With almost every military shooter franchise now set in the present day or that hazy period labelled as the near-future, the use of war has become less about setting the scene and become more of an excuse to shoot human beings. The death of a soldier regularly makes headline news and this juxtaposition of war simulation and real consequence can be difficult to parse; entertainment and tragedy colliding head-on, catharsis referencing the cause. Medal of Honor, a franchise that practically gave birth to the virtual tribute to the real heroes of war, has long since given up the Second World War environment in exchange for a world filled with terrorists, black ops and the nameless overwatch - fighting the fight to keep world peace in balance. The initial 2010 Medal of Honor reboot - its cover featuring a bearded soldier referencing an actual participant in America’s War on Terror - was a short but well received update of the series. Warfighter, the rather blatantly named successor, is a different beast - a game that evokes confusion. Not in its mechanics, campaign, multiplayer or even storyline but rather its stance on military conduct and servicemen worldwide.
Before all of that rumination, however, it’s worth talking about the game itself. Medal of Honor: Warfighter features a thirteen level campaign, globetrotting to various sandy troublespots in order to shoot terrorists. It’s almost as simple and blunt as that - levels are the usual mix of linearity peppered with mandatory sniping, stealth and driving missions. Characters switch between two primary combatants in the American military - “Preacher” and “Stump”, as you’ll learn to know them. If these call-signs seem arbitrarily dry and distancing, beware - you’ll need a Navy SEAL to hand (or a code handbook at the very least) in order to interpret the barrage of jargon spoken throughout the game. While it comes across as wonderfully ‘realistic’, its constant use has a nasty way of dehumanising the soldiers. Whereas a TV show like Generation Kill has its fair share of ‘Oscar Mikes’ and ‘P.E.T.N.’, at least there’s some pop culture banter to ground the characters in a world with some semblance of banality. Instead, Medal of Honor immediately has the feel of a clique - a group of men you can only observe from the outside, of which you’ll never gain full access.
The shooting mechanics are solid enough and despite no shortage of real-world weapons to choose from it’s likely you’ll stick to whichever gun you happen to hold at the start. Ammo isn’t a problem - holding ‘X’ by an A.I. soldier will replenish any ammo indefinitely - and it’s a credit to the audio department that each weapon sounds satisfyingly powerful, putting any good sound-system to good use. Unfortunately the audio design seems to be the most impressive part of the game (and even it is beset by occasional pops and underwhelming explosions). Although levels do alternate styles of play, they inevitably end up feeling uninspired and serve as little more than shooting galleries. One mission will give you a brief sniping interlude, another sees you firing out of the side of a helicopter while others feature silencers and breach tactics in a traditional, been-here-before stealth operation. The problem with Medal of Honor is that this has all been featured in other games, often presented in superior fashion. The game’s one totally unique level - a hurricane ravaged city, complete with waist-high flooded streets and dangerously destructive debris - turns out, by an unlucky twist of fate and coincidence, to also be the subject of a level in main rival Call of Duty: Black Ops II (which is actually more fun). Although both games are heavily scripted, Medal of Honor suffers the ignominy of telegraphing any events from a mile away - you can often spot the exact spot that’ll trigger an enemy to appear, or for a building to crumble. It’s exasperated by any deaths that may occur. Rather than a quick reload that places you directly back in the action, your unfortunate demise will eject you back to a loading screen before returning you to a spot a few metres from where you stood before. In fact, the whole menu system itself is unwieldy and prone to excessive lag. The simplest task of sliding between menu blades is noticeably slow, despite the fact that the menu is nothing flashier than a few boxes and pictures. There are at least three types of loading screen, often leading into each other in a round robin of interminable loading.
The first mission you’ll play - a semi-stealthy sortie at a boatyard that ends up going horribly wrong - is an explosive introduction to Medal of Honor. Things look to be good, albeit a little scripted, and the impressive set-piece destruction is enough to get you excited for later levels. Unfortunately, they devolve into the usual combination of shooting galleries (quite literally), quicktime events and genre tropes. A few vehicle sections - one involving a car chase, another piloting a boat and one more involving what can only be called ‘car stealth’ - break up the gunfire. Again, first impressions are positive as the game feels to be breaking new ground; when the car chase stretches on for over five minutes, or simple mistakes lead to repeated mission failure, the thrill begins to wear off. It also doesn’t help that the opposing forces are, once again, a coalition of baddies that have been seen in games and on television since Jack Bauer’s first power hour. Islamic separatists, Somali pirates, Yemeni bombers - all are grabbed from real-world headlines. Waves and waves of these chaps - entire cities! - come at your elite squad ready to die. If you thought the Call of Duty games felt a little xenophobic then Medal of Honor will make them look positively inclusive.
With every mission labelled as ‘Inspired by actual events’ - as well as the heavily publicised involvement of real Navy SEALs in developing the game - it’s no surprise that these nationalities are chosen to be terminated, given their constant feature in news clips. What really irks is the tone which Medal of Honor takes in dealing with these events. Between each mission we see flashbacks and present day vignettes (residing so far in the Uncanny Valley that the women look like Neanderthals) showing Preacher and his attempts to keep his family together, despite his job involving a great deal of risk, sacrifice and horror. His wife doesn’t feel the same love she once did, his constant deployments creating a parental vacuum for his daughter. These scenes, while initially quite moving if a little bland, soon become mawkish, sentimental and harbour a frankly problematic message when explicitly linked to each mission. Over the course of the game, Preacher’s wife learns, through talking with other military wives, that her husband’s neglect of the family is a sacrifice needed to protect the American people. Her husband has seen horrific things and that’s why he seems distant. Over the course of the game the relationship changes, thanks to a mix of catastrophe and responding to the call of duty often at the detriment to family life. It’s a valiant show on everybody’s part, knowing the risks at stake. Off Preacher goes to fight the good fight, perhaps to never return.
