Review by DConnoy

Reviewed: 06/13/02 | Updated: 06/13/02

Once more into the breach...

''War is hell,'' or so the story goes. Why would anyone want to find themselves hustled out of a Higgins boat onto the blasted no-man's-land of Normandy Beach, feeling the dust and sand kicked up by mortar blasts blowing into your face and stinging your eyes? How could the experience of seeing your friends and comrades blown through the air by landmines, while having a million and one machine guns, howitzers, and fighter planes trying to kill you, be entertainment? Well, if you play video games with any regularity, I don't need to tell you--it's a rush.

Hitting the beach on June 6, 1944 in Medal of Honor Frontline is the epitome of such exhilaration. I can only imagine that this is what it was really like to be there, except of course that a stray round or two won't kill you for real. As the German bunkers tower in the distance like cold gray monoliths and your captain barks out orders to you and your squad over the din of thunderous explosions and staccato gunfire, terminology like ''scripted events'' and ''anti-aliasing'' just... falls away. The chaos of D-Day in Frontline is not something to be missed, as short-lived as it is. The worst aspect of it? It sets up expectations that the rest of the game just doesn't live up to. While it has its moments, the remainder of Frontline seems more a remake of the original PlayStation titles.

Historical authenticity continues to be the watchword for this World War II first-person shooter series, as Frontline will have you destroying a U-boat factory, rescuing a captured Dutch resistance informant, and hijacking a ''flying wing'' bomber prototype, to name a few missions. Places like the charming burgs of the Dutch countryside, weapons such as the Colt .45 and Thompson Submachinegun, and the uniforms and designations of your enemies and allies are all exquisitely modeled and detailed. And while the graphical engine has its aliasing and framerate problems, the visuals never get as mushy as those in Medal of Honor or as unsteady as those in the later MOH Underground.

Of course, audio, not video, has always been the technical pride of the Medal of Honor games, and Frontline continues the tradition. Composer Michael Giacchino returns to supply the game's orchestral soundtrack, and while his efforts here don't have quite the range he displayed in MOH Underground, his ability to vary themes has reached masterful levels. Giacchino (and his performers) make the same melody inspiring one minute and menacing the next, squeezing every ounce of potential out of only a handful of melodic phrases. Pieces often seem like a vast trek across the landscape of the orchestra, with no instrument unvisited, and the depth and subtlety of the compositions continue to make most other game soundtracks seem like shallow gimmickry in comparison.

You'd almost feel guilty about shattering these warm strings and ethereal chorals with your gunfire, except that the clarity and fidelity of the sound effects is even more stunning. Gunshots echo away into the distance, bullets never seem to ricochet with the same sound twice, and ambient noises like wind, birds, and far-off thunderclaps underlie it all. To truly make the experience perfect, Dolby Surround 2.0 is supported. There's nothing like whirling around bodily in your chair because you literally heard a gunshot come from behind you. Medal of Honor Frontline sets the new standard in video game audio, and the beautiful music and hyper-real sound can often help you forget about its sometimes flawed game elements.

Sometimes flawed? Afraid so. Frontline's gameplay is uninspired to begin with--as I said, the missions rarely ascend above what was accomplished with the two PlayStation titles. But the enemy and ally AI, another area that the series has always excelled in, are dubious as well. Nazi soldiers don't seem to ever pick up and throw live grenades, or at least kick them away, and also seem a little too eager to fight from out in the open instead of getting some cover. And here's a real gem for you: there's nothing like seeing a door burst open in front of you and getting ready for the onslaught, only to have no one come out, because the AI's pathing is so bad that it literally can't find its way out of the room. I wish I was making that up.

Another flaw rears its head in the disguise missions, where you find your way into and through a facility by masquerading as one of the enemy. Fans will recall these missions as one of the series' greatest assets--in addition to being creative and sometimes humorous, the disguise missions created tension and suspense that varied the gameplay pacing and kept it from falling into a shoot-everything rut. Disguise missions return for Frontline, but not really. Oh, you'll be in an enemy uniform, but a scripted event (such as a Nazi soldier running from his room yelling ''He stole my pants!'') will invariably blow your cover thirty seconds in, reducing the mission to yet another all-out blast-fest. A rather shameful squandering of one of the series' best assets.

Control options are flexible but not all-encompassing. Keybindings on the Dual Shock 2 are completely customizable, and sniper-zoom is possible with all the weapons (though a rifle will give you a longer zoom than, say, a pistol). In addition, you can bob, duck, and weave while using the aiming function. This can be turned into a nifty jumpout-shot move that's vital for survival in the later stages, and is a big improvement over the way the previous games practically paralyzed you while aiming. However, Frontline does not support USB devices, and any sort of multiplayer is also completely absent.

I hate to point out so many flaws, because for all these problems, there are some moments (besides the aforementioned D-Day attack) that really shine. You have a nemesis now--a dapper and cold SS agent by the name of Sturmgeist--who lends the game some much-needed personality. Further, several scenarios are blessed with moods that don't really fall under ''gameplay''. For example, a parachute drop finds you in the Dutch farm countryside, fighting its Nazi occupants amongst its frightened and trembling residents. You feel sorry for the poor old farmers, especially when the sight of a grain silo turned into a crude playground slide reminds you that children live amongst its lazily turning windmills. Too bad about having to litter the place with dead bodies and the smoking husks of destroyed tanks.

It's little things like this--echoes, I suppose, of the Normandy Beach intensity that starts everything off--that keep Medal of Honor Frontline from being so easily forgotten. When push comes to shove, yes, its gameplay is probably rather ordinary in a technical sense, but the soundtrack and authenticity lend it emotional content that's rarely found within the first-person shooter genre. Medal of Honor Frontline probably doesn't stand up to a $50 price point, but the brutal intensity of its rendition of D-Day and its transcendental music and sound should not be missed by anyone that leans towards gaming as more an emotional experience than a clinical science.

Graphics: 7/10
Audio: 10/10
Control: 8/10
Gameplay: 5/10

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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