Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review of Medal of Honor: Airborne

Since Call of Duty 4 was released in 2007, the Modern Military Shooter has become one of the most successful genres in videogame history.  This generation has seen its rise, and I do believe that before the end, it will also witness the genre's fall.  Already, we're seeing outcry against the restrictive linearity and setpiece-heavy design that are MMSs bread and butter.  We saw something similar happen with WWII shooters.  They gained popularity near the beginning of last generation, and eventually fell out of favor near the beginning of the current generation.  Medal of Honor: Airborne was one of the last ones to be released, and it struggled to win over audiences who were weary of its familiar setting and scenarios.  The fact that Call of Duty 4 came out a few months later certainly didn't help.  So basically, it didn't take people long to forget about the game.  However, this isn't 2007.  We've had some time to stew in the MMS scene, and WWII is starting to look less horribly overwrought and more whimsically nostalgic.  And if you look past its well-worn setting, Airborne is quite a fun shooter that manages to set itself apart from the pack with a variety of interesting features.    

Run!  It's WWII!

One of the game's biggest selling features was its relatively open-ended design.  As a member of the experimental 101st Airborne Division, you begin each mission by parachuting out of an airplane and landing pretty much wherever you'd like.  From there, you're free to move around the battlefield as you please and complete your initial missions in any order.  Assaulting objectives does play out in a linear fashion, and without some practice it can be difficult to land anywhere except designated safe zones, but it's still nice having the freedom to do as you like.  On the battlefield, you have a fairly standard array of weapons and strategies at your disposal.  Submachineguns and shotguns for close range, assault rifles for medium range, single-shot rifles for long range, grenades for groups of enemies, a melee attack for desperate situations, and a few pistols in case you run out of ammo, or just want to challenge yourself.  Combat is an interesting mix of arcadey twitchfest and strategic covershoot.  You can mow through mobs of enemies with ease, but if you just run into firefights with wild abandon, you'll die fairly quickly.  No, you need to approach battles relatively carefully.  Use the game's innovative cover system (which allows you to duck and lean using the movement keys while looking down your sights).  Thin the ranks.  Choose the right moment to go in guns blazing.  The resulting gameplay takes a little getting used to, but eventually falls into a nice flow.  Sprint, fire a few bursts from the hip, melee, duck behind cover, lean around and use the last few shots to nail a headshot, reload!  There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but it all feels nice and snappy.  Good.  Fun.  The only thing that holds the combat back is the fact that your shots seldom really feel like they're actually hitting enemies.  The game also features a simple upgrade system.  Using a weapon will earn you different attachments or stat improvements for it.  Although there's not much depth to the system, it's a neat little addition, and adds a sense of progress to your constant killing. 

I will defend the white city of Minas Tirith with my trust M1!

But the game can sometimes be irritating, especially when you have to deal with snipers.  These guys don't show up very often, but when they do they are an absolute PAIN.  Hard to see, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous, encounters with snipers turn into extended exercises in trial and error that are only made more frustrating by the game's checkpoint-based save system.  Panzergrenadiers are similarly irritating.  It's a little easier to spot them and avoid their shots, but one direct hit will kill you just about instantly.  Neither of these enemies ruin the fun of the rest of the game, but they do make it less of a joyous experience than it could have been.  So do the collision and physics glitches that occasionally pop up.  My character got stuck several times on the geometry, twice necessitating a restart.  And I found that I would sometimes momentarily start moving inexplicably fast when I passed over certain spots.  I suppose I should also mention that the friendly AI can sometimes get you killed by blocking you.  But again, all these are merely annoyances, not gamebreaking flaws.

Back when light bloom looked soooooooo cutting-edge
In my stupid little Graphic Wars article, I mentioned that Airborne had a lot of neat graphical effects (especially the explosions), but failed to combine them in a convincingly next-gen way.  And while I still mostly stand by that statement, I do have to admit that the game looks better the further you go.  The first level is easily the least impressive, and the last level actually looks quite nice.  Its lighting is still really static, however, and many textures are blurry.  And there's no AA.  And there are some weird graphical glitches, including guns that mysteriously disappear from your hands.  So the game looks ok (and some levels are fairly atmospheric), but not amazing.  In contrast, the sound work is great.  Everything sounds vivid and crisp, including your weapons.  Unfortunately, they also lack any sort of aural punch.  Submachineguns sound like someone tapping a piece of sheet metal with a pencil, and even rifles sound more like firecrackers than guns.  The familiar Medal of Honor musical score returns, and it's not bad.  But perhaps not as impressive as it used to be, and its earnest strains of whitewashed symphonic heroism can come across as rather trite.

