On mission in the rugged mountains surrounding the Shahikot Valley, Tier 1 Operators Dusty (he of the ZZ Top beard) and Deuce get word from the eye in the sky that another four-man Tier 1 team — led by a paternal soldier with the apt call sign of Mother — is being pursued by a swarming mass of Taliban and Al-Qaeda soldiers.
Having been there and done that in all things video game, I rolled my eyes in anticipation of some rendition of the stock line, “Come on, we’ve got to go help those guys before it’s too late!” Instead, Dusty calmly says in his whiskey and cigarettes voice, “Wouldn’t want to be those guys chasing Mother and his boys. Those boys know how to bring the hate.”
It’s a line that exemplifies the authentic, often-sardonic dialogue in Electronic Arts’ much-talked-about Medal of Honor reboot. It’s also a synopsis of the game: Playing as a Tier 1 Operator in the single-player campaign, you’re heavily outnumbered on foreign soil, but it’s the bad guys who are screwed. If EA conveys one thing here, it’s that America’s real-life Tier 1 Operators carry wallets that say “Bad Motherf***er” on them, and when MoH is at its best, bringing the hate is a blast.
A Tale of Three Soldiers
Danger Close (formerly EA Los Angeles) did the heavy lifting on MoH’s single-player campaign, and DICE (the studio behind the Battlefield franchise) took the reins on the multiplayer — but we’ll get to that in a bit. The star of this show is, without a doubt, the campaign.
Danger Close wisely skips any setup or lengthy exposition, dropping right into the middle of a nighttime op in the Taliban-held town of Gardez. Four-man Tier 1 team AFO Neptune conducts a hush-hush meeting with a local tribal elder who has intel on high-value targets in the region. The cast of Tier 1 characters, including the memorable Voodoo (a no-nonsense soldier from Bah-stun who uses a hatchet to chop more than wood), deliver pertinent details over the comms. But for the most part, EA shows rather than tells, and the game is better — and that much more immersive — for it.
The Gardez meeting turns out to be a setup, and once the bullets and ‘nades start flying, the game takes off as the Tier 1 Operators go on the hunt for Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in the Shahikot Valley… and eventually search for members of their own team, who have been taken prisoner.
You take on the roles of door-kicking Tier 1 Operator Rabbit, Tier 1 sniper Deuce, and later, Army ranger Dante Adams. The intertwined story — part We Were Soldiers and part Black Hawk Down — gracefully moves between these three main characters in an earnest portrayal of the very real war in Afghanistan. The game’s story carries the extra weight of its factual subtext, and when the Taliban ambushes your squad, you’ll feel the extra emotional punch.
A More Realistic Shooter
As executive producer Greg Goodrich stated in numerous interviews, EA sought to differentiate MoH from the competition by crafting a more realistic shooter. Aside from the true-to-life storyline, a few interesting features — including some additions to the standard console first-person shooter controls — go a long way toward helping the game achieve that goal.
MoH is a cover-based shooter without being a Gears of War wannabe. Try to play super-soldier in the game’s even mix of open and close-quarter battles, and your lead intake will increase dramatically. Thankfully, a nifty sliding mechanic enables quick and easy movement into cover positions, and once you’re behind something solid, it’s no problem to lean in and out, safely picking out targets and returning fire. It’s a comfortable medium between a tactical shooter like Rainbow Six, and the run-and-gun of Call of Duty.
Your Tier 1 buddies cap their fair share of bad guys, take cover when appropriate, and deftly pull off stack and sweep, flanking, and tactical fallback maneuvers that look and feel like the real thing. It’s a good A.I. system for both friend and foe, though occasional suicidal tendencies pop up. Hit detection is pretty good as well, and arm or leg shots accurately trigger “Humpty Dance” animations. The problem is, those animations can throw hit detection out the window; at times, the game won’t register those four shots you pumped into the enemy until he’s stopped limping to the side like his leg was broken.
What’s not realistic is MoH’s look. I spent the majority of my time with the Xbox 360 version, and while Danger Close’s modified Unreal 3 Engine handles the onscreen action well enough, the overall aesthetic sorely needs a Mr. Clean-level of polish in character models, textures, and environments. The PlayStation 3 version looks a bit sharper, but the campaign is not a visual gem on any platform, particularly in its blotchy nighttime scenes.
But my biggest complaint is that the campaign is far too brief; I slid, leaned, and shot my way through every mission in under seven hours, even on the hardest difficulty… and that’s with auto-aim firmly in the off position. It’s an enjoyable, often emotional seven hours, but I walked away feeling like the story had been cut short.
Time to Jump Online
The difference between MoH’s single-player campaign and multiplayer is night and day — so much that I nearly found myself checking the disc to make sure I was playing the same game. The DICE-made multiplayer mode is powered by the same Frostbite graphical engine used in Battlefield, and it’s a significant upgrade over the campaign, with a more robust color palette and far more detail. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the sliding, leaning and even going prone are all off the table, creating a seismic shift in gameplay styles. If you weren’t aware that two separate studios designed the game using two different engines, it becomes immediately obvious here.
That said, the 12-on-12 combat (across eight different maps) is a blast once you accept it as the polar opposite of the campaign — and Battlefield fans should feel right at home. That familiar FPS rush came on strong as I battled to control successive key map points in the stellar Combat Mission mode. DICE makes leveling up the three different classes rewarding (and challenging) enough to inspire a good just-one-more-match mindset, and tactical support actions (the mortar strikes, strafing runs, and cruise missiles that unlock for stringing together kills) are awarded in a streamlined, balanced manner.
MoH’s big multiplayer problem is that it suffers from been-there-done-that syndrome. It is, essentially, Battlefield without the massive maps and arsenal of vehicles (AKA the very things that differentiated it from the Call of Duty franchise). That’s not a bad thing unless — like EA — you’re putting your product directly up against Call of Duty.
In the end, MoH is really two different games. The campaign stands up against (and in many ways surpasses) the super-soldier competition. I only wish I’d gotten a few more missions to go on with Dusty. The multiplayer, on the other hand, eschews the elements that define the campaign. EA and DICE would have been wise to retain the realism, giving the multiplayer a defining characteristic. Instead, what we get is an amalgam that is best labeled “Battlefield Warfare” — an admittedly entertaining concoction, but one that tastes awfully familiar.