Greg Goodrich, executive producer of the reinvigorated Medal of Honour series, rides a little toy scooter around his office. This could conjure images of the rebooted MoH as a sillier take on contemporary combat. This image is wrong.
“Our intent is to honour those who serve in a respectful manner. The only thing we're focusing on are the men and women who are at war, who give everything and deserve our support,” he says. In his role as exec producer and key internet voice of MoH, Goodrich is very clear about the game's serious approach to warfare. “We talk often about authenticity and respect for the soldier and how Medal of Honour has always been about telling the soldier's story.” Quite how to interpret that approach into a game is the subsequent problem: the average soldier's experience is 95% screaming boredom married with 5% near-death. Take MoH away from the typical bombast of a first-person shooter and you dull its sharp edge against its clear competitor: Call of Duty. How will EA juggle the warheads of excitement and realism? “The new Medal of Honour definitely has a 'war movie' feel to it. Our story is about a group of soldiers and what they encounter during the course of a battle.” Rather than a non-specific 'Middle-East' location, MoH has planted its flag in Afghanistan: a place news reports paint as uniformly bleak. Goodrich disagrees, stressing its variation: “The country itself is a very diverse place. Players will expect dry, barren and arid locations, and while they exist, it's important to remember there are lush green river valleys, snowy mountain peaks and diverse cities filled with strange composition and irregular construction.”
Details on the game's conflict itself are scarce, although it's easy to assume a level of relevance with operations in that area of the world. We were told that players will be working in groups, AI soldiers providing battlefield context (with the merest whisper of possible cooperative play remaining unconfirmed), and that players running through the campaign mode will also be a part of a pool of playable people, three of which have been identified so far.
News of the game's launch was accompanied by meetings with active 'Tier 1 Operatives', guys like the bearded warfighter depicted on the game's boxart. These lethal chaps, addressed only by their nebulous callsigns and so ultimo-secret in the military that they wore balaclavas, were at pains to clarify their role in conflict – as surgical implements to complete incredibly delicate jobs. The exciting bit: you'll be one of them.
It's the probably-very-sandy shoes of these Tier 1 Operatives that you'll be wearing on jobs such as the game's demoed assault on an Afghan ridge base. High on the mountainside, a mini-squad breaks between cover, avoiding cliffside patrols to get into the heart of the hideout. In a small crew deep in the enemy's home turf, typical shock and awe tactics will get you killed. Instead, Goodrich wants the player to follow a doctrine of 'quiet action', using speed, surprise and intelligence to drop foes.
On the Afghan mountain, the commando band arrange themselves silently around their quarry, picking spots and targets, before dispatching them with controlled pops of gunfire.
Goodrich explains why the game is looking quite so closely at these badasses: “Medal of Honour is unique in that it reveals the mission of today's most elite American soldier – his mindset and his uncompromising professionalism – the Tier 1 Operator. And since we've had the benefit and unprecedented access to this community, we've focused our common thread primarily on them.”
A stiletto knife to the regular army's bazooka approach, Tier 1 Operators are the kind of soldiers sent in to execute those jobs too dangerous or precise for regular grunts. It can't do “Confirmed are an Army Ranger and an Apache heli gunner” much for their life expectancy, but hell, it should make for an exciting game.
But to claim that the existence of these elite combatants is the norm in military conflicts is disingenuous, and with Goodrich consistent in his stated aim of presenting a realistic vision of war, players will also take up the mantle of at least two more typical fighters. Confirmed so far are an Army Ranger and an Apache helicopter gunner – both of whom epitomise the other side of the US military's war-coin, going for explosive front-door entrances.
It doesn't get much more explosive than an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship. Players will take the gun of one of these air-monsters, but video has also shown a cockpit view. Whether this is under player control or a simple cutscene is yet to be hammered down, but Goodrich dropped other vehicular hints... “there are ATVs, helicopters, and other 'assets' to employ”.
With trailers suggesting that lightly brushing some stone is enough for it to explode with screen-shaking force, can we expect to see an implementation of realistic explosive damage, a la Battlefield: Bad Company 2?
In the main campaign, no. Goodrich and his team want to keep the core of MoH controlled. As tempting as destructive tech might be, chucking it into the single-player Unreal-powered action-gauntlet could compromise the respectful and narrative-led approach.
But, and this is a biggie, all of that justification is out of the window for the multiplayer, where DICE and their building-toppling Frostbite engine have been conscripted in what Goodrich calls the “chocolate and peanut butter approach”. EA LA are free to tighten the bootstraps of a coherent campaign, while one of the world's leading authorities on multiperson shoot-fests gets to play with another massive series.
But it's back to gritty simplicity, the concept of making a great shooter, that Medal of Honour will need to go with this latest instalment. Previous MoHs have ramped up the gimmicks to bring the freshness back, but the gunelephant in the room – the sales recordsmashing CoD series – did its best work simply by making the 'art' of shooting visceral and kinetic. Goodrich and his team, to their game's betterment, are all too aware of this: “The core experience of any shooter is drawing a gun, aiming at the enemy and then letting the air out of them. We've spent a lot of time on the 'through the gun' experience. This is the absolute heart of any shooter. You get it wrong and nothing else matters.”