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Be the 'scalpel' and the 'sledge' in Medal of Honor

8:20 AM on 03.11.2010 // Samit Sarkar

This year, EA’s long-running Medal of Honor franchise is being remade for the modern era. World War II is out; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is in. The series reboot, simply titled Medal of Honor, is due out this fall; EA Los Angeles is putting together the single-player campaign, while Battlefield developer EA DICE is working on the multiplayer component. In fact, the two portions of the game will be running on different engines -- a “heavily modified” version of the Unreal Engine for the campaign, and DICE’s Frostbite engine for the multiplayer.

I saw a slice of the campaign at an EA press event in New York City last week. (EA isn’t showing off the multiplayer yet.) The level showcased Tier 1 operators, an elite squad of soldiers that’s being portrayed in a videogame for the first time. Hit the jump to read about surgical strikes and big military in Medal of Honor, and check out GameTrailers TV on Spike tomorrow night for the game’s first full-length trailer.

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Medal of Honor (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: EA Los Angeles (single-player) / EA DICE (multiplayer)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
To be released: Fall 2010


Medal of Honor’s executive producer, Greg Goodrich, was on hand to demo the game running on PS3, which happens to be its lead platform. Goodrich explained that decision thus: “We know that if we can make [the] PS3 [version] sing and play great, then the other two systems [360 and PC] will follow.” The build that I saw was in a pre-alpha state, approximately 60% complete. Even so, it offered a high degree of graphical fidelity, although visual effects for things like explosions and gunfire were unfinished. Goodrich told me that the final game will not drop below 30 frames per second, and the graphical power afforded to the team by eschewing a 60-frame-per-second mark will be put toward visual detail.

Like Saving Private Ryan and previous installments in the Medal of Honor series, the new Medal of Honor tells a tale of historical fiction: players will undertake real missions in real locales, but with fictional characters. The player character in the level I saw was “Rabbit” -- so named, said Goodrich, because he has nine children. Medal of Honor will offer a number of playable characters, and each of them will provide a different perspective on the war. The demo mission illustrated the relationship between two of those roles, the “scalpel” and the “sledge.”

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The mission centered on Al-Qaeda troops in the Shah-i-Kot valley in Afghanistan, a rugged, mountainous area. (The entire game takes place in Afghanistan.) Goodrich noted that the level was constructed using “hundreds of photographs of those exact mountains,” images that were provided by Tier 1 operatives who are consulting with the development team. In the mission, Goodrich played as part of a four-member Tier 1 squad that was sent in for a pre-dawn raid to clear the valley of insurgents, which would allow for the day’s Army Ranger assault to go off smoothly.

This is a major focus of the experience that Medal of Honor is offering: the interaction between the scalpel (Tier 1 operators) and the sledge (“big military,” the Army Rangers). The two units are nothing alike, yet they have a symbiotic relationship -- big military can’t succeed without Tier 1 going in for “surgical strike[s],” gathering intelligence and facilitating large-scale warfare, while Tier 1 needs big military to support their covert operations with heavy artillery. Tier 1 missions tend to be stealth-oriented, and on the other hand, “it’s going to feel like a very big operation” when you’re playing as an Army Ranger.

As an under-the-radar team, Tier 1 guys won’t be in uniform; the squad was clad in hooded robes instead of camouflaged fatigues. Early in the mission, Goodrich’s squad came upon an innocent goat herder; to avoid unnecessary collateral damage, a squadmate downed the man with a non-lethal takedown. Chatter from the team leader came over the radio as the squad pushed forward and encountered a few isolated guards, whom the soldiers dropped quickly and quietly. Goodrich explained that the team talk was a gameplay concession -- the Tier 1 consultants carried out their missions in complete silence, since they had carefully rehearsed their operations every step of the way.

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After a small skirmish, the squad reached a mountainside area where a friendly AC-130 hovered overhead. Unfortunately, an enemy anti-aircraft gun was holding off the aerial assault, so Goodrich and his team took out the group of Al-Qaeda men defending the weapon, and then he blew it up. This freed up the AC-130 to do some damage to an enemy munitions convoy in the distance. In a previous mission, said Goodrich, the Tier 1 crew came across the trucks, but the squad was powerless to do anything at the time except throw strobes in the backs of the vehicles. The lights pointed out the trucks to the AC-130’s targeting system, and the gunship made quick work of the convoy in a powerful, booming display of force. The demo setup featured loud speakers that brought out the game’s impressive sound design.

Finally, the gang made it to an Al-Qaeda encampment of sorts and took up offensive positions, the team leader warning his squadmates to watch their corners. Here, Goodrich showed off the game’s somewhat open-ended combat system: he could engage the enemy immediately, or wait for them to gather in a narrow path. With the firefight concluded, Goodrich pressed ahead -- and was ambushed by an Al-Qaeda straggler who bashed him in the head with the butt of his rifle, sending him to the ground. This first-person cut-scene continued with the insurgent pointing his gun at Goodrich’s face, only to be taken out with a slow-motion headshot from a fellow Tier 1 operative. The sequence, which was very evocative of moments from Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare games, ended with a teammate pulling Goodrich up while uttering a harsh “you’re welcome” of sorts: “We just saved your ass. Let’s get back to work.”

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That’s where the demo ended. I can’t speak for the shooting mechanics themselves, since I didn’t play the game myself. But from a presentation standpoint, what I saw seemed similar to Modern Warfare, so EA Los Angeles is going to have to deliver a high-intensity, high-quality product if they want to compete. I have faith in the team, since Goodrich espoused the “core tenets” of Medal of Honor (“authenticity, respect for the soldier, honoring the soldier”) and promised that the game will include features that the series has always had (like peek and lean), but the developers still have a tall task ahead of them.

Goodrich stressed the team’s focus on the game’s narrative, and that’s encouraging. “This is not a game about politics; it’s not a game about operational planning or any of that. We don’t care why the guys are there; it’s just, they’re there: let’s honor them and let’s support them and let’s respect what they’re doing and show that in this medium -- tell a story.” I’m glad that EA LA is showing the temerity to tackle a controversial real-life war that’s still in progress, unlike other games that tell fictional stories in unnamed countries. Let’s hope the team can pull it off.

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