Things I have learned about war from the wholly authentic Medal of Honor: Warfighter: #1: Door opening privileges are granted with seniority. #2: A soldier's sidearm, whether a pistol or a machinegun, has infinite ammo. #3: If you run far enough ahead of your squad, you might see the moment your enemies blink into existence. #4: Bullets won't kill you if you're in the middle of a melee attack animation. #5: Tier One operators are total badasses and can kill hundreds of people on their own. #6: War is super-fun, and is a passion for some people, kind of like water skiing or samba dancing. #7: It is totally justifiable to repeatedly abandon your wife and child to go fight in a war. Your wife and child should probably just learn to accept both that and your inevitable death. #8: A lot of types of beard make you look like a bell-end.
It can be unfair to criticise a videogame for failing to live up to its marketing, when developers so rarely control their own. Instead ee should criticise a game for the messages it communicates while we play. Medal of Honor: Warfighter never gets near the “authenticity” it promised pre-release, but it has plenty to say about soldiers, and about war, and all of it is hateful.
The problem – aside from just generally being a bad, boring game, which I'll get to – is that Warfighter adopts a tone of uncritical reverence for both its subjects and its subject matter. Written by Tier One operators while on active duty – which explains a lot – Warfighter's story depicts soldiers as superheroes, not “manufactured or purchased” but “born into this life, blessed with a higher sense of purpose”.
You play as two of these superheroes, Stump and Preacher, as they investigate a terrorist operation smuggling explosives across the world, and as Preacher deals with problems at home. They do what needs to be done – gruffly mowing down bad guys in terrorism hotspots, ignoring orders when necessary, and occasionally deploying a hardy “bro”.
These are the men we want/need on walls, as Jack Nicholson described in A Few Good Men. Except A Few Good Men doesn't deify Jack Nicholson in the way Warfighter fawns over its bland leads. It turns out to be an issue of tone.
You can portray war like a silly, globe-trotting disaster movie, as Modern Warfare does, and you can scrape by without questioning your character's relentless killing. But when your story is told with stony-faced seriousness, a little critical distance might be a good thing. In fact, isn't it both dishonest and ethically abhorrent to do anything else? If your videogame is set in the real world and its characters kill hundreds of people without feels or personal injury, and then your videogame unthinkingly applauds those characters, you've created a multi-million dollar celebration not of heroism, but of violence and killing.
And the shooting is shit, too. Let's move away from the moral quandaries and tonal contradictions, just for a moment. The trick to enjoying the mainstream singleplayer military shooter, which includes Modern Warfare and Battlefield, is to remove them from the broader first-person shooter genre. Instead, think of them as arcade rail shooters, and therefore solely about popping out from behind cover, popping heads, and occasionally popping a new clip into your gun. By these meagre ambitions, Modern Warfare 3 was a mildly enjoyable romp – and Warfighter is still a failure.
Each of these games split neatly into three elements: the guns, the setting, and the set-pieces. War of Medal: Honorfighter's guns are the usual fare. You start each mission with what my uneducated mind thinks is a machinegun, but might be a sub-machinegun. You're then free to pick up AKs or shotguns and myriad other machinegun/sub-machinegun variations from your fallen foes.
I mainly stuck with the weapon each mission gave me, as they tended to have better scopes and iron sight, and because all the guns felt rattly and weak anyway. The setting of the game changes with each mission, and varies in geography if not in detail. Over the course of the game you fight in places like Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and Bosnia, but every locale is depicted without personality. Concrete crumbles, dust fills the air, and men pop up from behind cover to kill you. Even when you visit Dubai, a fascinating urban folly, you could easily mistake it for a movie studio backlot somewhere in southern California.
There's no artistry in how the game shapes these battlefields. You slide from narrow corridors to open areas filled with crates, boxes, and burnt-out cars. Occasionally the lighting obscures where you're meant to go, rather than being used to lead you there. Time and again areas that look passable turn out to be unreachable due to invisible barriers. You never interact with the environment in an interesting way.
Which brings us to set-pieces, which are normally how these games imprint themselves on your memory. They're the moments when the game breaks the run-and-gun formula to offer you something different, and they're a fair watermark for the varying quality of these kinds of games. For example, Modern Warfare 1 has three standout moments: the nuclear explosion, the ghillie suit stealth section, and the creepy, quiet AC-130 mission. By comparison, Battlefield 3 has only one that really stands out, in its fighter jet mission.
Honor of War: Fightermedal has none. It tries. There's a sniper mission, where you take out enemies while accounting for bullet drop. There's a couple of sections where you drive a remote-control robot with a machinegun attached. There's mounted gun turret sections, on a helicopter and a boat. You get to steer the boat at one point and, in the closest the game comes to a unique experience, there are a few driving sections. The best of the latter has you dodging enemy patrols by pulling into lay-bys. It's a nice idea.
The three previously mentioned elements – guns, setting, set-pieces – coalesce into a tidal wave of apathy, and make the experience of playing Warfighter feel like a kind of spiritual death. How many burnt-out cars have I, will I, can I crouch behind in my life? How many times can I fire a mounted gun, making sure not to hold my finger down too long to avoid overheating? It's an oppressive, grinding slog.
As some consolation, the multiplayer at least fares slightly better. There are a few different modes, but I had the most fun in Hot Point. Each level has five bomb sites, which unlock in a random order. The attackers must blow up three of those bomb sites to win the match, while the defenders must prevent that from happening at three sites to win. This creates a lot of push-and-pull drama, last minute explosions or defusing, and rounds last long enough for new players to learn the map.
There's also the neat idea of 'fire teams', which works like a small-scale version of Battlefield's squad system. On any given server, you'll be paired with a random buddy. You can spawn on that buddy and replenish one another's health and ammo, and if they avenge your death, you'll immediately respawn.
It bonds you to a stranger in a fun and immediate way.
Otherwise, the multiplayer is held together by the same systems of points and medals and unlocks as established by every other game of this type. I haven't had time before writing this review to advance very far in these systems, so we'll revisit the multiplayer at a later date. Assuming that there's anyone else still playing, that is; the servers are already worryingly quiet.
Here are the next two entries on my list of things communicated by the boring, soulless, not-at-all authentic Medal of Honor: Warfighter. #9: Hey, didn't Call of Duty sell well? #10: There won't be a new Battlefield game until next year, so I guess we should try to fill that gap.
There is no gap for a game like this. Keep playing Battlefield 3 or any of the other, better games released this year. Or, I don't know, maybe you could take up water skiing or samba dancing.
Expect to pay: $60/£30
Release: Out now
Developer: EA Danger Close
Multiplayer: 20-player, 4 modes, plus 'real Ops' hardcore modifier