Preparing to jump.

In fact, the game's entire tone can be rather trite.  Your fellow troops are all Jimmy (yes, all of them) from back home on the farm, straight out of apple pie America, accompanied by swelling horns and soaring strings, and eager to commend you on every successful headshot in the heat of battle.  But yet, the game sometimes decides it's going to be gritty and realistic.  You'll hear the desperate screams of a German soldier trapped in a burning tank, and witness a confused American navy firing on their own planes.  It's a strange contrast that gives an impression of emotional incoherency, even as the game so earnestly tries to do something meaningful.  There's no real plot to speak of either.  Just a succession of loosely-related missions with no real characters apart from yourself.  There's a vaguely interesting tutorial montage at the beginning of the game, and the pre-mission briefings are convincingly-acted, but that's about it.  Then again, one has to question whether it's necessary to invent a plot for a WWII shooter.  The game does do a fairly good job of giving you an idea what the 101st Airborne Division meant to the US Army, and what their contribution was.  And perhaps that's all it really needs to do.  Regardless, you don't play Airborne for its story or message.  You play it to parachute into battle and kill Nazis.

It just wouldn't be a WWII shooter without Normandy.
Medal of Honor: Airborne may not be the deepest or most original FPS out there, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well.  Its home brew of arcadey military shooter action, light strategy, light sandbox elements, and light RPG progression is a winning one, and it can be quite a rewarding experience if you're in the mood to revisit WWII.  There are a few little annoyances, and it never really becomes anything truly remarkable.  Just an unexpectedly addictive diversion for a week or so.  But I think it deserves more love than it got, because it's a really solid little game that really did try to reinvigorate a dying genre with a handful of interesting ideas.  For only $10 on Steam, I highly recommend it to FPS fans who are looking for something to play that isn't Black Ops II or Halo 4.


  1. I've always liked Medal of Honor (the old ones) better than their Call of Duty counterparts. I've always liked the silly ideals of loyalty, honor, and sacrifice better than Call of Duty's equally silly "gritty realism".

    I guess I just liked the way they used to aim for a T rating, and found other ways to impress you than pure carnage and violence. Allied Assault was basically the beginning of the modern linear military shooter, and it was one of the first shooters to impress with its production values and storytelling (Spielberg helped with that).

    Oh, an AA's Omaha beach level still stands as one of the finest FPS levels ever created. I think I'm gonna go play, that, actually. :D

    1. I do really enjoy the game, and I've always had a little more warmth in my heart for Medal of Honor than Call of Duty.

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  3. Nice review. Medal of Honor (PS1) was the first FPS I ever played, way back in '99. That was a fantastic game, and many of the sequels were pretty decent as well. Underground was a satisfying follow-up to the first game, whilst Frontline and Allied Assault were simply masterpieces. Rising Sun was somewhat disappointing, but not terrible, and from what I've heard, Pacific Assault was alright. I played some more of them on PSP and PS2 down the road, and they were decent efforts, but I think Frontline and Allied Assault are still the series' high points.

    Too bad the 2010 "reboot" had to come along and completely muck it all up. Truth be told, I only bought Medal of Honor 2010 for PS3 because it came with Frontline HD for free. Warfighter was so bad, it literally killed off the series.

    But eh, enough of my tangent. If they ever do bring MoH back, I'd hope they go back to the series' early roots -- low-key espionage and infiltration rather than big battlefields and generic modern-day conflicts in Generistan against insurgents.

    1. Yeah, it sounds like the newer ones completely lost their identity. Which is a shame, because weirdly enough, I think there's still a place for earnest WWII shooters, to contrast the modern military shooter.