Review by Johnny Cairo
"Sturm Und Drang"
For the love of Goebbels, EA, I get it already. Saving Private Ryan was a milestone in film. This does not make it a template for all your subsequent World War II games to follow to the letter. What else should we attribute the big, loud, overlong battle sequences to, if not the defining vision of WWII for this generation? The influence of popular cinema on the Medal of Honor developers is essentially helping to ruin a franchise that was once so full of promise, any original ideas are instead driven into the ground, as we are presented with a series of interactive movie homages, running the gamut from Enemy at the Gates to A Bridge Too Far to The Guns of Navarone. While some setpieces are impressive, the game's overbearing self-importance has finally come to the forefront and leaves one more annoyed than enthralled. To put it bluntly, what the **** happened?
I'm not going to say I hate this game. I have too much respect for the Medal of Honor series as a whole to totally write it off. Maybe it all started with the overeager EA-LA team thinking of neat "high concept" ideas to really show off what the fledgling PS2 was capable of. Someone threw out the idea to have a re-enactment of the infamous Normandy Beach D-Day landing, and next thing you knew someone else was bragging about what they were working on, how it would revolutionize the FPS genre itself, how the line between reality and illusion will be blurred...
And we're left with a game that thinks it's the best goddamn WWII movie ever made.
You are still Lt. James "Jimmy" Patterson, formerly of the 101st Airborne and of the far superior first installment on the PSX. Followers may recall his claim to fame was rescuing his downed comrades when the flight over the countryside on June 5th (D-Day minus one) went horribly wrong. He was previously established as a pilot sent to do reconnaisance of ground forces the night before the big assault -- now the narrative must bend over backwards in an attempt to justify him winding up in a Higgins boat chugging along towards Normandy Beach just hours after going down in enemy territory. The "back story" in the manual is quite a humorous read. In part one, there was a gap of a few months between the first mission and the second -- Jimmy did a lot of his dirty work during the waning year of the war -- which means our hero is stuck in Europe during that relatively short span of time.
So, it all begins with the much-vaunted Normandy Beach level, and to no surprise to your jaded reviewer here, it plays out exactly like the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan without the old guy at the cemetery. There's the guy who's praying, the guy who wants to go back, the guy who throws up into his helmet. Then there's the guy who says "THIRTY SECOOOONDS!!", and the sound of chains quickly releasing until the exit hatch falls over with a PLOOMP. There's a lot of noise, and flash, and guys screaming. In other words, probably what it felt like to be thrown out of a boat and directly into a swirling maelstrom. The first thirty seconds or so are simply pitch-perfect, and for a moment you can understand what all the hubbub was about.
Too bad the game is much longer than thirty seconds. Therein it becomes just another "run from Point A to Point B, fetch me a toothpick, charge the breach, tallyho" mission in a FPS. While all the Germans ripping away with their MG-42s, Patterson is assigned the task of giving cover fire to friendly soldiers hunkered down in random areas -- wonderful! You must madly dash around trying to locate them, then after a couple of well-placed rounds, the gunners will stop firing altogether, just to accomodate some Allied maggot who wants to advance five feet or so. Then you must continue running around the entire length of the beach trying to find some other wimp too scared to continue the gallant charge. Spare me! In the interest of getting a "T" rating, there is no friendly fire enabled which dismayed me immensely. If I could pretend to be Russian and simply execute the yellow bastards too afraid to fight for king and country, the stupidity of this level would be alleviated somewhat.
Tragically, the rest of the game perfectly follows suit; on big, sprawling canvasses you must accomplish bland, uninspired missions that become too predictable. The scripted events are pretty obvious to spot -- in the curtain-raiser, for example, every single explosion is planned beforehand, the German gunners only shoot for a few seconds at a time, you run into your friends in the same place every time you restart. It feels very streamlined and sanitized, not nearly as random as it should be.
This hits me at a gut level. I had suspicions for a while that with all the unfathomable power of the PS2, some developers would push the console a little too hard. While I forgave the original Medal of Honor for its mass-audience pandering, I can now understand why so many people began ripping into this game for lack of grue associated with, you know, war. Obviously the focus has dramatically shifted to massive battle set-pieces as opposed to the Goldeneye-level skirmishes we've seen before. What we end up with is a PG version of Saving Private Ryan -- one of the key reasons it worked was because of the unflinching realism, and with EA's determination to keep the series "family-friendly" (yeah, show me a family-friendly FPS that doesn't involve paintball) the result could most kindly be described as misguided. The intensity is all there, but what we're lacking is any kind of visceral response invoked by the Horrors of War that Jimmy encounters. Lengthy death animations only weakly compensate for the lack of anything else unpleasant. It's all flashy spectacle. The kind of brutal realism in Speilberg's epic removed the glossy sheen from all other war movies that came before, and allowed us to actually experience what an average GI must have been going through on the morning of June 6.
