Does the world need another WWII-based FPS? I suspect many reviews are going to begin by asking that exact question (this one being no exception), but I’m not sure that’s the right question to ask. With just a few notable exceptions, Halflife and the new fantastic Bioshock coming to mind, FPS plotlines are for the most part thinly-veiled justifications for blasting the heck out of just about anything that moves, be they aliens, Vietcong, Nazis, or zombies. If the folks behind Medal of Honor: Airborne want me to shoot Nazis, I’m OK with that. What the world clearly doesn’t need is another mediocre WWII-based FPS, and as I play through it there’s very little to distinguish MOH:A from that vast and crowded field. There’s even very little to distinguish it from CoD2 which came out almost 2 years ago.
There are, as near as I can tell, only two things that are supposed to set MOH:A apart. One is the inclusion of the whole “Airborne” bit, the other is a weapon usage experience model. For the most part, the airborne piece is a gimmick, allowing each level to begin with an in-game movie of a bunch of terrified paratroopers cringing and screaming as they fly in an aircraft being hammered by AA and Flak guns before jumping out the door. Then you get to float to the ground on your parachute. You have some control over where you land, but the planned landing areas are designated by green smoke, you only have two or three to choose from in any given mission, and landing anywhere else tends to lead to almost immediate death by lead poisoning. You can either flare the landing properly or botch it, but as long as you landed in the green zone no one is going to shoot at you for as long as it takes to stagger to your feet and get your weapon out and its not like you can break an ankle with a bad landing or anything. One really peculiar thing that I ran across is there are apparently special skill drop spots, something like you would have received some special bonus for landing on this roof on in that truck. The only problem being that there doesn’t seem to be any indication of these spots that you can see from the air; it is only while running around on the ground that the game tells me that I just passed a skill spot. Whose bright idea was that?
Once on the ground, the game becomes much like any other squad FPS game. You and a group of nameless allied soldiers must accomplish some set of goals – capture key points or destroy things. In many ways it feels like a WWII version of Star Wars Battlefront. AI on the whole is neither staggeringly brilliant nor staggeringly awful – everyone finds cover and returns fire adequately – though the enemy does simply try to run down your line of fire to get to you with fair frequency which obviously leads to their almost instantaneous death. You can’t command the other soldiers at all and for the most part it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting. They’ll sit pinned down in an alley forever while you snipe a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enemies, so ultimately you’re going to have to be the one to lead them forward. That’s not to say that you actually have to be at the front of the pack at ground level. The map structure is such that often there is another way around beyond the most obvious one, and if you pick your approach carefully you can find yourself getting around their fortifications and shooting a lot of German soldiers in the back. Hurray!
The weapon experience model sounds, in the manual at least, very interesting. As you rack up kills with a particular weapon you gain experience. Gain enough experience and you get a weapon upgrade like improved reload rate or increased target accuracy. What the manual doesn’t mention is that you don’t get to pick the upgrade yourself, that each weapon has an upgrade path. Furthermore, each weapon can only be upgraded three levels, so it’s not like you can end up running around with some superweapon. Just as well, because they upgrade is really linked to you, not the weapon. So although the game says that you have received some new brass bolt action for increased accuracy with the sniper rifle, if you lose that rifle and pick up another one of the same type it too will have the upgrade.
The single player campaign consists of six missions each with multiple objectives. The maps are well sized, feeling neither so large that you have to run miles to get to the action nor so small that you can essentially shoot across the entire map. I ran through all six of them in about an hour each, for a total single player experience of about six hours. The missions are lightly scripted. You can accomplish the mission goals in any order you like and mission objectives are often updated and added during the course of your missions. I’m not sure if the ability to play the objectives out of order makes the missions more replayable for you, but for me once through was enough.
As sort of lackluster as the single player campaign is, MOH:A is much better as a multiplayer game. This is because the sides are pretty small – only 6 players on each team max which feels far more intimate than the 50v50 CoD2 gibfests that I usually find myself playing – and you can parachute (respawn) anywhere on the game board when you die. This works well and allows you to appear suddenly behind enemy units and turn the tide of a battle very quickly. You might manage to shoot two or three in the back before they even realize that they’ve got a problem. The downside is that two or three skilled players on one side working together can pretty much dominate the map without challenge. The games are also far too sniper-heavy for my personal tastes. There is sort of a dearth of maps right now – only six total – but I expect that to change in the future. There are only two modes: deathmatch and a site-capturing mode like Day of Defeat, so they really haven’t broken any new ground in this regard.
Airborne looks quite good. Grenades especially make a nice blast cloud with visible fragments and trailing. There’s smoke, tracer rounds, and visible bullet impacts on objects and soldiers. There’s a really neat sniper scope effect in that the sight through the scope looks blurry at first and then comes into focus, which for anyone who has actually used a spotting scope will realize is quite realistic. All this graphics whiz-bang unfortunately comes with a steep system requirement for PC gamers. Even at 800x600 I would often end up with sluggish frame rates, despite having pushed my video drivers to the absolute latest version as recommended in the manual. As a frame of reference, my machine can run Bioshock at 1280x1024 without a hitch. Sounds in the heat of battle, like emptying an entire machinegun clip, is solid, but single shots from the handgun or even single shots from the machinegun or sniper rifle sound very flat and unimpressive. Making a headshot on a guy wearing a helmet makes a funny little ping sound, though the helmet doesn’t save his little electronic life.
On the whole, I’d have to say that MOH:A is a fair presentation of a game that we’ve all played a lot of times before. I’d like to add the additional criticism here that I found the controls very sloppy for an FPS, and almost downright unresponsive during short periods when there was a big explosion or several grenades going off at once (seemingly independent of whether or not the explosion was actually in my field of view at the time). Once I was on the ground actually in firefights, the game plays very similarly to Spearhead (beyond the improved graphics of course). How old is Spearhead now? Four years? Five? So forget whether or not the world needed another WWII-based FPS and ask yourself if the world needed another mediocre one. I’d have to say not.