Medal of Honor is essentially two games in one, with two developers and two engines (Unreal for campaign; Frostbite for multiplayer) powering the distinctly different components of the package. The decision to splinter the development of the game has a certain logic to it: single-player gamers are not necessarily multiplayer gamers, and vice versa. Presumably, EA's approach allows each mode to be optimized for their respective audience. As it turns out, this method makes for a rather confusing end product.
When viewed as a standalone offering, Danger Close's campaign is one of the finest shooters I've experienced in years, successfully finding the middle ground between a realistic military simulation and a great piece of entertainment. The story, which covers two action-packed days in the US military's ongoing battle against insurgents in Afghanistan, masterfully switches between the perspective of an elite group of soldiers (Tier 1), and the Army Rangers, and offers a genuine, realistic look into the struggles of being a modern warrior.
I was taken aback when September 11th was referenced in passing in the very first minutes of the game. It was unnerving, most likely because I was so unaccustomed to a game acknowledging something so real. It appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the narrative: rooted in realism, but not necessarily preachy. Although unquestionably a pro-American game, the narrative isn't about politics, or the morality of war -- Ultimately, the story isn't centered around a mission, but a soldier's determination to survive.
It's easy to step into the shoes of one of these soldiers, thanks to practically flawless controls. The aim-assisted combat is pleasantly familiar, but the weapons are the real stars. Each feels unique, with a distinct kick and weight that makes every bullet feel like a physical object in the world. You'll discover ways of penetrating cover, and (if your rifle is strong enough) you'll be able to score a headshot on an enemy that's hiding behind a wall. Best of all, you'll be able to carry two weapons in addition to the pistol, so you're free to change up your strategy on the fly. I tend to switch to a shotgun when moving indoors, for example.
Navigating the environment feels similarly "right." Being able to run and slide into cover changes the way you approach a battle entirely, allowing you to press forward rather than the "stop and clear" gameplay of most cover-based shooters. Between the plentiful flanking opportunities, the campaign provides the ability to lean and peak around corners (a franchise staple), over and around cover; you have an impressive amount of freedom in the way you fight enemies.
Whenever you encounter an invisible wall or an artificial barrier, it only serves to remind you that this is ultimately "just a game." There are a few glitches as well, like a door that can't be breached or enemies that spawn infinitely; issues that only a checkpoint restart seems to fix. The worst offender of breaking the experience is the engine itself: Medal of Honor is yet another victim of Unreal Engine 3's notorious texture pop-in effect.
The graphics are a mixed bag as well. The framerate is shaky, and the lackluster texture work certainly doesn't help. What the game does succeed at is creating atmosphere: the lighting, smoke, dust and particle effects are all top-notch. When a missile strikes a target, you can almost taste the shower of dirt that follows. When emerging from a cave into the sun, your vision will white out, just like you'd expect in real life. There are a few moments -- like looking down an alley, blinded by the light reflecting off the sand -- that seem eerily similar to what you'd imagine soldiers have encountered in real combat.
Whereas the single-player component really grabbed me, the multiplayer was unremarkable. Given DICE's excellent track record (read: the Battlefield series), the online portion of Medal of Honor should have been an easy sell. After experiencing the campaign, I couldn't help but notice not what the multiplayer offered, but what it was missing.
The elements that I'd come to love about Medal of Honor during the campaign simply don't exist in its online mode. The way you move through the environment and the way you approach a scenario are totally different. You can't slide into cover, for example. You can't lean and peek around cover. These two gameplay mechanics, which defined the "uniqueness" of Medal of Honor's gameplay, are missing, leaving nothing but the framework for a Call of Duty clone.
Online multiplayer in Medal of Honor is an experience-driven, class-based competition in 12-on-12 arenas. Before each spawn, you can choose one of three classes: rifleman, special ops, and sniper, each with their own loadouts, experience system and level perks. As you earn XP for each class, you'll unlock additional weapons and gear to customize your weapons. Getting consecutive kills and performing any helpful team actions will unlock a series of "tactical support" perks, like a mortar strike, rocket attack, or added armor.
Modern Warfare players will likely find the frenetic, arcadey, twitch-based shooting familiar. It only takes one or two shots for someone to go down, and respawns are fast and plentiful. It's fun, but this is not a multiplayer counterpart to Danger Close's campaign. The game's producers said the two parts of the single--player campaign represented the precise scalpel and the overwhelming sledgehammer. Multiplayer, on the other hand, is a dirty knife fight.
Still, there are only three Combat Mission maps, and only five maps for all the other modes. When compared to the feature set of Modern Warfare 2 and the upcoming Black Ops, Medal of Honor's offering is undeniably lacking. Where is the split-screen support? Where is this game's co-op campaign? Also, where is the "kill cam"? For a game with as many deaths as this, it's frustrating not knowing how you were brought down.
Even ignoring its shortcomings to the market leader, there are some serious flaws plaguing DICE's creation. The framerate is consistently weak, and the menu interface feels sloppily constructed. For example, you can't quit to the lobby at the end of a match; instead, you must wait until the next battle loads, and jump out as an active game is about to start. It's also impossible to keep a party and jump between game types. Instead, you'll have to re-invite your party after jumping out to the main menu. It's not terribly frustrating, but amateurish.
Admittedly, it's hard to properly judge the quality of a multiplayer game until it matures and gets in the hands of the masses. Perhaps Medal of Honor will eventually (and with plenty of work) blossom into a game worth playing. But, my initial impressions coupled with the obvious lack of features give me little reason to abandon Call of Duty's multiplayer offerings.
So, here comes the hard part of the review. In any other genre, a stellar single player experience would be enough to garner a whole-hearted recommendation. But it's impossible to ignore the importance of multiplayer, especially when Medal of Honor's primary competitor tends to excel at both. Medal of Honor's campaign is an exceptional experience, but the total package simply doesn't beat Call of Duty.
But at least EA's getting closer.
This review is based on both the Xbox 360 debug and retail versions of Medal of Honor provided by EA. The campaign was completed entirely on debug code. The online review draws from closed multiplayer sessions scheduled by EA on debug code, and from retail multiplayer sessions on Xbox Live. The PS3 version includes Medal of Honor: Frontline, and is not factored into this review.