Medal of Honor preview: Three missions, three pairs of boots

During a recent EA press event, I played through three missions of Medal of Honor. The successive missions were taken from the middle of the game and were representative of the full game's transitional pacing. You don't play as one individual over the course of the late-2001–2002 campaign, but rather you switch between three different branches of the U.S. military: the Army Rangers, Air Force and the Tier 1 Operators.

My session was supervised by EA product manager Kevin O'Leary. He looked the part, sporting a Tier 1 Operator-level beard of his own and watched as I made my way through the first mission: "Belly of the Beast."
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In "Belly of the Beast," you play as an Army Ranger and, along with your squad, advance through Afghanistan -- a sandy environment, with lots of dunes and isolated valleys and natural trenches. It's all a part of EA's coined phrase: "historical fiction." The game's fictional battle scenarios are set within a historically relevant, not to mention contemporary setting. Almost immediately upon completing a brief controls acclimation segment, the bad guys -- simply referred to as "hostiles" -- came out of hiding and let loose.

The action pretty much kept up throughout the entire level, though there was a discernible formula to it. I'd engage a small group of enemies, be given a moment's reprieve after dispatching them, and then would come across another loose collection of shelters and be tasked with clearing them out -- rinse and repeat. This went on for a bit until I received word from command that an artillery placement needed to be "painted" in order to be taken out. Now it was time to get strategic.

If Medal of Honor was too real, few could stand to play it.

The gun was well fortified -- I died a few times just sticking my head out for a quick peek -- but thanks to O'Leary's heads-up, I discovered the game's incredibly useful leaning system. When up against any bit of cover, pressing the appropriate button (LB in the Xbox 360 demo I played) will allow you to sort of stick to that object, letting you use the left analog stick to slightly poke your head out and get off a couple targeted shots. Once i found a good spot, I popped up and lay down suppressive fire on the gun nest, giving my squad opportunity enough to flank the enemy position and paint it with smoke. It felt very militaristic; at least how imagine real-life Rangers would handle this type of situation -- something O'Leary hopes gamers will appreciate.

"The franchise has been known for that and that's kinda our core position," he said. "We appreciate it and we respect our soldiers -- we go out there and we tell their story. That's the feeling we want to have in the game: you're in their boots, this is as closest as you can get to that combat situation."

Throughout Belly of the Beast, it did feel like the developers had focused on realism. I was alongside a squad that acted as it should: my teammates took cover; they flanked enemy positions; they called out danger areas, and so on. Compared to the seemingly untrained enemies I encountered (the game did not to identify them as part of an organized group, like Al-Qaeda), who would blind-fire from behind cover with reckless abandon and run carelessly around the makeshift battlefield, my squad remained disciplined under fire; perhaps indicative of the disparity between professionally trained soldiers and quickly recruited insurgents in the real war.

This sense of two different sides wasn't isolated to the first level. In the next, a mission called "Gunfighters," I flew in an Apache helicopter hunting down terrorist cells that were hiding out in a mountain range. I operated the gunner seat in this on-rails sequence that combined medium-range combat segments with long-distance threat acquisition -- this mission was previewed in a recent trailer.

The realism implied in this "historical fiction" may be apparent in the pilots' chatter, but does it ring true in the gameplay itself?

These choppers are equipped with a technology dubbed T.A.S. (Target Acquisition System), which lets them fire on targets thousands of yards away. During these bits, I'd switch to thermal vision and fire missiles on enemy mortar groups littering the cliff sides; but only after identifying them as hostiles with intent, which was determined by the fact that they had mortars aimed at ally positions.

Throughout the entirety of this mission, the two pilots were relaying information back and forth in military jargon. "We had consultants from all kinds of different groups of the military that have helped us out," O'Leary explained. "I would say that they've touched pretty much every piece of the game. We spent some time with an army squadron -- an Apache squadron, specifically -- down in southern California and they let us do a lot of cool things: recording sounds; taking pictures of cockpits; and other stuff that's not classified. But one of the cool things that they took that step farther, and we took that step with them, is part of our commitment to authenticity, is two of the pilots from that squadron wrote the entire VO for that 'Gunfighters' mission."

"The mission is loosely based on what we call 'historical fiction' -- events that may have happened, missions that may have happened, but are totally our own and totally new," O'Leary continued. "That just kinda goes to show the level of commitment and involvement they [the Danger Close developers] take with the game. It doesn't get more authentic than to hear two pilots who fly these ships for real, these massive warbirds, come in and write the script for you. Half the time if you're listening and you don't know what it is they're talking about, it's because this is how they'd speak in combat situations."

The realism implied in this "historical fiction" may be apparent in the pilots' chatter, but does it ring true in the gameplay itself? The mission was a glorified shooting gallery, an on-rails sequence where I shot up pretty much everything in site; and it was highly reminiscent of other major action sequences in similar games. I lit up entire villages stuffed with enemies. Now, you may be thinking, "But there could be civilians in there!" but Danger Close and EA have been careful not to make their version of the conflict that close to the real thing.

In fact, I didn't run into any civilians during any of the missions I played. It was as if I was treading through the "Terroristland" province of Afghanistan -- not a civilian in sight. Because of this, EA and Danger Close have been able to sidestep the highly sensitive issue of fighting an enemy that's imbedded in a civilian population. Thankfully, video game insurgents keep to themselves, in their own communities.

The final mission I played put me in the boots of the much ballyhooed Tier 1 Operator -- a sniper, to be exact -- in "A Friend from Afar." Armed with a .50 caliber rifle, the mission started with me and my sidekick Dusty identifying and subsequently "dealing with" small, isolated terrorist bands on a gigantic mountain. Because I was sniping from great distance, my shots had a few-second lag time, which made for some tough, yet incredibly rewarding kills. My first headshot struck its target with such velocity that I flinched. Eventually, once the enemy located our position, we had to hoof it to higher ground.

O'Leary offered a bit more on EA's relationship with the Tier 1 Operators. "It's exciting for all of us, and for them to come in and have a direct impact on the way these characters speak, the way the game plays, the mission structure -- everything from the weapons they use, their favorite gear set-ups, all of those things are incorporated in there," he said. "There may be only a few hundred guys that can look at it and take a nod and say, 'Yeah, that's it' -- closed circle, behind the sheets like, 'I know exactly why it's like that.' Only a few hundred will, but the cool thing is we get to tell that full story to the masses."

After further traversing the mountainside, fighting more small bands of enemies, me and my bearded compadre stumbled upon a wounded enemy soldier. Rather than simply take him out, we stayed back in the cut and let his cries of pain lure a nearby enemy squad. Sadly, I had already used my grenades, but my SMG got the job done, albeit in less spectacular fashion. Soon thereafter, the mission concluded and so had my time with the game.

I can't comment on how accurately Medal of Honor portrays the "story" of the Tier 1 Operatives and other soldiers, but I will say that Danger Close and EA have been very careful to avoid the obviously sensitive issues surrounding the current state of affairs in the War in Afghanistan and the Middle East at large. This seems to be a good thing, because if Medal of Honor was too real, few could stand to play it. A game's still gotta be fun to succeed in the marketplace.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.