In Frontline you are a near-immortal dashing to and fro, calmly accomplishing standard flunky tasks, then casually blowing up the barriers which allow you to run up to the bunkers and single-handedly clean them out. You end up giving US forces their vital foothold in Europe, all by yourself! How d'ya like them apples, son? There's no mistaking what their aspirations are. "YOU DON'T PLAY, YOU ENLIST", says the tagline. There's all kinds of newsreel footage before launching on your mission. General Eisenhower's D-Day address is transcribed verbatim on-screen. There's even some poetry to chew on before you start the mission. What we end up with is insulting and a total 180 from the style Medal of Honor and its sequel, Underground, were taking on.
One would assume the developers could accept that the first two excellent titles were simply fantastical adventures one would find in an issue of any pulp comic book produced at the time. Legends about the OSS and French Resistance provided a perfect launching ground, damned if it didn't work towards Speilberg's goal of honoring the men who served, et al. Here's a game with a real corker of an identity crisis: There's the old Olympian ideal of the Ubermensch as a hero, but he's been mandated to fill GI Joe's shoes and view everything as a foot soldier. Now there's level after level promising unparalleled realism, but instead it's just pretty.
Levels range from shelled cities to rolling fields to a mansion to an underground mine. The engine is good enough to give an otherwise skilled team of developers false hope that they're really going to fool you into thinking you're in a real-life battle. Enemies actually have several different faces. If you look close enough at a wounded man, you can actually watch him die as he uses his face to convey all sorts of agony. Environments are lush and are appropriately different from each other. Weapons are modeled with the utmost attention to detail; it's a kick seeing the guns from the PSX precursors modelled with even higher polygon counts. They even make the right noises.
The sound department does not disappoint, once again. Nazis still shriek like child molestors experiencing their first night in the prison shower room, bullet impacts still make wince-inducing noises, and the score still overpowers everything else. On my primitive Dolby 5.1 setup, it sounded amazing. Michael Giacchino provides his final score for the Medal of Honor series, and it's a real doozie. While not as varied as the music for Underground, some of the action cues will blow you away with sheer power and energy, and almost fool you into thinking you're playing a game worthy of good music. He must have known the series was going under, and bailed in the most elegant way possible.
Underneath all the glitzy wrapping paper, it seems that the combat took quite a few steps back from when MoH was new. Frontline officially has one of the worst hit detection and damage systems I have ever seen, maybe besting Gods and Generals. All too often I would shoot a Nazi in the throat, and while I expected him to fall over and twitch like an eel on hot coals, he just flinched for a second and kept right on blasting me. It's sad to see confirmation that we are still in the era when fully grown men in FPS games can take gunshot wounds to the testicles and continue running as if nothing had happened. Goddamn it, I ENLISTED for this game! Did all Nazis wear titanium cup-and-supporters? Just the fact that being shot does not hamper their efficiency in any way is enough to bug me in this day and age. When you wear body armor, it DOES hurt when you are shot, even with a low-caliber weapon. Now, when I ventilate some Germans with "Sid", my MP-40, I would not expect even the most ripped Nazi to just recoil and fire back with the same degree of accuracy. The only thing that can stop a German in this odd parallel universe is possibly a direct Panzerfaust rocket to the brain, and even so, on "Hard" difficulty, that's not a guarantee. Bollocks.
Atrocious AI similarly deserves mention here. During one level, I managed to sneak into a Nazi kitchen where cooks were slaving over Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. The person farthest away from me on the exact opposite side of the room noticed me, dropped everything, and pulled a gun out of his trousers (Hey, nice Gunderoos! But seriously, who thought to outfit the chefs with Lugers? Was it considered inhumane to drop lobsters into boiling water while they were still alive? Would they discreetly take care of the lousy tippers in the parking lot outside? Could they not afford cyanide for the schlubs who messed up the Riwwel-Suppe? I want answers). Not too much of a stretch, I'll grant. When he managed to shoot me, while I was prone under a table, with his first shot, I knew I was dealing with one special Nazi sea cook. After I shot him in the chest enough times to kill him, I was appalled to notice that nobody else in the kitchen was aware that gunfire was just exchanged in their immediate vicinity. To quote a famous reviewer, "Gwargh."
That pretty much sums up the gameplay department. I would go into detail regarding the unimaginitive missions James "Jimmy" Patterson embarks on later on, but I've forgotten most of them already. For a good collection of spins on "flip the switch, kill the zombies", look no further.
When developers hype up their first level like no tomorrow, and when you read almost everyone in the video game press unzipping and ejaculating on said first level in unison, it's an impossibly huge letdown to find that not only have the people you used to trust been seduced by pretty graphics and a killer sound mix, but the game goes rapidly downhill from there, as if all the levels afterward were merely a long epilogue to the Level of Levels. What other word could be used to describe the squeaky-clean facsimile of one of the most horrific battles in the history of modern warfare? It's just a rather overblown variant on the "free the hostages" level in every FPS ever.
Pomp and circumstance over a killer opening level ultimately dooms Medal of Honor: Frontline. This game is simply too convinced it's an effective anti-war movie that the viewer can try to participate in, but it doesn't really matter because all the "gosh, wow" visuals will convince them that gameplay is merely an afterthought to spectacle. To paraphrase an old Brit and likely Nazi-hater, here's a game full of sound and fury, developed by a team of idiots, ultimately signifying nothing.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/28/04
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