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Medal of Honor: Airborne
Frankly, in a four-month period when we also see Bioshock, Halo 3, Haze, Call of Duty 4 and Crysis, I was looking forward to seeing this game in the same way that you might look forward to dinner with distant relatives when you could be in the pub with friends: there's a small chance that you might enjoy it, but the chances of boredom were riding rather high. After all, isn't this the franchise that introduced the realistic World War II shooter, then milked it to the point of extinction? Hasn't even Call of Duty seen reason to leave those damn Nazis alone? My personal feeling is that the last couple of console MoHs weren't nearly as rotten as some would make out, but even I'd have to admit that the series had lost its way. Wasn't it time to put this old dog to sleep, once and for all?
So, trust me, if I say Airborne comes as a pleasant surprise, that's actually something of an understatement. The fact is that, while it still has its flaws, it is utterly fantastic. It's right up there with the mighty Call of Duty 2 as my favourite WWII game of all time. And the reason why - close your eyes EA haters - is that it's brave, innovative and genuinely different. It actually makes WWII seem exciting once again.
When I first heard about Airborne's big feature - the fact that, instead of spawning at one end of the map, you throw yourself out of an airplane and parachute down into the fray - I thought it had gimmick written all over it. However, I'm happy to admit I was wrong. The parachute is, in some ways, the organising principle of the game. After all, if the player can appear anywhere on the map, then a) the map has to be big enough to make this worthwhile b) the map has to be organised so that the player has more than one objective and getting to it will be a challenge and c) both enemy and allied forces need to be able to navigate the map and respond intelligently to the player's activities.
The result is an experiment in emergent gameplay, and it's one of the most successful anyone has yet constructed. OK, so it's not quite like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in that you're never quite convinced that you're entering a living breathing world, but it works. Each level essentially works like a wheel, with players landing near the central hub and working their way out to objectives near the edge. The initial objectives can be tackled in roughly any order, and as you work your way forwards other allied soldiers will arrive - sometimes parachuting in - to give you assistance. The Nazis have obvious start positions, but they too react in sensible, concerted and even occasionally unpredictable patterns in the attempt to mow you and your comrades down. At times it feels a little like The Truman Show, with everyone lining up for the star to arrive, but it does give you an impression that you're part of a unit, fighting in a fiercely contested battle. Your allies will actually exclaim when you're hit, or ask you for covering fire. Enemies will spot your outflanking manoeuvres and move aggressively to stop you in your tracks.