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Platforms: PS2, Xbox, GameCube - PS2 version reviewed.
A long time ago, there was a little game called Medal of Honor on the Sony PlayStation. At the time, it was received very warmly for a few simple reasons. It was a solid and very playable first-person shooter, and such things were very rare on the PlayStation. Like its contemporary, GoldenEye on the N64, it had a cool espionage theme, mission objectives that went beyond simply clearing levels and heading for the exit, and it also had an atmospheric World War II setting (again, this was unusual at the time). It was followed by an even better French-resistance themed sequel, Underground, and a superb PC version, Allied Assault. And then the rot set in…
The first PlayStation 2 incarnation, Frontline, wasn’t bad, but the first big set-piece mission, the storming of the Normandy beaches, was by far the best. Afterwards the gameplay settled into the pattern that we’d soon associate with EA’s FPS games: linear levels that played more like walking routes than proper missions, with the player dragged practically on rails from one action scene to the next. The Nazis – one of history’s most effective fighting forces – were reduced to a bunch of clumsy thugs whose modus operandi was to hug set positions and alternate between firing badly and ducking for cover.
Despite this, Frontline was at least entertaining, something that couldn’t be said for the next effort, Rising Sun. The levels actually got even more linear, and with comically poor enemy AI, the game descended into a tedious point-to-point trudge. There may have been secondary objectives, but the question was less whether you found and completed them, and more whether you noticed them on your way. As a result, the experienced gamer now treats the arrival of a new console Medal of Honor with the sort of raw excitement we might reward, say, a new series of Heartbeat on Sunday evenings. We’re aware that it will be terribly popular with the heaving masses, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend any time looking at it ourselves.
So here’s a surprise. Medal of Honor: European Assault is nearly excellent.
Now, I’ll go into detail on the hows and whys of this astonishing turnaround in a minute, but if I was going to sum up the difference I’d have to call it energy. If you remember Frontline, you’ll remember how that first level had a real drive and tension. There were bullets whizzing everywhere, shells exploding all around, troops shouting and screaming from every corner, and enemies everywhere you looked. For the most part, this is the stuff that European Assault is made of.
But it’s actually even better than that. For one thing, the levels are much larger and more open, though there is still plenty of cover for you, your allies and your opponents to hide behind, and for another, these battlefields are actually more chaotic. Visually, European Assault is more detailed than previous MoH titles, and it certainly has more impressive lighting effects, but the real technical achievement here – particularly on the PS2 – is how much there is going on in the frame. There are troops, firefights and explosions all over the shop, planes zooming over and tanks rumbling into the fray. Add in the superb score and brilliant THX rated surround sound effects, and at times the game gets close to sensory overload. Cry havoc, then run like a five-year old girl and cower from the dogs of war.