Following on from the fairly successful map unlock experiment that had players of Battlefield 1943 trying to gain a number of kills to unlock a free multiplayer map; DICE have created a challenge for the Battlefield: Bad Company 2, this time revolving around ‘team actions.’ And now, we have the results.

It’s been roughly three years since we last saw any addition to the Medal of Honor series. Well known for their World War II perspectives, the developers, Danger Close, have firmly staked their claim in the realm of first-person shooters. For the first time in franchise history, they step foot into a modern-day setting, but not without a bit of controversy. Their look into the War in Afghanistan took media outlets by surprise when they announced players would assume the role of the Taliban in multiplayer. Electronic Arts saw pressure from varying branches of the military, which led to some bad publicity. They slightly remedied the situation by renaming the opposition in multiplayer to the “Opposing Force”. This change was merely cosmetic and fortunately didn’t affect anything in terms of the story or its gameplay.

In the campaign, players follow the affairs of several Tier One Operators within the US military. An elite special operations unit, these small battalions work under the standards of the Nation Command Authority. During our time in Operation Enduring Freedom, aka the current War in Afghanistan, not many people have really seen what is actually taking place on the frontlines. The general plot in Medal of Honor gives you an in-depth look into their everyday operations, inspired by real events, and the harsh reality that our soldiers face on a daily basis.

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It would be an understatement to say the story is intense. You begin in the role of Rabbit, a member of a Tier One squad who is trying to secure special intelligence from an Afghan informant. After being ambushed by a group of insurgents, your squad becomes separated and a multitude of events slowly begin to unfold. The player will also take control of three other military personnel throughout the campaign, and eventually all stories combine to reveal a bigger picture.

The all-to-real scenarios in the plotline almost play out like you’re a war journalist loaded for bear. It’s a very refreshing take on a war game, considering it strays far from action-film gimmicks like other franchises in the genre. It stills manages a great sense of drama, with the push and pull between government and frontline officials, and the action is still very present. The story seems to focus on showing the truth of the matter, which is far more exhilarating and even more terrifying.

While the plotline can surely hold its own in a gaggle of war stories, the combat in the game is very refined as well. Targeting is precise even on the most difficult setting when there is no snap-to ability. There is also a very smooth slide maneuver for use when obtaining cover. This makes shootout scenarios very fun when charging the lines of an assault.

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The AI squad mates are also very capable in battle situations. There is a great line of communication, as they tend to call out enemy locations, and you always feel like they are watching your back. Unlike most AI teammates, they’re also very handy at taking down opponents. Your squad is very accurate when it comes to shooting and can handle themselves in hectic circumstances. Enemy AI is also very efficient during a skirmish. They can pull off the same moves the player can, sliding into cover, peek around corners, and have great shooting accuracy as well. Although there were a few moments of quirkiness, for the most part the AI is solid.

Unfortunately, the multiplayer doesn’t feel as well thought out as the single-player campaign. Known for their work in the Battlefield franchise, EA Digital Illusions CE developed this aspect separately from the Danger Close studios. Their initial hopes were that it would be able to compete with the Call of Duty franchise in multiplayer success, but it falls very short of the mark. Simple aspects that play a great role in single-player are no longer present. There is no quick sliding move, no leaning in and out of cover, and not even the allowance to go prone. It feels like the slickness of the game was completely removed from multiplayer for no apparent reason.

In addition, the classes are also very basic and have a poorly executed upgrade system. No matter what class you choose, you’re severely unbalanced from the get-go. Other players are like bullet sponges with your weak starting weapons, and scoring kills will most likely only come through headshots. There are also plenty of lag-issues to go on top of it. Death animations come a bit later than expected, and just as you think you’ve ducked behind cover in time to dodge a bullet, it’s already too late.

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The map variety is also a bit disappointing, not to mention the ones available are all very small. There is only a handful when playing through any given mode and the repetitiveness will come early and often. Granted, the Combat Mission mode is the only one that strays from this formula. This mode allows you to battle through five different sectors on a map, one at a time, either defending or attacking an objective. Matches can become pretty fierce as the attacking side tries to storm through each point, but it’s hardly enough to go along with other modes that feel very similar to one another.

