It was relatively early in the single-player campaign of "Medal of Honor" when the game and I suddenly "clicked."
I -- well, my character -- was hunkered down against a rock in the dust-swept misery that is the Shah-i-Kot Valley region of Afghanistan, doing my best not to get my rear shot off by Taliban militants hiding in the hills.
And though I had a very nice scope attached to my machine gun, I still was having a heck of a time peering into the murky, brown haze overhead, trying to distinguish the zealots trying to kill me from the rocks they were hiding among.
It quickly occurred to me that the scene was brilliant. I was on the verge of panic in a fictious battle because I was feeling what I would be feeling if I really was a soldier dropped into that rather unpleasant situation. I had good American hardware, but it wasn't making my life any easier. I had fellow soldiers around me, but they weren't faring any better in the conditions than I was.
I mean, really, if you're going to make a game about the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, this particular moment in "Medal of Honor" is the way to do it.
Unfortunately, that kind of feeling is more the exception than the rule in the single-player campaign. Too much of the time you've got too many tools at hand -- infrared scopes on sniper rifles, night vision goggles, lasers with which to paint enemy targets for air support to strike -- to feel that sense of nervousness, that anxiety and excitement.
Plus, the game telegraphs every fight you're about to get into in pretty traditional fashion: If you see lots of cover ahead -- low broken walls, rocks out in the middle of trail, concrete pavers, etc. -- you know that a group of enemies will be triggered the moment you get there. I mean, c'mon, if I was an insurgent trying to ambush an American patrol, I'd be using that cover myself so I can open fire when they are in the open; I wouldn't wait for my enemy to reach a defensible position. That's just silly. Yet for some reason we see it over and over in video games; "Gears of War," I'm looking at you in particular.
For another thing, for a game where much of the action is set out in the open, it's way too linear. If artificial barriers prevent the player from picking out new paths from which to flank the enemy, it's pointless to set the battle in a seemingly open field rather than a constricted hallway.
Most importantly, where are the Afghan civilians? There's a big rigmarole throughout the game about not attacking anyone until it's been confirmed that they're an insurgent, yet the fact of the matter is you'll never face any noncombatants during any of the playable sections of the game. Maybe I'm asking too much, but if they really wanted to heighten tensions during even one of the village battles, they'd have civilians fleeing in the middle of the battle or hiding in houses you've got to sweep. Just add some penalty or failure condition if players intentionally shoot them.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh here. The action is certainly satisfying, even if isn't out of the ordinary for the first-person shooter genre. And the sound design and execution, which will have you cringing as bullets seem to whiz by and explosions shake the firmament, is fantastic.
And as far as the story goes, well that's kind of daring in its own way.
It's not a big deal. It's not an over-the-top piece of war fiction. The setting -- Afghanistan, during the infancy of the war on terror -- isn't used as an excuse to concoct some tale about capturing Osama bin Laden. Players don't get to pretend they've single-handedly ended the war.
Instead, you play as various members of the U.S. Special Forces, out on pretty run-of-the-mill missions over the course of a few short days, where things just happen to go wrong fairly often. And "Medal of Honor" begins as it ends, with the U.S. in a hell of mess over there.
I've also got to give the developers kudos for not trying to advance too much of a political agenda in game. Sure, they zing armchair quarterbacks in Washington, D.C., with a repeated plot point, but they have the guys in the field making some stupid mistakes too.
Yet, no matter how much I like the single-player, I can't neglect the fact that it's a really, really, really short campaign. They've added on a feature called "Tier 1" mode to try to extend the value -- where you must beat missions while racing the clock, on a harder difficulty with limited ammo and no checkpoints --- but if you aren't going to play the online multiplayer, there's no reason to buy rather than rent.
That online multiplayer, however, is pretty good. If you aren't the kind of player who gives up easily, it'll justify the price of the game.
I throw in that caveat because death tends to come early and often in online matches, and that can get really, really frustrating. After all, nobody likes to run forward for 25 seconds, get killed by an unseen enemy, respawn back at the base camp, run forward again and eat yet another bullet just as quickly. And that will happen here.
Basically, if an enemy player sees you, you're pretty much dead. Thankfully, the reverse is true too; if you see them, they're probably dead.
Curiously, the system by which players "level up" and earn new gear doesn't unbalance the game's fairness at all. I think it's because the upgrades are solely focused on improving players' weapons and ammunition, not on giving the "elite" more health or armor.
One feature that's become standard in many shooters is utterly lacking here; there's no "kill cam." So when you die, you'll usually have no idea where the fatal shot came from. Snipers undoubtedly love this non-feature, as they can fire with impunity, knowing that killing someone doesn't automatically give away their position. I'm not a sniper by the way, so I sometimes hate that I don't get a big flashing arrow pointing them out. But I must admit that when I put the work into stalking a sniper, and manage to sneak up on one and drive my knife into his skull with a melee attack, yeah, that's just delicious.
OK, in all modes, one team plays as the U.S. and the other as the Opposing Force, because Electronic Arts gave into pressure not to use the word Taliban in the multiplayer, even though you're still dressed as the militants -- and even though the move failed to assuage U.S. military sensibilities. (The game is banned from sale at official facilities, such as on bases.)
Honestly, though, the Taliban name wouldn't have worked for me anyway. No, I'm not offended by the notion of playing as one. My problem is that it just doesn't jibe with a major part of the game-play.
You see, every time you kill an enemy and/or accomplish an objective, you earn points with which to trigger an in-game perk, such as calling in a mortar strike or ordering a radar sweep of the battlefield, so everyone on your team knows where every individual enemy is hiding. If you die, your points are reset to zero, though you retain any perk you haven't triggered.
That said, it makes no sense for the Taliban to be able to order radar sweeps or call in hellfire missiles on U.S. troops. So I don't mind the name change.
The multiplayer match types are standard: team deathmatch, king of the hill, etc., though known by other names. The most interesting is "Combat Mission" mode, where the U.S. side is trying to advance through a series of objectives to reach a successful conclusion, while the militants are trying to kill enough soldiers to foil the effort.
This mode, more than any other, encourages teamwork, especially on the U.S. side, as troops can choose to spawn on the "front line." Used effectively, this can allow the U.S. team to steadily seize ground or hold a key safe point in an otherwise exposed area.
However, sometimes this spawn option breaks, with "Medal of Honor" for some reason deciding that a sniper back at the beginning base camp represents the "front line." So even though plenty of troops are clustered around the objective, trying to do what they are supposed to, anyone who dies is forced to waste precious time running back to the fight, and any semblance of a strategic game is thrown out the window.
It's not the sniper's fault. It's the game's. And I'm sure there's a pretty simple fix for it.
Oh, and if you care, the maps are small enough to keep the action going, big enough to create numerous strategic opportunities for flanking and setting ambushes, cluttered enough to create hiding places and cover, and open enough to allow snipers to punish the foolhardy.
In other words, except for a few small issues, the multiplayer is pretty fun -- if you can accept that you're going to die a whole lot.
"Medal of Honor"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Electronic Arts.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: If you're not going to play online, stick with renting. The multiplayer makes it worth a purchase if you like realistic action.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts
A U.S. Army Ranger scrambles to find cover in the dusty expanse of Afghanistan's Shah-i-Kot Valley, in "Medal of Honor."