By now, everyone and their mothers have played a World War II first-person shooter. Surprisingly, there are as many good games in this sub-genre as there are healthy soldiers lined up for physicals. And while it's true that their shaved heads and crew cuts may look similar, each one still offers a little something different. EA's Medal of Honor
series, the granddaddy of them all, is no longer the star soldier of it once was. Sad as it may be, EA has done as much to hurt its series as it has to help it. If Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
on PC was the pinnacle of the series, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun
was its Waterloo.
Maybe that's why Medal of Honor: European Assault plays and satisfies differently from any other game in the franchise. EA has returned from the Pacific theater and is back to focusing on European action with open scenarios, likeable mechanics, deep and varied level designs, and enough of the little things to make the whole thing work. It's not a perfect game; it's got problems. But the recognizable moments of high-quality gameplay outweigh its minor insufficiencies.
European Assault is not an original concept, nor does it do much that other first-person shooters haven't done before. In fact, everything here -- the adrenaline feature, open design, leaning and shooting, and squad combat -- has been done. But EA's development team handles each aspect well. The combination of good mechanics, a few really choice levels, and an excellent graduation of enemy AI gel together and force you to think, strategize, and manage your team and weaponry. Turns out, this one is pretty darn good after all.
Starting in French city of St. Nazaire, players are presented with an easy introductory mission: Get in, get used to the controls, shoot some guys, and get out. The first three missions in St. Nazaire visually display the kind of thing that's made the WWII FPS genre feel somewhat formulaic over the years. Although perhaps realistic, the dark skies, the muddy gray and black and brown palette, and the general darkness of the missions aren't very fresh. You really do feel like you're returning to WWII, and it's with little enthusiasm.
Still, the first mission (or even the first couple of missions) is deceptive. European Assault develops slowly, building in intensity, nurturing you, and providing some surprises along the way. For fans of the series, or disillusioned players like me, the game initially plays like the former titles: It seems linear, pretty straight-forward, and filled with moderately tough enemy AI. But once you're out of France, things become much more interesting.
Little touches paint a much more favorable impression as the game progresses. You have a squad that can be sent out to attack or be called back. The squad is only partially useful, but its existence adds a little element of strategy. They don't kill too many enemies, but they help, and you're rewarded with med kits for keeping them alive at the end of a level. However, unless you stash them behind solid cover, they'll blindly and gleefully rubber band right back to you -- like a knuckleheaded dog crossing busy freeway traffic, even if a grenade or tank shot is about to peg them in the head.
Additionally, the button for reload is the same button for replenishing allies with health. This can be frustrating when in tense situations, and even more frustrating because your squad is full of hyper little children. Occasionally, you'll have to physically chase down a teammate to give him heath. That's not good. Full Spectrum Warrior and Brothers in Arms do a far superior job of incorporating squad tactics into their gameplay. Again, the squad is not terribly useful, yet they add a small degree of strategy and depth.
On the other hand, the enemy AI is much smarter. There are four levels of difficulty, with the second one being the default level. With it, you'll find that the enemy German soldiers are aggressive, travel in groups, tend to deliver a healthy amount of accurate fire, and can actually throw a punishing grenade from time to time. They duck and hide for cover, and they run from place to place. You'll even find that they'll recognize whether you've trained a scope on them, and will duck out of the way to avoid taking a shot to the head. In short, if the same-team AI falls a little short, the enemy AI does not.
The mini-bosses are a treat. Each level has one, and they can always be found about half-way to three-fourths of the way in. They have one level of aggression: Fierce. Ironically, they're actually easy to defeat in one-on-one encounters given enough space. But, as soon as you rush them, they'll whale on you, ripping you apart even with .0001% health left in them. I once rushed a mini-boss with about 1/4th health, and he shredded me in three seconds. In another encounter with the same boss, I hung around for too long in one spot, and he threw a grenade and then rushed me. Surprise! And if they're surrounded by goons, they'll work you over good. From a medium range, however, every mini-boss is easily dispatched by simply whittling away at it, using cooked grenades, and constant pressure. All told, the mini-bosses are a great addition to the series and it makes me wish there were more evil Nazi soldiers with personality to confront.
European Assault controls well too. You can crouch, lie flat, and quickly and smoothly lean from behind objects. This mechanic is beautifully worked into gameplay throughout its entirety, becoming a real friend in uneven firefights. Of course, you'll run and gun like in previous games, but the enemy AI is tougher, i.e. a better shot, and can quickly overcome you with numbers. But by mixing cover, running and gunning, and stop-lean-and-shoot tactics, Medal of Honor develops a comfortable and agreeable pace. Aside from the game's smooth and gradual increase in difficulty, I probably like the genuinely excellent pacing best of all.
