Medal of Honour citation: Sergeant First Class xSN1PERRx, pretend videogame army, distinguished himself with actions not quite above the Call of Duty while serving in Afghanistan as a super-secret megasoldier operating in a hush-hush 'Tier One' unit, sometimes switching brains to become a frontline grunt who learned about the futility of war and stuff like that.
Sergeant xSN1PERRx spent eight hours trudging around a geographically accurate but worryingly beige combat zone in southern Afghanistan. While on duty dressed in the skin of both Tier One operators and Army Ranger, he was ambushed repeatedly by infinite streams of Taliban fighters. Facing their withering assault, Sergeant xSN1PERRx was able to identify and click on each of their heads in turn until they fell down and their bodies disappeared.
Sergeant SN1PERRx willingly gave his life, choosing to hurl himself into a room waving a shotgun after his teammates told him to hang back, because he was bored of staring at yet another brown rock. His extraordinary badassishness and mouse-wielding ability are in keeping with the highest traditions of videogame service and reflect great credit upon himself, and acceptable credit on Medal of Honour's developers. Now he's dead, 75%. OMGLOL.
Let's take a moment to salute our fallen brother. Have you saluted your monitor? Good. Medal of Honour is very strict about that kind of thing. It's a shooter made with the close involvement of real-life soldiers: special forces so classified that before the game was released, publishers EA could only show them off with their faces hidden and their voices masked. Their input was intended to give the game a sense of respect and understanding for the soldiers involved.
It's a fine line to walk, ruminating on the nature of the warrior in a game about inserting digital bullets in skulls, and MoH stumbles regularly. At times, it goes mawkish, the overt sentimentality of years of battlefield cooperation squidged into an ill-fitting shooter template. There are a lot of cod-meaningful man-glances that feel forced, busting in on your good shootin' time with slow-paced cinematics.
On the other side, attempts to even the conflict and move it away from goodies vs baddies are undermined by a black and white approach. Almost every soul who lives in the game's southern Afghan region of Takur Ghar takes potshots at you within milliseconds of you arriving in their area; those that don't are goats. If Medal of Honour's enemy count is even vaguely accurate, the coalition forces in Afghanistan are outgunned seven hundred to one. New fighters pop into existence every couple of seconds in the game's lengthy and repeated 'defend until extraction' objectives. These vignettes are tense but tiresome: in a real battle they'd be frantic scraps for seconds of life; in Medal of Honour, they're click click click from behind the same point of cover until a timer ticks down to zero.
But damn, if I didn't get suckered in. The first section of the game is in the secret shoes of Tier One operators, and feels resolutely retro in its approach: four men versus the world. Halfway in, you get control of an Army Ranger – a more typical grunt. Before, I was an extension of the nighttime scenery, silently killing in the dark. In the combat boots of the Ranger, the rocks and dust of Afghanistan itself seemed to want to kill me, twatting mortar strikes and RPG fire into my landing point. My helicopter ride downed, I felt a minuscule approximation of the confusion and panic EA's co-opted soldiers mentioned in their pre-game primers. For a short while following that ambush, every “OO-RAH!” that I'd otherwise have winced at became a statement of intent, every kill-shot a revenge strike for the unfair murder of my pretend buddies. Much more and I'd have broken out whooping “USA! USA!” Tough to explain to the office. By the time I was stuck in the bed of a valley with my Ranger squad, tributaries of Taliban forming a river of pissed-off militants, I'd lost my cynical critical connection, and was genuinely wishing for evacuation. I didn't want to die in the dust.
That was a high point. Prior to the stand in the desert, Medal of Honour isn't sure what it is. The first segment of Tier One missions are Call of Duty rejects, cod-CoD gimmicks that get used once or twice then tossed. As decreed by ancient law or something, I was forced to direct shots fired by everyone's favourite military namedrop, God's own giant fucking plane o'guns – an AC130. I aimed a screen-filling sniper-rifle repeatedly, puncturing heads from a kilometre away as my spotter called out targets in a watered down version of Modern Warfare's silky 'one shot, one kill' mission. When MoH isn't trying to ape its peers, it fares a lot better.
Back in the Afghan desert, my four-man squad and I were faced with a well-fortified machinegun nest. My shooter instincts kicked in, and I went to flank, hopping up and down at a low wall in front of the gun like an impatient, gun-toting whack-a-mole. That didn't work. I tried a grenade, only to see it pop apologetically in mid-air. Stymied, I skipped over to my squadmates, who gave me a job. It wasn't to be the bunny-hopping hero – it was to provide covering fire. I did so, shouldering my light machinegun and popping occasional shots in a semi-accurate haze around my foe.
A woollier game might've made that process tiresome, but MoH's shooting is fundamentally crisp and satisfying. Each bullet elicits the proper reaction. In the case of a shotgun applied to a head, that reaction is “oh no, I don't have a head any more.” At least, that's true of your hordes of enemies – on normal difficulty, your own character has no trouble absorbing bullets.
This disconnect is even greater when you take your exploits online, the multiplayer portion of the game having been handled by an entirely separate studio: DICE, of Battlefield fame. Weapons there are turbocharged, killing near instantly. I also found them to be more accurate: I had a float to my mouse-moves during the singleplayer that suggested the game was built for analogue sticks; online that was stripped away to leave me with a headshot-perfect reticule.
The ease of death on Medal of Honor's multiplayer servers will frustrate some. It frustrated the (honour – Ed) out of me. But I adjusted to the slow tempo and rhythm of combat, and found it one of few games I've played against other humans where I've deployed actual battlefield creativity to succeed. An example: penned in by four assailants in an alley, I hurled a frag grenade forward. I didn't expect a kill, but was able to use the dirt and dust kicked up by the detonation to scramble behind a bin before I was spotted. From there, I was able to plug two of them in the back of the head, and hide in a stairwell.
The online war is occasionally pretty – burning embers and smoke whipped across my field of vision as I sprinted for cover – but it's never beautiful. I had most success as a sniper, squatting on a grey rock and scanning the horizon. Like the singleplayer campaign, MoH online matches are brown, grey, beige, serious, and rarely imbued with any kind of triumph.
Medal of Honour is a game that struggles with identity. It's sometimes brave enough to let players not be the hero, and it's invigorating when it does so. The back half of the game is more retreat than fightback, sprints away from combat and into the welcoming rotors of evac choppers. Moments like these carry the sense of martial respect that the game's developers have tied the game up with, but they're undone by tiresome tropes cribbed from contemporaries.
It may follow its dumber peers directly into pointless gimmickry, but for valour in attempting a tonal shift for genre, Medal of Honour should be rewarded.
MoH’s inventive and thoughtful sections are undermined by its desire to mimic other games it just can’t beat.