Dreamworks' Medal of Honor is not Saving Private Ryan: The Videogame, though Spielberg's stamp of approval and the sheen of historical accuracy surrounding this game would lead you to believe so. It is a first-person shooter, providing the same dodge-and-dismember thrills as any other before it, be it Wolfenstein 3-D or Rare's Goldeneye. In fact, Medal of Honor plays like the bastard child of those two seminal titles, reared by someone who at least skimmed through Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Preconceptions aside, if you're as enamored of "The Good War" as I am, Medal of Honor might be right up your proverbial alley.
You are Jim Patterson, a brilliant engineering student pulled into combat just one semester before completing your degree in aeronautics. An act of bravery on the field garners the attention of the O.S.S. (otherwise known as the C.I.A.) who then recruit you for discreet maneuvers behind enemy lines. The mission structure and game engine are almost identical to that of Goldeneye, as you sneak and shoot your way through multiple objectives, all within the scope of a larger mission. And while the game lags behind Goldeneye in the graphical department, fraught with the chunky textures and visible seams, what it provides in atmosphere and role-playing is nothing short of excellent.
Imagine sneaking into a bunker, taking out the chain-gunner with a well-placed, silenced bullet to his head before manning his weapon yourself and mowing down the unwitting krauts standing guard outside. Or try out your conversational German as you infilitrate Gestapo headquarters, armed only with forged papers and your trusty silencer. Stealth is the order of the day as you move across such varied locales as the occupied French countryside, a V-2 rocket manufacturing plant, a German U-boat, and many more.
All the same tricks you've come to expect from first-person shooters are evident here, from enemies that react differently depending on where your bullet hits (a bullet to the head will dispose of an enemy quickly, while a stray shot to the groin will cause him to double over in pain as you line up the finishing shot... perfect for your cruel streak) to a varied arsenal of era-appropriate weaponry (does sniping ever get old?). Mixed in are some great new touches, however... for instance, helmets actually serve a purpose in this game. If your first shot goes high, the enemy's helmet will simply fly off, while the enemy, now alerted to your presence, drops to the ground for cover. Another great surprise came with my first grenade toss. My target, hidden behind a bombed out building, scurried out, picked up the grenade, and lobbed it back at me. If only all video foes behaved so logically!
But the audio is really what sets the game apart, in my opinion. Besides some truly excellent voice work during the mission briefing (that gravel-throated general almost moved me to fits of patriotism) the ambient sound on each of the levels is wonderful. From the authentic German, echoing through the catocombs, to the footsteps of soldiers hurrying unseen (but no doubt close) through the bombed-out ruins of a French city, I've seldom come across such an engrossing and convincing aural experience. Try playing with headphones, and I guarantee you will jump when the guard dogs come howling after you. On top of this is a rousing, John Williams-esque score by Michael Giacchino which seems to react and change, depending on your level of danger. Bravo.
There are some frustrating aspects, however. The draw-in is pretty extreme on most outdoor levels, and while it's usually not an issue, there are some instances where an enemy will be just on the edge of the visible field and will pop in and out of view as you're trying to aim. The physics are at times also shaky, with my character occasionally getting stuck in corners, or having difficulty lining up with items I needed to interact with. That said, this was only the test version, and while mostly complete, some of these issues should be addressed in the final release.
On another note, I couldn't help but notice a certain tension between the game's seeming desire to deliver both historic accuracy and heaps of gratuitous violence. Would my grandfather be able to appreciate in any way a game that tries to recreate the war that gave him a nervous breakdown? Does playing secret agent amidst what was arguably our century's most serious conflict increase our empathy for those who were actually there, or simply desensitize us? Can a game that devotes disk space to the reaction of an enemy when shot in the groin justify itself by including loads of digitized newsreel footage?
Hey, it's a videogame. The real history is out there, and it would be to your credit to learn it. This latest offering from Spielberg's flagship company does little, unlike Saving Private Ryan, to reconcile a somber history with video entertainment, but it's good dirty fun, more Hollywood than William Shirer.*
All in all, Medal of Honor proves far from revolutionary, but if you're the type of person who can't bring themselves to turn off the Dirty Dozen when it comes on late-nite TV, pick up this game. It's got a lot of atmosphere. It's got a little history. It's got groin-wound animations.
*author of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich... read it!
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