Medal of Honor Preview
EA is bringing back one of the better franchises from the glory days of first person shooters with Medal of Honor. There's already been a lot said about this game, and there's even been a bit of astonishment and controversy that you'll get to play as Taliban soldiers in the multiplayer mode. Yes, the game takes place in Afghanistan, not some fictional, vague Middle Eastern country, and to hear the developers describe it, their focus is on a reverence for the troops over there.
Of course, in the single player mode, you're not playing as Private Greenrookie as part of some tossed together front-line defense. You're playing as some of the most elite fighters in the US military during the campaign, and will be taking on overwhelming odds in a series of missions that go from bad to worse as the enemy steps up the pressure.
Medal of Honor is almost like two games in one; the single player mode is done by EA's Danger Close team and runs on their own engine, while the multiplayer has been left to famed developer DICE using their Frostbite engine. What this means is that both modes generally look and feel different, both to see and to play, and while there are a lot of shared assets - soldier models, some map designs, weapons - actually using them is entirely different. You can go prone, lean, and dive behind cover in single player, but in multiplayer you can do none of those things. Even the feel of the weapons and the sensitivity of the controller feels different when switching back and forth, something I did a couple of times during the EA event where we got to play the PS3 version of the game.
During the campaign, you'll start off doing some routine missions to identify and take out unaware and disorganized enemies, but when you stir up a hornet's nest of insurgents coming down out of the hills to kill you, things get really iffy. The building you're trying to use for cover gets worn down to a smoking ruin while the enemy tries to flank you, and you're only saved by a couple of Apache gunships sent to rescue you. Of course, they're not troop transport choppers, so they aren't picking anyone up - that squad's mission continues on. But as a surprise, you'll suddenly take control of one of the Apache gunners as you start marking targets, taking them out with guns and rockets, and finding your own personal hell when the enemies start firing anti-air rounds at you.
If you've seen footage of Afghanistan on the news, its hills and deserts might seem to be a boring place to set a game, but the developers have done a great job mixing in the snowy terrain up near the top of mountains, arid and rocky areas below, and everything in-between - including urban areas - nicely. You'll be in the thick of it with your buddies at one point, flying over it at another, and then back on the ground again seamlessly. Load times during the campaign seemed very short on the PS3, and really only come when the story moves to a different area entirely.
The multiplayer mode feels almost like a different game entirely, which does make the overall Medal of Honor experience feel a little disjointed and schizophrenic, but the developers are hoping that this strategy serves as the best of both worlds. Frankly, I wonder if just doing everything in DICE's Frostbite engine would have been the better choice, because while the streaming technology in the single player portion's engine serves up large areas much better than what we saw in, say, DICE's Battlefield: Bad Company 2, at least the things you learn playing there might apply to playing online (plus, Frostbite's destructible building tech is a little more advanced).
What we did see of multiplayer, however, was still really fun. We mostly played a basic Team Deathmatch mode, but there was also an assault mode where one team defends and the other is trying to capture one point at a time in sequence. There were killstreak rewards like a UAV as well as rank-ups, just like we'd expect in a dedicated multiplayer FPS nowadays. It's been made easier to see friend from foe, which is especially important here as not every map has uniformed US military fighting insurgents. And speaking of that: the controversy is largely for nothing, as it's not like playing the "bad" guys has your guy swearing to kill the American infidel constantly. In this respect, the atmosphere is similar to other online shooters, with one team versus another, trash talk over the microphone, and leveling up your dude to unlock new stuff. And all that reverence for the troops thing? Well, it pretty much goes away in multiplayer.
With the implosion of Infinity Ward and Treyarch becoming the new stewards of the Call of Duty franchise, it seems like the time is ripe for EA to pick up some players disillusioned with how Activision has handled one of their most popular franchises. But Treyarch is no slouch, and their additions to Call of Duty: Black Ops' multiplayer modes are very interesting, so I think it still remains to be seen who comes out on top this year. We'll find out soon, because Medal of Honor comes out in just a couple of weeks for PC, PS3, and 360 on October 12th.