Although the game looks very polished in some aspects, there are still plenty of frame rate issues to deal with. Large explosions during the campaign cause drastic stutters, but fortunately it’s never severe enough to halt the game. The textures and facial animations are all very well done, and the backdrops can look pretty phenomenal. They also made use of a modified Unreal Engine and decided to go with full-motion video cut scenes, rather than keeping it all in-game.

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Medal of Honor certainly put forth a valiant effort with this attempt to reboot the franchise. The campaign looks and feels great with its many slight hints at realism. After an unexpected attack and smoke blinds your vision from an explosion, you almost get a sense that you’re fighting ghosts. Even as the player begins to speculate an ambush, you get an overwhelming feeling of tension as you walk through a decimated village. All these subtleties only add to the experience, not to mention the impeccable audio and music to go along with it.

If the game didn’t lack true polish because of its frame rate problems, or contain a regrettable online component that neglected cues from the campaign, this could have been a game to look out for. However, neither is the case and it leaves Medal of Honor feeling stale when compared to other games of its kind. The single-player is its only saving grace, and fans of the genre might not warrant a purchase without an equivalent online experience to back it up.

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EA recently released a new trailer announcing the multiplayer expansion pack for Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which will bring players to the widespread jungles of Vietnam. The gameplay will surely be familiar to veterans of the franchise, but will bring a host of new weapons and vehicles as you take sides as either the U.S. Marines or North Vietnamese Army. The new expansion will also add enhanced persistence, new unlocks, awards, and achievement. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam will be available for download this winter 2010

Since the original release of Medal of Honor for the Playstation 1 in 1999, the war-themed shooter genre has erupted into an onslaught of competition and rivalries. Franchises have begun and died off; some have improved while the less capable become forgettable impulse-buy fodder. Most recently the industry has focused its eye on the Modern Warfare series for propelling the genre into contemporary time. Modern Warfare 2 has gone on to be the best selling video game of all time and its juggernaut of PR and reception makes it difficult to look past its supposed competition.

So when I say “a Medal of Honor reboot is coming out this year” most people reply with “What is Call of Duty doing?” Although an unfortunate fact of the consumer base, it’s difficult to persuade people on a product they’ve never seen before. This is why back in May, Electronic Arts flew myself, along with a few dozen other journalists to see single player, and play multiplayer. Based off of my personal experience of seeing the campaign, and playing the multiplayer extensively, I can say there is not a doubt in my mind that Medal of Honor will dethrone Call of Duty this fall.

Now that’s an obviously very bold statement to make about one of the biggest franchises in video game history, so I should explain where I’m coming from. First of all, the game’s single player is being handled by EALA, and takes place during the early phases of the Iraq War (2003/2002) before it was even called the Iraq War. Medal of Honor doesn’t hide from its recent history, so you’ll be hearing about reasons why the war started, and you’ll know you’re fighting the Taliban and Osama Bin Landen. On the flipside of that, the developers assured us that the game is not trying to make a political statement, they just want to make a good game.

Medal of Honor takes place in Afghanistan 2003

The meat and potatoes of the game are split up over multiple characters. EALA only confirmed that you’ll be playing as both the Army Rangers and Tier 1 Operatives, but hinted at the fact that there would be multiple characters past these two. Greg Goodrich of EALA compared the Tier 1 operatives as the “Scapel,” a group of highly trained and deadly warriors who covertly infiltrate enemy lines and tip the balance in our favor. The Army Rangers act as the “Sledgehammer,” an unadulterated force that can bring down the thunder when required.

Despite the promise that there will be multiple characters, the real focus is on these Tier 1 Operatives. The rank “Tier 1” actually exists in the real American Army, but goes by a codename that most civilians do not know about. EALA did extensive research on this rank, the people in it, and even got a chance to speak directly to a few people who served under this elite title. The influence of speaking to these soldiers has apparently affected how the game was designed. The team is steadfast in creating a war game that is both respectful to the individuals portrayed in it as well as making it enjoyable to play through.

