Medal of Honor: Airborne Review - 25/09/2007

The 11th instalment of the iconic World War II FPS series has arrived, but with all the talk of gamers becoming fed up with the sub-genre, have EA LA offered enough new content and innovation to impress?

The game centres on Boyd Travers, a Private First Class in the 82nd Airborne Division, with the game taking you across Europe, from Sicily, to Mainland Italy, Northeast to France, and finally into the heart of Germany.

The key to Airborne, if you haven't heard enough about it already, is that you start each mission from the air, with a companion. EA have given a tutorial mission with the game which gets you used to the parachuting element, but it's pretty straightforward, while still adding a whole new dimension to the gameplay. The idea was, when the game was conceived, that you could land anywhere on an expansive game map, and take on the enemy from there, and this works pretty well in practice.

There are a couple of 'safe-zones' in each of the game's six levels, and these promote targeted landing to avoid getting bundled by over-exuberant Nazis when you land. However, there are also skill drops, which require you to land on a pinhead and 'earn your wings', but of course, you can land virtually anywhere inside the game map, although disappointingly straying from the borders (which isn't all that easy to do from the height you jump at, admittedly) causes a re-jump.

This mechanic certainly splits apart the levels, which while packed into a relatively small space, feel utterly massive when taken at from a variety of angles. Once you die in the game, you usually respawn courtesy of a new parachute drop, which means you can effectively ditch the safe zones and land back where you were fighting just recently. The game still works on a checkpoint system though, annoyingly, and so, if you die, all the enemies you've killed since the last checkpoint will mysteriously be reincarnated and be alive once again. An interesting prospect would have been to start as a new soldier whenever you died, but you do get attached to the name Travers, and so having this respawn system rather than a completely new soldier to continue the half-finished-fight isn't the end of the world.

Clearly, being set in World War II, EA have had to tread as carefully as ever, and ensure that the game is as historically accurate as ever, and in the first half of the game, you really get that feeling. I'm going to have to disagree with the critics of the opening chapters to the game, and say that I feel completely the opposite. The opening four chapters are very good fun, and really captured, for me at least, what parachuting out into an enemy wilderness would be like. All the locations do feel a little familiar, if you've played Call of Duty or Medal of Honor before, but visually and in terms of sound, it blows its predecessors out of the trenches.

Using a modified Unreal engine, the game has that shiny sheen that you can see in Gears of War and the upcoming Unreal Tourament, but it's suitably altered so that it has a far more realistic feel. It's certainly gritty, and doesn't rely on bloom, motion blur or any fancy particle effects to capture the drama of war, and while the environments are virtually non-interactive, with no destructible scenery, ever, the detail is astounding considering the scale of where you can go.

The first two chapters (a chapter taking between 45 minutes and an hour and a half by our counts, on normal difficulty at least) are set at night, and while the first level is nice and easy, the difficulty rises considerably for the second level as the Germans get involved and start shooting straight. A big gripe with the game in general has to be that to make the game harder, the difficulty of the enemy rises � makes sense right? Well yes, but enemies that can blind fire with the sub-machine gun MP40 from behind cover 200 yards away, and get shot after shot in on you while you struggle to line up your sniper rifle shot is pretty ridiculous. Early in the game this problem is not so great, as the enemies don't choose to blind fire (the enemies' intelligence is noticeably raised for each level, as the loading screens in the game tell you).

Similarly, the MG42 mounted machine gun, with its famously abnormal rate of fire, can get pinpoint accuracy from a huge distance away, and of course, can see you as soon as you stick a muscular arm out from hidden cover. The AI overall are a bit of a let down. You will see them taking predefined tracks to attack you, or flank you, and when I say predefined, I mean it. They follow exactly the same route, right down to the inches of cobbled floorstones their footsteps fall upon, and it's entirely possible to sit with a decent gun, looking down the barrel, and get four or five headshots in a row without even moving the gun sights, until the enemy die out. Granted, this only happened three or four times over the respawn filled (for me at least, it's not easy!) campaign, but it's something you really don't expect to see in games these days.

The enemy tend not to attack you until you fire at them, if you're being stealthy or are sniping from a height, but once you do, they'll disregard your teammates and concentrate fire on you until you run off for a while or take them out. It really is a mix of the great and the mortifying, down to the typical Medal of Honor jittery enemies, who pop out and duck down into cover again every half second or so, making shooting impossible, and just looking a little odd all round. They're also fond of turning their back on you to run to cover, but with some pretty poor hit detection, you'll struggle to get a shot at them.

The friendly AI gives you a big hand while playing, both in (slightly) diverting the enemies' attention, and putting down fire on them. They frequently take out enemies for you, but you will often be without friendlies when travelling between objectives, although it seems intelligent that they would congregate round the team's objectives, it would be nice to have a few that would follow you all the time. Often you won't know where to go, but return to the green smoke, the safe zone, where health and weapons are available, and you will be able to follow new friendlies that parachute in, to the next objective. It's not ideal, but exemplifies a somewhat dated map system � some hints would be nice.

