We're getting into the holiday release season, and you know what that means: it's time for the high profile, big budget first-person shooters to hit the market. Bungie's Halo: Reach is already out and Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops is in November, and in the middle sits Medal of Honor. The name isn't new, but this subtitle-less version of the game represents a reset for the franchise. Traditionally, it'd been set in World War II, but like Infinity Ward did with its Call of Duty franchise, EA's bringing Medal of Honor into modern times.
Development isn't taking place all in one studio. The multiplayer component is being built by DICE, the studio behind the Battlefield franchise. Only a limited number of modes and maps have been shown off so far, playable in a beta that started up a few months ago. The single-player portion, which follows various American soldiers as they fight for their lives in Afghanistan's rocky mountains, is being built at EA LA. Up to now we'd only seen a few stages demoed for us, but recently had the opportunity to go hands-on with three brief levels. If you don't know what hands-on refers to, it basically just means I played it. Here's what it was like.
The action begins with a mission called Belly of the Beast, which is about midway through the game. I'm told in total the single-player portion of Medal of Honor will offer around eight to ten hours of content and will be divided into multi-mission chunks that flow into each other and follow different protagonists. There will be mission briefings between these stitched-together outings but those weren't shown while I was playing. The protagonist in Belly of the Beast is Dante Adams, part of a group of Rangers who are about to drop into hostile territory. Riding in Chinook transport choppers the mission begins as the soldiers bark back and forth amidst the whine of machinery. They offer encouragement to each other and make nervous jokes about the similarities between the Chinook's exit door and the landing craft used by the Allies in the D-Day invasion.
The aircraft land and doors open to a sunny, dusty vista as everyone piles out. All's quiet for a moment as additional transports drop off more soldiers all around, establishing a sense that there's a major offensive about to begin. Amidst the excitement of the landing, bullets whiz through the dust and a rocket strikes the side of a Chinook, causing it to veer out of control. Those on the ground scatter as the rest of the air force takes off, and you rally with a smaller group of soldiers near the foot of a rock hill to assess the next step.
The enemy isn't far, and before long the sound of gunfire is all around, echoing off the walls as bullets chip away at cover. To survive, it's necessary to hide behind rocks while your AI-controlled compatriots fight alongside. Two weapons are available initially, a shotgun and a rifle. You're free to switch between the two and should ammunition reserves run low, additional magazines can be requested from friendly soldiers. It's also possible to pick up weapons dropped by the dead, but if you decide to scoop up enemy guns it won't be possible to acquire additional ammunition.
In terms of controls there are a few things you can do. The mechanics feel solid and allow you to point, shoot and kill quickly and efficiently. I know that may sound psychopathic to something who hasn't played a first-person shooter before, but it's important in this kind of game since it's a majority of what you do. There's also a lean feature, which is notable because I was playing on an Xbox 360. By holding LB on the controller I could then move the left thumbstick left and right to peer out from behind cover spots to fire at foes. It seemed to work alright, though holding LB, moving the thumbstick left and also holding left trigger to zoom was a little awkward. Aside from that, the game makes it easy to swiftly duck out of the way of incoming fire by giving you an option to slide while running. To be clear you do not stick to cover, but just slide in behind rocks and walls after which gameplay continues as normal. An option to go prone is also built in case you need to make yourself a smaller target. When things get too hectic, lobbing a grenade into enemy territory is usually a good idea.
Back in Belly of the Beast, enemies surge behind rocks and clamber down the sides of ravines. This means it's necessary to focus in front as well as above and to the sides since enemies will often be running alongside the ridges of hills and will fire from on high behind cover. It's not all long-distance fighting, however. I switched to the shotgun while approaching a town and ran behind houses to surprise enemies who were staring in the other direction under the assumption that my squad would all stick together. Between firefights there are often dialogue sequences where decisions are made about where to go next. The dialogue here helps lend a sense of authenticity to the characters, who often shout during combat, calling out enemy positions and other threats worthy of attention, establishing a sense that they care about your well-being.
From the town the soldiers surged toward a machine gun nest, taking cover as it unloaded. When things briefly went silent, it was necessary to pop out and send enough bullets at the machine gun operator to get him to stop firing, allowing squadmates to inch closer. Eventually smoke was tossed at the nest signaling to air support overhead that the site was to be demolished. When the bombs hit the sky filled with dust and soldiers coughed and complained as they move into a valley below, eventually reaching a house surrounded by looming hills. It was supposed to be a rendezvous point, but a cell phone is audible near the front door that triggers an explosive. The roof blows off and enemies stream in off the hills, leaving your squad to defend and pray for help.