Speaking of which, how does the campaign work? For the most part it plays out as a linear first person shooter. In each mission you have set objectives that have to be completed in the order they’re given to you. What’s different about Medal of Honor compared to other competitors is that it isn’t as focused on set pieces. The minute-to-minute gameplay is more tactical and can play out differently depending how you approach situations. You’ll be clearing houses with your team, and sometimes you’ll decide to take a stealthy approach with knife kills and melees, or other times it’s just best to go in guns blazing.

The only time you’ll see a door, is when you’re about to kick it down

It’s entirely possible to play through the same mission two different wants depending on how much you want to rely on your teammates. That said, there are no direct squad commands in Medal of Honor, your friendly AI will carry out their own procedures and flank/charge accordingly. The teammate AI has also been tuned to actually be helpful in firefights. Unlike previous entries in the MOH franchise, your squad members can actually pick off enemies that are giving you a hard time and overall are very reliable.

Although there is an obvious focus on the tactical gameplay and clearing houses or traversing through valleys and mountains, there are still going to be a few memorable set pieces within the game. One particular demo we got to see was the Army Rangers taking down a machine gun emplacement. The Rangers pushed forward as the gargantuan gun obliterated walls of cover and rained terror on unfortunate allies. The team eventually got close enough to call in an air strike, after popping smoke and a short wait the gun’s location was replaced with an enormous explosion. The dust that was generated as a result ended up covering the entire battlefield and reduced visibility for a short amount of time. Needless to say, it was very cool, and really pushed the graphical fidelity to its fullest.

In fact Medal of Honor as a whole looks like a very good game on the graphics front. The art designers put in a lot of work of surveying areas similar to Afghanistan and making the level design believable and close to how it is over in the Middle East. There’s an obvious rigidness to the terrain and the landscape is filled with mountains, hills, canyons, valleys, and all sorts of height differential environments. The level design also doesn’t follow a strict corridor pathway. There are some obvious restraints on how far you can go in any one direction, but it still very much feels like a big open desert, even if you can’t walk across the entire thing.

The environmental design is jaw-dropping

The more important part of the technical side of development is the Artificial Intelligence. An entire section of the community day was dedicated to looking at the AI of Medal of Honor. On a very basic level, the animations and mannerisms of both the friendly and enemy units have been overhauled from Medal of Honor’s last release, Airborne. Every AI now has a variety of movement abilities, they can still walk and run, but they’ve also added full-on sprints as well as limps and crawls after being shot. Even whilst running, the AI will react to nearby fire by attempting to duck away from the bullets or make a sharp turn to avoid incoming fire.

In the event the AI does get caught by a bullet, there is realistic implementation of hit-detection. Every unit has a different animation depending on where it was shot and how lethal of a hit it was. Units that manage to hold on to dear life will attempt to limp away, or if shot in the stomach they will curl up in the fetal position and hope for survival. It’s sort of odd to talk about all the ways your enemy can die, but it adds a realism layer to the game that most other releases tend to forget or not bother with.

However everything so far is peanuts compared to what the audience is really looking forward to: Multiplayer and the big hook of Medal of Honor. Unlike every game ever made, Medal of Honor is actually being created by two different developers simultaneously. The single player is handled by Electronic Arts Los Angeles, while the multiplayer is being created by DICE (Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment), the famous creators of the Battlefield franchise. DICE wanted to make a multiplayer game that was not related to Battlefield since the fanbase of that series demand a certain type of gameplay and additions. This means big ideas such as increasing how fast the pacing in the game is and how important the vehicles are wouldn’t fly in Battlefield, but are free-game in Medal of Honor.

Multiplayer is very fast paced and tense

We got to play multiplayer extensively over two maps. One was entitled “Helmand Valley” and the other was “Kabul City Ruins.” Multiplayer supports 24 players online, and both games modes we got to play were team based which meant 12v12. We first played Helmand Valley, a large-scale objective map that had one team attacking five objectives while the other defended. The valley was enormous and had several stages depending on which objective the defenders were on. The game ends when either the defenders complete the last objective or the defenders lose the total amount of lives they were given at the start.

