This weekend, I was lucky enough to get some time with the newly released Medal of Honor: Airborne demo and it really impressed me. After being unseated by Call of Duty as the premiere WWII shooter, then sliding into the dumps with the terrible Pacific Assault, the MoH series was hurting in the eyes of gamers. This new installment may put them back in the race.
Airborne pushes the whole idea of non-linear gaming a step further by more fully embracing the idea of playing a paratrooper than any WWII shooter (or any shooter, really) before it. Instead of dropping you into the field of battle via a scripted jump sequence, Airborne lets you take control the moment your feet leave the plane. This simple mechanic affects gameplay and level design in a very fundamental way, pushing a solid shooter from good to potentially great.
The replayability of the demo level, a drop into the Italian town of Adanti to destroy four anti-aircraft guns and secure the town, is surprisingly high. The town is ringed by a parapet wall with the occasional tower. The town itself is a mass of winding cobblestone streets and buildings, many of which you can enter, all of which you can run over via their rooftops. To the North (presumably) is a large mansion, which is set up as the climax of the level, but can be your first target, depending on where you decide to drop. The ability to drop in anywhere really changes the tone of the level on a given playthrough, as there are two ‘safe zones’ designated by green smoke. However, you can drop right onto the roof of the mansion if you want to create havoc from within while your fellow paratroopers battle their way up through the front door. My only complaint here is that they never give an indication of how to land well, so I botched all but one landing and still don’t know why. A botched landing means taking longer to get unharnessed and into a fighting state, which can mean the difference between life and being beaten to death. I’m sure the full game will be more explanatory about this important point.
The gameplay itself is well handled, but I admit that I was not into the feel of the control and movement at first. Most FPS games have crisp movement, whereas Airborne goes for a more cinematic/realistic feel, with looser movements, the sensation of momentum, and less permissive shooting mechanics. I won’t go into full detail, but my annoyance quickly became enjoyment after two things happened: first, I found my rhythm with the weapons, and second, I turned down the settings on my PC. Because movements are less crisp and sudden, any stutter in your machine’s performance will really disconnect you from the movements on-screen, making it very hard to control your aim. My PC is getting very long in the tooth, so I can’t say whether the requirements are particularly high or not, but it runs quite well on lower settings while still looking good (it uses the Unreal 3 engine). The art direction is solid and gives the game a cinematic quality that is visibly intentional but doesn’t go too far overboard.
Part of the looseness of the controls comes from the new weapons scheme built into the game, which starts you off with acceptable but less-than-stellar weapons. As you fight with a given weapon, its meter fills up, and once filled the game rewards you with a field upgrade. The upgrades are specific to the weapons, but fall into few general categories: better accuracy/control, higher capacity, faster reload/draw. It’s nice to have this added incentive to learn each weapon and makes them weapons feel slightly less disposable than they do in other WWII shooters. Hell, even the grenades can be upgraded, which pushed me to learn the right timing for ‘cooking’ in a given situation (holding an unpinned grenade to ensure a quick explosion upon finding its target). The weapons’ looseness and the frenetic drama of the muzzle flare and more realistic movements means that knowing when you hit your target can be a bit of a hassle. To counteract this, EA developed a little red X indicator that appears when your shots are hitting home. I like that they give this feedback, but the execution feels a bit tacked-on; like they didn’t want to give up their cool effects, so they compensated with a less realistic feedback system. No biggie, but I wish it was just easier to see when your shots hit home.
The enemy and teammate A.I. is solid and I didn’t notice any bugs beyond the occasional inattentive trooper. Both the enemy and your squad mates use cover and fire-and-flank maneuvers, as well as pay attention to valuable positions such as machine gun emplacements. The chatter from your squad mates is not too repetitive, but sometimes doesn’t feel 100% connected to the situation. For example, calls for covering fire are often an indication of movement rather than any real need for covering fire. The dynamic nature of the game is such that your squad mates will focus on your position and stay relatively static in your absence, which can sometimes seem odd, but the experience would be too uneven if there weren’t some concessions made to your ability to pretty much show up wherever you want and to move along rooftops at will. It really does all come together, though. When you and your squad make an assault on a fixed position, it just feels right.
The demo level is nicely balanced for a first taste, but the Easy setting is almost laughably so. You can stumble into fire and mow down squads using only your pistol with near-impunity. This setting is clearly for players who are unfamiliar with FPS games. I found Expert to be the most satisfying after I’d played through a few times. Your vulnerability to damage made for much more realistic firefight scenarios. This is aided by the health meter, which is a combination of the Halo/Call of Duty recharge system and a segmented health bar. It works well at keeping you on your toes, and pushing a nice rhythm that allows you to get in the fight, duck for cover, then push back again, without allowing you to go from near-death to complete health by sitting still and breathing. My biggest complaint is that, unlike Call of Duty, there’s very little indication that you’re at the end of your rope, other than the little health bar. I’ve been cut down many times because I didn’t realize I was nearly dead. They seem to rely more on team chatter (“Travers took a bullet!”) than on visual cues like the red haze and heavy breathing of CoD. This could use some attention.
The only other big gripe I have is with some obvious visual bugs. I’ve seen more than one fascist with an 8-foot arm that’s been caught on a corner and stretched to cartoon-ish lengths through some weird quirk of the clipping and ragdoll systems. The enemies tend to die either very realistically (crumple and fall) or very dramatically (fly through the air), but it lends a nice sense of impact to the game, so I don’t mind when my .45 sends someone backfipping through the air. Some enemies even crumple forward when behind cover, leaving them propped up against the sandbags, which is a nice effect. It makes the deaths seem less rigid and forced. However, the limb-stretching effect really breaks the reality of the game. I hope they can squash this bug.
I am absolutely buying Airborne when it comes out (well, soon after, since I’ll be returning from a wedding and will have plenty of work to do on the 4th). I wholeheartedly recommend the demo, as I’m still having a lot of fun with it after many, many playthroughs. It looks like Medal of Honor is back in the game and I can’t wait to reap the rewards.