Medal of Honor: Airborne
With Activision and Infinity Ward winding the genre clock forward to a more technologically advanced battlefield setting for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the somewhat battle worn World War II first-person shooter crown has been handed - albeit by default - to EA's oft second best run-and-gun series with the arrival of Medal of Honor: Airborne.
Yet, rather than rest on the laurels handed to them by Call of Duty's shift of focus, Electronic Arts has attempted to inject its long-serving WWII series with a fresh (and much needed) gameplay impetus. In the main this involves eclipsing the standard-issue linear structure, prevalent throughout most of the Medal of Honor back catalogue, with the implementation of a more flexible pseudo sandbox experience. This is delivered by allowing players to parachute into the level battlefield wherever they choose, attacking mission-defined enemies and specified targets in any order and at any time.
Established fans of the series may recall a similar approach employed in 2005's rather underrated Medal of Honor: European Assault, which presented the player with predominately open level designs that also involved a degree of non-linear wandering while tackling predetermined mission requirements as and when they were encountered. However, with Airborne - Medal of Honor's debut tour of duty on next-gen platforms - the scope is considerably bigger, the ambition is more obvious, and the resulting disappointments are harder to take.
Without having conquered many of Airborne's sprawling mission environments, its core paratrooper component, the single point of flexibility that EA repeatedly shone the spotlight of interest onto during the build up to the game's release, all-too quickly reveals itself as somewhat of a hollow promise of evolution.
While dropping in anywhere on a given level is indeed possible, air time is often so brief that picking a strategic spot to aim for beyond the smoke-flared safety of indicated landing zones is generally an exercise in frustration. This is compounded by the fact that successfully touching down away from safe landing zones delivers exactly what one might expect in the circumstances: fairly instant death and another parachute jump. They're called 'safe landing zones' for a reason, and seeing as though A.I. squad mates always drop toward the gushing smoke flares, any player deviation means landing without support and usually in an area heavily populated with blood-hungry Nazis. This of course then begs the question: why parachute down in the first place, why not simply approach the open sandbox style levels from the ground?
The somewhat unfulfilling and gimmicky nature of the parachute entries, which are partly spiced up by hidden 'Skill Drop' landing points through broken rooftops, or onto church spires, etc., precede largely traditional Medal of Honor gameplay that typically delivers all it should in terms of authenticity and grit but never quite manages to shake free of its own oddly stilted atmosphere and 'not quite good enough' reputation.
Specifically, while Airborne exudes moments of visual brilliance and a level of environmental detail that only truly hits home while rushing toward the ground or sniping from a tower, its gameplay delivery mirrors previous series offerings by failing to inspire much in terms of tangible fun while also being let down by some shockingly poor close-quarter enemy A.I., relatively dumb and thoroughly unhelpful allied A.I., and sporadically inaccurate hit detection.
That said, other new series additions such as the redefined and suitably tricky sniper rifle mechanism do go some way to help gloss over the fact that idiot Nazis will often run past you in corridors. Specifically, sniping in other first-person shooters is often far too easy, whereas here in Airborne players will need to exercise a decent level of patience and accuracy while risking the possibility of having their heads blown clean off in the process. Sighting an enemy remains easy, but instead of firing off an instant true shot, the player must gently squeeze the trigger until the two halves of an on-screen reticule graphic come together and turn red - indicating the most accurate available shot. This process can take a few precious seconds, and poor cover and positioning can lead to abrupt death if the player isn't careful, but successful snipes do feel earned in Airborne rather than merely a way to progress without having to face enemies mano-a-mano.
Another new feature in Airborne is the weaponry evolution system, which sees the player rewarded with various progressive weaponry upgrades based solely on shooting accuracy and where on the body enemies are struck. A representative graphic of the equipped weapon (rifle, pistol, grenade, etc.,) gradually fills during use and, when full, delivers the player with such things as bigger magazines, quicker reload times, less recoil, more damage, and a few particularly sexy extras when the specific upgrades reach their maximum. For example, maxing the sniper rifle turns it into a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, which is certainly handy.
However, even though the new gameplay features introduced by EA do serve to keep Airborne interesting to a degree, its one major failing undermines any deserving plus points and all-but ruins the whole experience. As mentioned earlier, the gritty action inherent throughout the Medal of Honor series is in full attendance in Airborne, but EA has got the game's difficulty level wrong, wrong, wrong this time around, which subsequently tars Airborne as a frustrating slog rather than a fun-filled blast.
Sure, no one wants to swan through a game unchallenged, but when enemies attack in mini swarms and certain ranks require a full clip of ammo to put them down, the feeling of fighting through Nazi-filled quicksand soon swamps the senses. Indeed, player death comes calling far too many times in Airborne and all-too often reduces the gameplay to fractured rinse-and-repeat attempts to complete mission objectives knowing that A.I. allies won't offer genuine support, enemy forces are often massive and always ruthless, and one or two clearly placed shots will see you strapped into a parachute ready to start over.
But why is Medal of Honor: Airborne so difficult and unforgiving? Well, that's a debatable point, but this reviewer would hazard a guess that the distinct lack of single-player mission content likely has some bearing on it. With a mere eight campaign objectives starting in Sicily and moving through Italy, Holland, and Germany, anything other than latter level Nazi elite troops capable of withstanding multiple grenade blasts would result in Airborne being disgracefully overpriced in return for 5-6 hours of game time. As it is, EA delights in stacking the odds against the player to such an unfair degree that game time builds more toward the 10-hour mark - though, sadly, the majority of that extra time is spent screaming obscenities at the screen while resisting the overwhelming temptation to launch the game pad through the TV.
Multiplayer action via Xbox Live successfully repairs some of the damage inflicted by the single-player campaign, mainly because the challenge posed by human opposition is considerably fairer and more rewarding than when facing near invincible A.I. adversaries. Yet, with a certain sci-fi FPS from Bungie about to reclaim its multiplayer crown while offering a Live feature set that no other game can match, it's unlikely that Airborne's servers will be jammed with dedicated traffic.
Unfortunately, the pre-release hype surrounding Medal of Honor: Airborne has only contributed to its eventual downfall. Specifically, the mainstay parachute entries exist as a pointless component that only serve to showcase the impressive level environments for a few seconds before traditional FPS action once more ensues. Factor in the lack of support offered by cannon fodder allied soldiers against seemingly inexhaustible swathes of bullet-resistant German troops, and Airborne's appeal quickly gets trampled into the blood soaked trench boards of missed opportunity.
Sadly, Infinity Ward and Call of Duty have moved on, leaving Medal of Honor: Airborne as the World War II FPS leader, whether we like it or not - though it is at least more worthy than Midway's diabolical Hour of Victory. But, then again, on the plus side, Infinity Ward and Call of Duty have moved on, leaving Medal of Honor as the World War II FPS leader, in a genre we're all just a little bit sick of trawling through every year. EA, if you're listening, it's a dead horse... please stop flogging it. 71%