Don't ask how many people they've killed. They hate that,” EA's representative tells me. “And please stay away from politics.” That's right, readers. It's time to find out just how authentic and respectful this year's other military shooter is. So sit back and get ready to discover just what gun accoutrements are 'in' this season.
My cynicism doesn't last. Once 'Nate' and 'Kevin' stroll into the room (no surnames given, no interviews allowed) and I hear the tale of how Medal of Honor: Warfighter came into being, it's hard to keep joking. Likewise I can cock my head to the left so far that it's practically horizontal, yet I still feel a quiet awe for any one who can look me in the eye and say, “My mind is my weapon. My guns are an extension of my will.”
Warfighter started out separately from Medal of Honor, as a franchise all its own, its origins a 'vent book' that Nate and Kevin wrote over a bottle of vodka during a spell in an undisclosed volatile region, frustrated by the dithering politicians back home. In time this became 'Faceless' - a document with the juiciest parts removed and a narrative locked in place, which in turn found its way to the desk of (then Vivendi) executive producer Greg Goodrich.
“It was very different in the beginning, that manuscript,” explains Goodrich, now at EA Danger Close. “That story; it had a lot of teeth, it was very aggressive. Very dark in places.” It was pitched to EA, and had been in production for six months before board-level machinations saw the team merged with that of the upcoming Medal of Honor reboot. As such the Warfighter project was hustled beneath Medal of Honor's camo-coloured umbrella late in the last game's development, and slated as material for a sequel. “We lifted Mother and Preacher out of their story and dropped them into the last game,” says Goodrich, a man with a rich PC past in both Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Kingpin. “We intentionally kept Preacher very quiet, as we knew his story was something special.”
For the Tier 1 operators providing the authenticity (and by extension, the marketing) this was anything but a smooth transition – to the extent that during the development of Medal of Honor, Goodrich penned two resignation letters to help get their views across to the EA brass. Now though, with the warriors themselves penning the Warfighter storyline and a legion of their 'brother' consultants given final edit, Warfighter is finally going to get its time in the sun. Quite the process for a game about crouching behind stuff, in order to shoot the heads of terrorists who are also hiding behind stuff.
In terms of Medal of Honor itself, Warfighter's biggest departures are that of geography and history. Like Call of Duty, the game is now dispensing with real world battles and frolicking in fiction – chasing the manufacture and distribution of PETN explosives through a global network of locations such as Somalia and the Philippines.
“We're not jumping around the world just for the sake of jumping around the world,” says Goodrich, a man whose every other sentence is liberally doused in words like 'honour' and 'respect'. “Everything in this game – every mission, every event, every location that we go to – has a dotted line to something that has happened. When gamers Google these locations, they're going to find a host of bad things that happened to good people.”
To illustrate his point, Goodrich turns to the screen behind him and conjures an example. The mission is a raid on the flooded Capital Building of a typhoon-struck Isabela City, in the Philippines. Now powered by the same engine as Battlefield 3, this is a game destined to make your graphics card sing. Murky water sloshes around your feet beautifully, grenades leave a pleasant fizz in the air and chandeliers swing violently as they catch the blast. It's a slice of game that screams military shooter, although I'm promised the long-range head pops and stealth of the previous game are still a priority.
“If there's a gunfight in a confined space with wood panelling and lattice, and it's half-flooded, what's that going to look like?” asks Goodrich, as we watch a gunfight set in a half-flooded, confined space with wood panelling being splintered. “It's going to be messy, it's going to be dirty, it's going to be gritty. We tried to get this wonderful ballet between water shooting up, wood coming down and stuff just coming at you at all times.” As the player character Preacher climbs the stairs towards the room where the hostages are, a gentle haze of spent cordite hangs in the air – although you'll barely have a second to notice it before a PETN charge hurls him backwards, his arms and legs flailing in front of the screen.
For developer Danger Close it's all about nailing the feeling of personal, situational combat, which engenders their concentration on the microdestruction around you: the splintered banisters and the sheaves of paper hurled upwards and outwards to flutter back down to the water. “You look at the competition and you say, 'I'm not going too stylised or too Hollywood'. The groove makes itself,” says Chris Salazar, an art director recently purloined from Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops team. “We're not making it feel like you're a camera with a lens in front of you, where we throw grape jelly at you when you've been shot.”
In reality, the game's burly Tier 1 writers patiently explain, they probably wouldn't go through a door if they suspected there were five Abu Sayyaf militants aiming AK47s at it at head height. This being a game, however, you get a SWAT 4/Ghost Recon-esque choice of breaching manoeuvres (frag grenade, flashbang, or old-fashioned kick) and a splendid slow-motion sequence of bodies being perforated. Note that the buzzword here is 'authenticity' rather than 'realism', providing a comfortable safehouse for these small moments of magic.
As the rescue mission proceeds, Preacher is presented with a linear 'big gun on a vehicle' session, as the player grabs the minigun on the bow of an escape boat. But wait, take back at least half of that sigh – because this is genuinely a high watermark of the 'big gun on a vehicle' form. The storm continues to batter Isabela City and the dinghy is caught in unpredictable currents and eddies as water surges through the streets. At one point, two rows of floating houses close in on it, the sides of the boat scratching porches, and I find myself mentally urging it forwards to freedom.
It's a type of destruction previously unseen in videogames, with power lines collapsing and petrol stations exploding into the murk, and there's an odd beauty in its chaos. It has to be noted that the foolhardy terrorists aiming rocket launchers at you also look great when they're bent double in mid-air after your shots connect.
The best thing in the Medal of Honor reboot wasn't any of its tough guys, but Afghanistan itself: its strange, beautiful landscapes made it a fascinating place to fight. There's a chance that Warfighter will lose that vital sense of location, but otherwise all signs point towards it being a superior game. There are the technological advances, of course, but there's also more cohesion in its development – both between the staff and its consultants, and between the teams working on its various constituent parts.
Last time around, DICE built Medal of Honor's multiplayer – a different team on a different continent building an online rendition in a different engine. This time, enough map designers and network coders have been shepherded into the Danger Close pen to create their own online wares, with the same engine and mission statement as the rest of the game. Details are light, but the focus will be on letting gamers fight under their country's flag.
That, then, is one dance partner in 2012's military shooter tango. Medal of Honor is ready to plant a rose stem between Call of Duty's teeth and do some aggressive twirling. We've all seen its moves before – we go through these motions every year – but for many the appeal will never die. And it's strong praise indeed to underline that Warfighter is as confident, engaging and authentic as it is entirely familiar.