re not reading a book while you play. It’s also a complete whitewash of what NATO forces are doing in Afghanistan. Or rather, because the game takes place during the opening salvoes of the Afghan war, you’ll see nary an IED or suicide bomber anywhere. Civilians are so safe from collateral damage that there isn’t even a non-combatant in the game, and US soldiers are paragons of the good fight. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the game developers worked closely with special forces personnel while making the game, but it still comes off as naïve and slightly propagandistic. We already know that the war in Afghanistan isn’t being fought by white-hatted heroes against a clear enemy, so for a game that is supposed to keep it real, why not add a level where the goal is to not hit civilians while trying to snipe an enemy boss? Or to save people from a village accidentally destroyed by your own air support before the Taliban show up?
In some cases, the game’s otherwise realistic scope makes for refreshing gameplay -- specifically during levels where the point is to get your butt out of a hot zone under fire -- but the action too often becomes an echo of other shooters, where masses of brainless foes run at your position while you pick them off.
The multiplayer component will be easy to adjust to for anyone who’s been playing the hell out of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. That being said, the effort to make the game more “realistic” robs it of some of the fun. Avid Bad Company 2 players will miss that game’s flexible character classes, weapon upgrades and robust award system. MoH has these, sure, but the way in which they work doesn’t feel as complete. The action itself is extremely satisfying, and some will love the rapid pace at which multiplayer maps cycle (most matches last for about as much time as it takes to boil a kettle of water). Others will prefer BC2’s more sweeping multiplayer action, even though it makes no gesture towards realism at all.
Overall, Hedal of Honor tries too hard to respect the US troops it depicts, and to bring an air of sobriety to the Afghan war. Games like Modern Warfare 2 or Bad Company 2 take a more Hollywood approach, but that means that the characters in those games are easier to like. The easy camaraderie of the misfits in BC2 makes them come off as believable characters. But in Medal of Honor, you get no real sense of who the NPCs are. The game also frankly misses the mark by making the good guys all American. In this, some earlier Call of Duty games got it right: By switching the action between American, British, Canadian and other Allied troops, the games showed an awareness of World War II’s international face. There is none of that here, even though Canadian and British troops have played major roles in Afghanistan. It would have been nice to see more NATO on the NATO side. Or to see other nation's uniforms and weapons as DLC options, at least.
Of course, one can’t talk about Medal of Honor without bringing up the controversy. Honestly, the whole thing is stupid, but it does show that videogame developers don’t always get it. Simply changing the word “Taliban” to “Opposing Force” was a clumsy move on the part of on the part of the brass at DICE. It also revealed a more fundamental problem: If earlier games let you play German troops and other real-world belligerents, then what is going on here? Well, the difference is that this war is still going on, and has politicized everything from fast-food nomenclature (freedom fries!) to videogames. And apparently we in the west can't handle it when the playable belligerent is the enemy of the moment, rather than one of our grandfathers' vintage. Still, the decision to change an enemy flag in the face of a really minor public outcry shows that the developers’ concept of respect runs a little shallower than they claim.
And honestly, a game about Afghanistan while the war’s still on? Clearly, nobody thought about how this game would be seen by anyone whose family has been bombed by errant US ordnance. So DICE’s respect is only for game-buying westerners, and where I come from, we call that “pandering.” On that point alone, money spent on the pure fantasy worlds of Bad Company 2 or Modern Warfare 2 is way better spent.