The weapons are truly great in the game, they sound superb, with the StG44, a German assault rifle, sounding noticeably different as you reach the bottom of the magazine, meaning you don't even need to look at the HUD to know a reload will soon be in order. The upgrade system, another great innovation here, works very well too. While most of the guns share their upgrades with other guns, you will certainly be picking weapons to upgrade, rather than for their necessary effectiveness in battle. I upgraded the MP40 almost straight away, and when switching to the Thompson for the next mission, was horrified to see the recoil and inaccuracy of the gun - compared to the MP40 when fully modified at least. Once the Thompson is upgraded, the rate of fire and now lowered recoil make it a great weapon to use, and this is just one example of how the weapon progression gives them all a truly unique feel and you really get some favourites.

You pick up better weapons as you get later in the game, and with some upgrades including a grenade launcher mount, scopes, dual magazines, and a melee knife, you certainly notice them once installed, and it's a clever way EA have modernised the archaic weapons somewhat. It's unclear whether the poor hit detection is just that, or if it's merely the inaccuracy of the weapons. The Springfield sniper rifle rarely misses a shot if lined up properly and in range, but try picking someone off with the modified StG44 and its scope, and it may take four or five shots lined up with an enemies' head to get the shot in � I didn't mind too much; I felt it merely emphasised the need to upgrade and use the best weapon for the job, i.e. a sniper rifle for sniping. It's really more the problem of the super-accurate AI, who as mentioned earlier, can shoot you easily with incredibly short range guns, historically at least.

The latter part of the game introduces superhuman soldiers, and it ruins the realistic feeling. Enemies that can take three headshots with a sniper rifle, carry the MG42 at the waist a'la Master Chief, a gun which is so heavy, and features so much recoil, that it has to be mounted and pushed heavily into the shoulder while prone (in real life), and require shots with an assault rifle to make them stagger back and give you a chance to follow it up. It's about thirty bullets with an assault rifle if the shots are at the chest, or two or three headshots, or, in the explosive category, two anti-tank grenades or two Panzerschreck rocket launcher rounds. It's just ridiculous. While there were certainly heavy troops in the Nazi army, protecting Hitler at the end, they were, unfortunately for Hitler, not superhuman, despite their best scientific efforts.

As you move to Germany at the end of the war, after assisting allied troops for D-Day in France, it is certainly an enjoyable experience, and an addictive one with the variety of weapons and upgrades. The controls let the game down somewhat, with no prone option unless you're scoped with a gun, so should you be crouched behind cover with your head sticking out, you have to look down the gun sights, and push down on the left stick to hug the ground. If you click the stick in the process however, you move while scoped, and I frequently found myself suddenly in the middle of no-man's land because I'd inadvertently pushed the stick in. A prone option, rather than using the control described as letting you see under cover instead, is much needed. There are no left handed controls, and only two alternate settings, neither of which feel particularly comfortable, and it matches the inconsistency of the AI when you're struggling from start to finish to get to grips with the old fashioned controls.

And finally, we move onto the multiplayer. Although lacking a party system and the larger maps that thankfully games are now beginning to adopt as standard, it�s still an enjoyable alternative. The days of woefully inadequate EA servers seem like a distant memory when you get a taste of the lag free games offered by Airborne. Now there are only a half dozen or so maps, and the console versions are limited to twelve players, but the same parachuting mechanic that revolutionized the single player game has found its way into the multiplayer arena. Two of the gametypes available for online play have the Allied team jumping from planes and parachuting onto the map, while the Axis players are on the ground defending their chosen positions. The gametypes on offer include objective based territories, and good ol� fashioned team deathmatch, but a variant of the latter allows both teams to spawn on the ground. The maps have been scaled to accommodate the reduced number of players, but the stability of the games more than makes up for that, because there is little point in having the capacity for sixteen players online with constant connection lag. Here�s looking at you Halo 2.

Airborne is a return to form for the series, and is very impressive in sections. However, credibility is lost with the precision aiming of the AI, and super-soldiers. Ultimately, a solid and worthy purchase for any FPS fan.

- Mike Hazleton

Second Opinion:

I feel compelled to point out that Medal of Honor: Airborne is probably one of the biggest surprises of this year. Not only because it�s the eleventh instalment in a previously failing franchise, but also because of the current industry backlash against having �too many WWII First Person Shooters�. Despite such adversity, Airborne has managed to rise above the mediocre, and soar to the dizzying heights of greatness in what is easily the best WWII game to date. Some may see six single player missions as being too short, or twelve players online as being �so last-gen�, but the fact is, Medal of Honor Airborne is a great game that, while it lasts, will give you plenty of enjoyment.

Score: 9.0

- Jon Titmuss


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