As I write this, there's an elephant in the room. His trunk is made of 20 million DVD cases, he eats killstreaks instead of peanuts, and he answers to the name Call of Duty.
So let's address the elephant first. Is this game a simple case of Medal of Honor: Modern Warfare? The answer is yes and no.
A reboot of a decade old World War II FPS, Medal of Honor updates the action to a modern-day conflict in the Middle East. Most of the time, you play a stealthy, über-professional special-ops type (the US JSOC standing in for the SAS). The rest of the game, you're with the regular army Rangers, who seem like gung-ho buffoons in comparison.
So far, so familiar.
But rather than being a straight-up attempt to emulate the success of Modern Warfare and its sequel, Medal of Honor sits somewhere in the middle. It desperately wants to be its own game, but developer Danger Close knows that players will be expecting an experience similar to Medal of Honor's heavyweight competitor. The result is a muddled campaign that mixes moments of brilliance with idiosyncratic flaws.
The game caused a bit of a stir before release simply by being set in Afghanistan and depicting an ongoing and politically sensitive conflict. EA defended the decision by pointing out - validly - that video games have as much right to document, fictionalize, and comment on current events as film or literature. Unfortunately, Medal of Honor doesn't make a great poster child for games as reportage.
But at least Danger Close - whose name refers to the act of bombing dangerously near friendly forces - takes detail seriously.
A muddled campaign that mixes moments of brilliance with idiosyncratic flaws.
The developers have researched the country and bring you a whistle-stop tour of scenic Afghanistan - caves, snowy mountains, deserts, scrubland, urban areas, and rural villages. The army references are admirably dense; "Tier 1" consultants are listed in the credits. In fact, there's so much military jargon flying about that you can easily miss objectives unless you tune your ear in to it.
But Medal of Honor is also a game that could best be described as "highly cinematic." This is the Hollywood version of war, plain and simple.
The overkill is largely a problem of quantity, not quality; none of the "dramatic moments" that this title presents are wildly unfeasible - there are just too many of them. You know the bit in any recent FPS where you've been injured in a crash, and the screen goes all blurry for a bit while your best buddy pulls you up and tells you to get on your feet? I lost track of how many times variations of this scenario occur in the game. Medal of Honor's also notable for the frequency with which these in-engine cut scenes remove all control; even the ability to turn your head a bit.
The player is often forced down a route which is very transparently linear - larger areas are few and far between, and the attempts to disguise this funneling don't work. Further adding to the Hollywood feel are frequent pre-rendered cut scenes in which the good ol' ground commander in Afghanistan argues with an out-of-touch general in Washington.
I've got nothing against tweaking realism for the sake of gameplay - recharging health, for example - but all the hokey buddy movie stuff and explosive hijinks undermine the game's professed seriousness. The moment that defines this best occurs just a few seconds in.
The opening scene starts in silence and presents a text excerpt from WWI poet Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen." A few seconds later, during a canned movie, you are invited to "Press A to skip" - even if the player hasn't touched the controller. Can we not just watch this supposed opus' opening moments in peace?
Accept Medal of Honor as a game that's different from how it's been advertised, and you'll have a surprisingly good time. The core gameplay consists of crouching behind cover and popping up to aim at targets in the mid distance, but Danger Close throws in plenty of "guest mechanics" to spice things up. Almost every mission, you'll be laser painting targets for air support, as well as joining them as a gunner for a stretch. There's also a quad biking section, an on-rails shooting section with a mounted gun on a jeep, various turret-y machine gun bits, sniper missions and more. It's not a game that bludgeons you with repetition.
And that core mechanic is undeniably solid, even if the main gameplay and controls are practically identical to a Call of Duty game. The guns feel weighty and varied, you're told when you get a headshot, and the chatter of the team members that you fight alongside is genuinely helpful. They'll tell you when a kill is confirmed, when you need to get behind cover, and where the enemy is positioned in terms of clock-hands. The opposition are good shots, grenades are hazardous but not too hard to avoid, and genre fans will find a fair, fun game at the center of the experience.
The presentation is a mixed bag. Ramin Djawadi's sweeping orchestral soundtrack is excellent and naturally complements the action. The graphics are . . . odd. Like the gameplay, there are nice moments: the dusty aftermath of a huge explosion, the sun glinting off snow, horse-shaped children's swings in an abandoned playground swaying during an intense firefight. Unfortunately, it's not always this pretty. You'll find the developers have left a lot of rough edges - quite literally, as this is a game with a very bad case of jaggy polygons and pixelated transparencies. Frame rates dip now and again, and we're also treated to some texture pop-in not seen this side of a Halo 2 cut scene.
When Medal of Honor's single-player gels together, it's a triumph. For me, the most memorable scene was a tense stand-off as the Ranger's Dante Adams, waiting for air support while your cover is shot away by rockets. When the birds finally arrive, it's a moment of real relief, and one of the few that adds weight to EA's higher ambitions with a simple - if not revelatory - statement: in a contemporary war, aerial bombardment is devastation.
The campaign is short - I clocked it at six hours on normal difficulty, but there is some replayability. As well as standard hard mode, there's also a Tier 1 option that makes things even tougher - no cross hairs, no mid-mission checkpoints, less health, and slower recovery.
But what really adds value is the multiplayer. Developed by Battlefield's DICE, this is essentially a different game that just happens to share some of the same assets. It's a very tight online experience. Running on a different engine, it looks more consistent, and there is a small selection of well-designed game modes and maps. There is, inevitably, an experience system, but ranking up is balanced so the bonuses are a nudge, not a shunt, towards victory.
It's a very twitchy FPS - expect to get popped by snipers without warning on a regular basis. It would have enhanced the game considerably to incorporate a Team Fortress 2 style zoom-in on your killer. Thankfully, respawn times are short, and you can pop up alongside a comrade instead of back in your base.
There's a bit of strategic depth, too; you can choose between offensive and defensive support actions. The support actions are essentially killstreaks, but with points given for captures, headshots, and other feats as well as kills. When you get one, it's often a tough decision between sending in a missile or giving your team flak jackets.
There are three classes to choose from; sniper, special-ops or rifleman. They offer a balance between long- and short-range attacks, but each can function as the others in a tough spot. Experience is earned separately, so the game rewards sticking to a specific class. As well as the standard death match, there are capture-the-flag and objective defense games offered; not massively imaginative, but solid. Solid best describes it; Medal of Honor's multiplayer isn't going to create a new paradigm, but it's a very polished product, in contrast to the single-player experience.
Medal of Honor is a game of opposing halves - Taliban and Coalition, single-player and multiplayer, po-faced realism and bombastic antics. It's not ready to headshot that elephant just yet, but it's a worthwhile package. A slight disappointment, but not a bad game.