This aspect of the game - the psychological effect of war on combatant and surrounding social group - is interesting and even profound. What makes it so disturbing and uncomfortable is the unrealistic and downright nasty content of the missions. When Preacher is off fighting, it’s not always clean or honourable. He’s inflicted torture on enemies, he’s killed a man with his bare hands, he’s joked with his comrades about massacring entire villages. One level sees you firing from the side of a helicopter; after taking out an entire mountain fortress, you strafe a road taking down tens of enemies fleeing in terror. There’s the option to fire on a lone farmhouse further down the road - the figures atop the roof aren’t flagged as enemies but everyone in the level is seen as fair target. Who’s to say these aren't simple farmers living in an unfortunate area? On the other hand, a level set in Dubai that features a ridiculously explosive car chase couldn’t possibly be based on any real life event, else it’d be plastered all over the news. The most ridiculous level sees one character take out an entire platoon of enemies single handed - something a little hard to believe would happen in real life. These feats of superhuman heroics, or Geneva-convention-worrying brutality, suddenly turn the familial developments into something different and wholly problematic.
It’s a theme explored to a greater (and much more successful) degree in Spec Ops: The Line but Preacher never experiences psychological pain or mental breakdown like Captain Walker - for the most part the killing is clinical, removed and merely a statistic. Instead, for a game with its very title referencing honour, the bullet-strewn corpses of unknown enemies paint a different picture. Tying it all directly to real-life events brings up further problems, given the collateral damage often seen in relation to military operations. While it’s true that horrific things occurred in every war before, the present day setting brings it too close to home. One mission is a thinly disguised recreation of the attack on Bin Laden’s compound. The mission to kill a high profile target is set up as a cathartic revenge mission, with the achievement entitled ‘Let Him Rot’ awarded when he’s removed. It all makes you feel awkwardly complicit; I actually came away feeling much like a serviceman must feel - torn, drained, unable to resolve my emotions. But Preacher just smiles knowingly and joins his buddy in causing mayhem and extreme collateral damage..
The overriding sentiment of the game is something we can all agree on - the soldier fighting the honourable fight is deserving of the title ‘hero’. Those around them are equally deserving of sympathy, given the heartache they must experience each time their loved one receives that call. What Medal of Honor does, however, is conflate this ideal with a disturbing reality. According to each level, these people might inflict evil to counter evil. The big-budget histrionics of each mission complicate this however - the attack on Bin Laden’s compound involved a handful of men and one helicopter, not a massive firefight involving trucks, burning buildings and a whole army of enemies. Therefore, it’s hard to discern what part of each mission is believable. In turn, this means that some of the more callous killing could be fabricated, or could have actually happened, darkening that so called honour bestowed upon those ‘heroes’. It might not affect everyone who plays the game - some will run through with nary a thought to these problems - but those who think it through may disagree with the game’s celebratory tone.
Moving away from the philosophical problems provided by Medal of Honor, it’s worth mentioning that the multiplayer side of the game is a technically competent albeit bland mix of the usual objective focused team-based game types. There are fewer glitches than you’ll find in the single player campaign and the ability to choose from the world’s special forces is a welcome addition. Loadouts and customisation are well used, with each team having different statistics that impact the flow of the match. It’s nothing special and the newest military shooter on the block will likely capture most of the multiplayer audience, but a dalliance or two serves no harm. Every game will see you as part of a two-man fireteam within a larger overall group. Objectives tend to be of the ‘plant/defuse bomb’ kind, made harder with explosive gadgetry introduced to the fray. Drones, airdrops, strafing runs and more can cause havoc for all but the most regimented, tactical teams - it’s no lie to say that most new players will have an average lifespan of seconds. Kills mean points, as does achieving objectives, all of which can be spent on weapon and skill customisation. It’s an elegant system purloined from the Battlefield series, hindered only by the difficulty of the opposition and your skills.
Overall, while a solid shooter, Medal of Honor is rough around the edges. This is the most typo filled game outside of a poorly localised Japanese title, with schoolboy errors cropping up frequently in the subtitles and, most embarrassingly, in the credits where one section is listed as ‘Gamplay [sic] designers’. Glitches are frequent - I clipped through scenery on many occasions - and the AI is fairly incompetent and serve merely as level triggers, either requiring you to follow them or vice versa. It’s the split-personality of the game that really causes problems. While the moral of the tale comes across loud and clear, it’s presented in such a blunt fashion as to feel like a soap-opera. Couple that with the aforementioned problems collating the tone and the content and you’ve got a split-personality of a game that one could argue about forever. Instead, you’d be better served playing Spec Ops: The Line or watching Generation Kill - two properties that address the question in a more inventive, professional manner. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is an Andy McNab novel of a game where soldiers can do no wrong. While we should thank these people for giving their lives for our protection, playing this game is questionably no tribute to their sacrifice.
Preacher to the choir.