This game mode was a lot more similar to a Battlefield-style type of game, but the pacing of the game is very fast in comparison. The controls go for an obvious arcade-like feel and grip as opposed to the Battlefield slow and heavy inertia. There was also one tank on the map that only the defenders could use to help take down the numerous walls and outposts they had to breach to get to the final objective. I personally felt that the balance between infantry and vehicle was perfect. The tank didn’t seem all that important, but when it was used at the correct time it was vital to the success of the defenders. That being said, the tank is also relatively easy to take down as long as you gear up correctly.

Speaking of which, the other big thing for Medal of Honor is the loadout options. The obvious comparison is made to Modern Warfare, but instead of picking perks and extra grenades, you modify what type of gun you’re bringing and how you want it speced out. You can choose between a grenade launcher for extra efficient, or maybe a silencer and go covert? There were also numerous options for scopes, magazines, and other variations that can be matched up with any play style.

This man is pointing a gun at your face

There is also a leveling system that unlocks more guns and accessories, but we didn’t get a good look at how that was planned out or what the higher levels got in comparison to the lower levels. However DICE did say that any person who reaches the highest rank will acquire the ability to grow a beard on their character model to show the rest of the world how they’ve conquered the leveling chain.

The second map available was Kabul City Ruins. This map was played in Team Deathmatch mode, and it was vicious throughout the entire experience. Kabul City Ruins is a map that is designed to have no safety ever. Every corner can be flanked, every building has at least four entrances, and there is no safe haven for anyone. This forced players on both teams to be constantly moving and raiding other sides of the map and rely on their quick reflexes instead of methodically paced tactics. In comparison to the Valley, this map was much smaller but made sense considering the design was made to evoke that tension of being snuck up on at any second. The Kabul City Ruins map was not only fun to play, but probably one of the better designed multiplayer maps I have played over any game, let alone shooters.

Finally, there is one final modification to the multiplayer formula made in Medal of Honor, and that is the offensive and defensive actions. Whenever a player cumulates enough points by doing actions such as reaching objectives, killing enemies, or assisting allies they are rewarded with a tier of abilities. Offensive actions are triggered with the left D-Pad direction, and defensive is deployed through the right D-Pad direction. Offensive gives the player more and more advanced explosive actions. It starts with mortars, then artillery, and eventually if the player is killed enough they can unlock the S.C.U.D. missile and beyond. On the defensive actions, players can choose to help their teammates out in various ways. The first level is a simple UAV (that can be shot down), but further down the line abilities such as body armor, or instant ammo are granted to your teammates for an extended period of time.

This guy could probably use a defensive ability

Although these abilities sound like a pretty insignificant change to the formula, they actually make a sizable difference when it comes to the overall battlefield. If you’re on an objective map and have to rush a machine gun, it’s probably easier with enforced body armor, at the same time other play styles could choose to launch a SCUD missile at the machine gun and hope that fixes their problem. This small variation to what has been tried and true proves to work out for the better in the grander scale of things.

I played Medal of Honor multiplayer for three or four hours straight. When given the option to eat lunch or keep playing, I kept playing. As someone who isn’t that big into multiplayer games in general, that means a lot. Maybe it was because I was destroying everyone else in the game (doing TalkXbox proud, 32 kills 2 deaths in one match! WOOT WOOT) but I believe, at its core, Medal of Honor has an edge on the competition. Two developers mean twice the amount of effort, it’s a benefit that not many developers have and it seems to be doing a lot of good to the final product.

Medal of Honor is scheduled for release this October 12th 2010.  There is also a multiplayer beta that is supposed to be released relatively soon.  Look for a news post on that later in the coming weeks. When I landed in Los Angeles, I had the assumption that this community day would just be an effort made by EA to seem relevant in a majorly dominated Call of Duty market. But after leaving three days later (and seeing Black Ops recently, I mean… come on) this Fall looks like it is going to be very competitive.