- Review Price: £30.00
”’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.
The next big change is the addition of a proper squad dynamic to the game. You only have three men to control, and your orders are limited to “go there” and “get back here”, but the days of the one man army are mostly gone. With other squads in action on the battlefield, there’s a nice feeling that you’re not alone anymore. Admittedly, your troops are of limited intellect, and there will be times when you’re screaming “behind you, you buffoons”, but at least they can clear areas and give you vital covering fire when needed.
What’s more, the Nazis have got smarter to boot. They still do the old duck-fire-duck thing, but they also scurry to outflank you, run for assistance and crawl for cover. Unlike the suicidal goons of Rising Sun, these guys actually keep you on your toes, with one major proviso: the AI really only kicks in on Normal difficulty, so if you insist on playing this game on Easy, it’s not going to give you the same satisfaction.
Even better, EA has finally made some much-needed changes to the game mechanics. Out goes the old and poorly implemented Checkpoint save system, in comes a new system of revives, which effectively work as lives. These are earned by completing objectives in-mission, and medikits and revives can also be won by keeping your troops alive through to the end of the level. This in itself gives the game a new tactical edge; do you use that vital medikit to help your fading comrade, or do you hold it back in case you need it later on?
And on the subject of objectives, these have been given a lot more thought this time around. Each mission still has one main goal, but there are also ‘nemesis’ Nazis to seek out and slaughter, plans to be discovered, and new aims to unlock as you explore. As revives are so useful as you progress through the game, these secondary goals take on a new importance, and you actually find yourself wanting to unlock each and every one.
Best of all, these changes have come without spoiling what always made MoH work so well: its sweeping – if sanitised – cinematic rendering of World War II, and its respect for vintage weaponry and period detail. The events covered – the British assault on St Nazaire, the North African campaign, Stalingrad and the Battle of the Bulge – give you a variety of environments to play with, and each has its own distinctive look and feel. In terms of atmosphere, European Assault is right on the money, and blockbuster action entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.
Which turns the game’s biggest weakness to a tragic flaw. With four campaigns and a mere eleven missions, European Assault is short. Most of us will breeze through it in around eight-to-ten hours, and the sort of arrogant, game-crazy teen that has a joypad spot-welded to his greasy mits could conceivably do it in much less. I’d argue that the game packs so much action into each mission that you’re still (just about) getting your money’s worth, and the ramping AI and bonus objectives do add a certain amount of replay value. However, I’d have to say that this isn’t a bullet-proof argument and the lack of online multiplayer options hardly helps.
In addition, let’s remember that MoH no longer has this subject to itself. The console variant of Call of Duty might not give European Assault much competition, but Brothers in Arms has won a loyal following for its hard-edged realism and more thoughtful take on squad tactics. It leaves this game looking slightly elementary. Again, there’s an argument that European Assault is more accessible and entertaining, but some folks will still find it a small step backwards.
But lets concentrate on the positive. Few games are perfect, and having played several console shooters in the last month, I’d have to say that this is definitely the most engaging – the one that kept me playing past my bedtime, and had me coming back for more first-thing next morning. Neither the original nor necessarily the best World War II shooter, it’s still a real blast while it lasts.
A vast improvement in quality at some expense to quantity, this still shows a series revitalised and – while it lasts – it sits among the very best shooters on the PS2.