Speaking of pace, by building headshots and staying relatively unscathed, you build the Adrenaline meter. When triggered, you enter a modified Bullet Time. Adrenaline mode lasts about 10-15 seconds. When energized you're invulnerable, your shots do more damage, and you're faster, or at least that's what we're told. In actuality, you move slowly, but everyone else moves slower. It's not false advertising, but Adrenaline mode is more of a shallow novelty than a consistently useful tool. I used it when in a crunch, but it doesn't last very long. So right when you feel you're actually kicking serious ass, it wears off. Be wary.
Straightforward gunplay works right on the money. You'll find yourself armed with a standard arsenal of authentic World War II weapons, from the M1 Garand rifle, M1 Thompson SMG, MP40 SMG, Karabine 98k, and more. The bazooka is easy and slow to use. The machine guns arch up when firing for too long, and the reload animations are all enjoyable. The sniper rifle is probably my favorite of them all. It's slow to target but highly accurate. You can pinpoint all parts of the body, and the enemies react in enough ways to keep things fresh. In a nice subtle touch, you can kick an enemy grenade right back at them in time for it to send them flying.
The progression scheme enables you to play any level over if you want, and it rewards you with bronze, silver, and gold medals, depending on how well you've done. The missions don't offer save points, instead opting for the similarly useful Revive Units (first recognizable in Star Wars Republic Commando). It works like this: You die and a Revive Unit magically brings you back to life. It's just a little bit more seamless than save points. It also increases the difficulty.
How? When you run out of Revive Units, you start the whole level over again. Revives are sparsely placed, providing just the right amount of skill to have one left over before a level ends. You also earn health and Revives by keeping your dumb-ass teammates alive. You can heal either yourself or your teammate. This provides yet another little choice for you. Which is more important? You decide.
One of the more interesting additions to the game is that before each mission loads, you're presented with two to three primary goals, and a few secondary and tertiary goals. The display is a little confusing at first, but it does make sense. The primary goals are stated, others are veiled. Unlike any Medal of Honor game ever, you're actually encouraged to explore. This might sound incredibly obvious to most folks, but the concept of exploration has not been a major (or even minor) element in any of the MOH games.
Here, scouring the landscape rewards you with multiple things. Because the environments are often wide open, you can approach enemies from different angles, causing you to stop and think about which is the best tack to pursue. You encounter more enemies, and by killing them you can scour them for health or ammo. Health, guns, and ammo are also hidden in outposts, nooks, and less obvious places than before. The open environments surprise and create tension, too. Enemies pop out of areas you might not have seen before with mini-bosses, and sometimes the extra ammo, you've been searching for.
Most importantly, though, by exploring you'll receive audio cues to fulfill hidden objectives. Beating a level by only knocking out the primary objectives feels a little cheap and easy to me, so it was with great pleasure that I attained them all. These additional goals offer great replay value, and it convinced me into playing some of the later levels over and over again. Again, it's not as if this technique hasn't been used before in other games, it has. But EA has done a better-than average job of it, and the game is enjoyable because of it.
In terms of the visuals, compared to the bland and generic style of Rising Sun, the style of European Assault is slightly more appealing. If Rising Sun was bad, then this game's approach with its nearly faceless soldiers and general all-purpose buildings, is not as bad. The game looks so very generic, cookie cutter, and impersonal. You cannot tell one soldier from another. Sure there's occasionally a captain or commander that starts off an in-game cutscene who usually looks relatively believable, and the enemy mini-bosses are distinguished, but that's as far as the variety goes. There are boxy, generic tanks that lack detail and obvious rubble and broken down buildings that look like they could have come from any WWII FPS.
The graphics aren't all bad, however. Guns are more detailed than most other objects and come complete with the appropriate animations, while the environments (carefully lit by spare usage of bloom lighting) look pretty good too. My favorite graphic animation is the visible shot of a tank shell crossing the field. Yes, you can actually see the shells heading right at you. Very cool. Getting back to the environments, the variation of the four locations (France, North Africa, Russia, and Belgium) provide a satisfactory amount of diversity for the eyes and you'll be able to enjoy them in both widescreen and progressive scan.
As is always the case in the series, though, the sound in European Assault is the best thing about it. There are numerous instances of genuine audio that literally digs into your consciousness with convincing realism. The delayed echo of a sniper shot in an open field; the click and clack of metal and weaponry as you run across a field; the crunch of your boots in deep snow; the whir of a tank turret's gears as it turns toward you; the hollers of angry Nazi soldiers as you encroach into their territory. These kinds of experiences and several more are what Medal of Honor is all about. The list is endless.
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