There was a specific point in Medal of Honor where my hopes for the game were at their highest. Tasked with a special operations group in the Shahikot mountains - a real place that saw some of the most savage fighting of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the American ground war in the country in 2002 - we have orders to eradicate several Taliban positions. As I make my way through the wreckage of a small outpost destroyed by our AC-130 support, the smoke clears and I see the sun rising over the ridgeline, filling the sky with red and blue light. This was one of those moments we have in good singleplayer campaigns - moments where your disbelief is suspended and you're in that experience.
About two minutes later, I was cursing Medal of Honor as I desperately tried to figure out exactly which 10-square-foot area I needed to enter to start the next mandatory scripted sequence. While you'll encounter both of these types of moments in Medal of Honor, the latter eventually overwhelmed the former. With serious stability and performance issues on console, level design that tends more toward turkey shoot than firefight, and a story and characters that stumble in their attempts at relevance and pathos, Medal of Honorwalks into a quagmire it never really escapes from.
Medal of Honor departs immediately from other shooters set in the modern era by jumping headfirst into an ongoing conflict. As mentioned before, MOH will take you through regions that continue to see major combat. EA and developers Danger Closehave stressed the inclusion of "Tier 1 Operators" in MOH - special operations personnel that act outside of officially documented military actions. The story begins with a Tier 1 team securing an intelligence asset in the city of Gardez in an op gone wrong very quickly. Later missions visit Bagram before exploring various outposts in and around Shahikot.
Like many successful war stories, Medal of Honor is about soldiers struggling against a plan fallen apart. It's a story that teeters on the brink of tragedy, or at least it tries. It's not that Medal of Honor's story is implausible. It just treads ground we've seen over and over in other media over the last few years: a commanding officer thousands of miles away making bad calls, soldiers on the ground violating orders because they know best, last stands with dwindling supplies, etc, etc, etc.
It could work if the characters were interesting or had any real depth, but Danger Close generally plays it light on the character development outside of letting us know that Rangers joke with each other, and that Spec-Ops personnel are "bad motherf**kers," and dress like mujahideen and Al Qaeda while deep in the wilds of Afghanistan. There's no real investment in the characters as people, and the gravitas the story fumbles toward never really comes together.
I felt a sense of unease throughout Medal of Honor's single-player campaign that I chalk up to its tonal inconsistency. EA and Danger Close have stressed how closely they've worked with service members to ensure accuracy in the way that Rangers and Tier 1 personnel operate, and the manner in which in-game characters take down doors and move right and left while clearing rooms may be perfectly accurate. However, the action in the game frequently devolves into action movie cliches like giant explosions, hundreds of enemy combatants to kill, and scripted death sequences of American soldiers. Levels are designed more like shooting galleries than a convincing battlefield, and the game does a poor job of directing your attention to your next objective - the HUD often seems to deliberately lead you in the wrong direction. Medal of Honor is so heavily dependent on canned war moments and setpieces that it starts to feel like the Theme Park tour of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a respectful trip through a day in the life of a soldier - and yeah, that weirded me out.
It would be easier to look past that if the game did interesting things elsewhere, butMedal of Honor feels several years behind its shooter competition. Enemies typically fire from one place without moving from point to point, and combat becomes an exercise in Taliban Whack-a-Mole as you'll wait for a head to robotically pop up from cover. The only dangerous points throughout the game came from enemies that I couldn't see or positions that I literally couldn't hit before triggering another scripted sequence.
This is a problem given that Medal of Honor is one of the most unstable console releases I've seen this year. Throughout the single-player campaign, there were at least four instances of game-breaking scripting bugs that forced me to restart from an earlier checkpoint (and did I mention that the checkpoints are poorly spaced out and often too far apart?). This isn't counting the numerous other technical issues I encountered. Textures and graphical effects popped in and out like a strobelight, sound that cut out completely at times (sending static over my home theater system), and entire pieces of scenery in the near-distance appearing and disappearing seemingly at random. My personal favorite moment had to be the point where one of my AI squadmates turned a bizarre inverted dark and light combination of red and blue, but the most damning visual problem is a framerate that dips into or just above the single digits when there are too many explosions and gunshots going off - which happens a lot.
Those visual issues are particularly disappointing given how good Medal of Honor can look at times. While night sequences are nothing special, in daylight MOH shines, with great lighting and texture work. It's a harsh and beautiful landscape that hasn't been explored much in recent years. The sound design is also excellent; gunfire is loud and has a lot of punch, and explosions will rattle your floor. The score is also quite good, but once again, Medal of Honor's intended tone is undercut when the game closes out to the tones of... a Linkin Park song.
Multiplayer is a different beast. While Danger Close developed the singleplayer using Unreal Engine 3, online duties have been assumed by Battlefield devs DICE using their own Frostbite 2.0 engine, which was behind this year's earlier shooter hit Bad Company 2. Multiplayer is fun and fast-paced, and the gunplay occupies an interesting gray area between the twitchy shooting of Modern Warfare and the more strategic use of terrain and positioning of Bad Company 2.
But it clearly leans more toward the latter than the former – players who have spent a good amount of time with Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or Battlefield 1943 in the last year will have a much easier time acclimating to things than Modern Warfare players will. Weapons aren't point-and-shoot. You'll need to learn each gun's particular quirks, whether they be accuracy in close and at range, how important center mass is to scoring kills, and how many kills you can pull off before reloading. There's a constant juggling of factors involved. However, Battlefield players will need to adjust to much faster combat. Also, sniper rifles can work effectively at short range as bolt-action rifles, which is going to surprise unsuspecting assault classes.
Problems arose as I spent more time with Medal of Honor's online, unfortunately. While the underlying mechanics are great, everything else comes off as half-baked. The levels just aren't that interesting, for the most part. The Kabul City Ruins map is a bright spot that evokes the hectic District map from the original Modern Warfare, but so many of the maps feel similar to other maps that everything sort of blurs together. A worse problem is how predictable battles feel - OpFor starts on one side, Coalition starts on the other, and typically, they crash against each other in the middle like the Monday Night Football helmets. Support actions lack the oomph of Modern Warfare's killstreaks, and the classes in Medal of Honor aren't varied enough to give them real roles, unlike Bad Company 2. Without Modern Warfare's fast, open maps or Bad Company 2's constantly changing warzone, Medal of Honor's online component lacks the staying power of its half-brother or impending competition.
Medal of Honor's real problem may be Danger Close's inability to commit to a particular direction for the game. Swinging wildly between the horrors and danger of war and unrealistic action movie moments and hampered by a surplus of boring scripted sequences, not even DICE's talented multiplayer designers are able to elevate Medal of Honor to something memorable. Combined with Danger Close's fixation on delivering an experience about a war that Americans are deeply ambivalent about, and multiplayer that remains likely to incite controversy about its content after players have moved on to deeper, more engaging multiplayer options, Medal of Honor is one of the bigger disappointments of 2010.