Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault

I've played Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault for about five hours now, and I wanted to share some impressions with you.

A little history first. I thought that Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was groundbreaking for its time, a memorable experience with the exception of its ending, which must be the worst ending in the history of computer gaming. Still, Omaha Beach more than made up for that.

When the copycats started to come out, it was a mixed bag. I thought Vietcong was a deeply flawed but powerful game. Sure, it was a different war, but it was the essentially the same method, so I think it still belongs in the same class. Call of Duty was such a direct duplicate of Medal of Honor (single-player, at least--I didn't play the multi-player) that I thought it didn't really contribute anything new or compelling, even though it was well done.

I don't think I've played anything else in the 'FPS Modern Warfare' genre that impressed me in the least, although so many have come out in the last year that I'm probably forgetting something. They've generally been sloppy, unfocused, and not particularly interesting.

I expected Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault to reverse this trend, and in many ways, it does. The graphics are detailed and an extremely impressive number of objects can be rendered onscreen without slowdown. The voiceovers are high quality. The disorientation of modern war is well-portrayed. The writing and dialogue are excellent, and the opening twist is a fine, fine piece of work.

There are also a few gameplay touches that I appreciate. The most noteworthy, to me, is that you can apply bandages to both yourself and your injured comrades, thus slowing their loss of health. Medics can also come by and heal you, or you can go to them when you're injured, and I've been healed before when I was lying on the ground just waiting to die. That's a very powerful moment, to see your vision begin to clear and realize that you've been spared.

In a game of this type, what I probably value most is immersion. That's why Vietcong, even with it's flaws, was often spectacular--there were missions where you just lost yourself, where you were extraordinarily tense. Creating that kind of tension, even fear, requires a brilliance that is far beyond the reach of most developers.

This is where I find MOH: PA, at times, lacking. It is a combination of both extraordinary immersion and detachment.

Here's an example. The 'big scene' in the early game is Pearl Harbor, and it's visually magnificent. The writing and cut-scenes do a wonderful job of giving you a feel for the beauty of Hawaii (and the appeal of the base itself), and when the attack begins, it's very gripping. I'm in. They've got me.

There were times in that series of missions where I was a bit unclear as to the objective in terms of what direction I should be heading. Plus the scene itself is pretty overwhelming. So I found myself crouched behind some boxes as the sky darkens with Japanese planes. And I'm shooting at them with my rifle, both because I'm a total dumbass and because that's what you do in FPS games--you shoot stuff.

Imagine my surprise when I start shooting them down. PLANES. What the...? Now I'm not on the 'realism' difficulty setting, because I have no desire to play a mission through thirty times, but I think I'm on the second setting out of four, and is there ANY setting where I should be downing planes like they're made out of paper? No. So when I realize what's happening, I'm immediately taken from a high level of immersion to no immersion at all.

What was particularly mystifying to me about this moment, in retrospect, was that it was absolutely pointless. Being able to down those planes had absolutely no effect on anything. It was totally unnecessary to any other moment in the game.

I also realize that I can just hide behind these boxes, shooting at planes, and they'll keep coming--forever--until I reach the trigger point to start the next objective. There will be plenty of sound and fury, but absolutely nothing is really happening. All of these games are on rails to a large degree, but some games do a better job of hiding it than others. Having this happen so early in the game was like finding out the Wizard of Oz was just an old guy behind a curtain in the first scene of the film.

Here's how it should have been done: when a certain amount of time has passed and I haven't made progress toward the location-based objective, a soldier should have come up beside me and yelled my name. "We have to get to XX!" he could yell, and then he could run toward the objective. It's a reasonably well-veiled deception and the world would never go into an endless, meaningless loop.

The early missions feature quite a bit of heavy-gun work, using the giant battleship guns to blast planes out of the sky. They're very frenetic and initially very immersive, certainly a welcome change of pace from the missions found in most FPS war games, but they last such a long time that by the end I felt a certain level of detachment, as though I was just playing out the string, so to speak.

That's what I mean about this game. It's a very odd blend of absolute immersion with near-absolute detachment.

Then you'll see plenty of missions with your squad, getting into firefights, etc. We've all seen it many times before, it really doesn't feel any different here, and maybe that's the problem. It may be my problem, not yours. I think I'm starting to get genre fatigue. These first-person modern war experiences were very shocking at first, but they were absolutely compelling. The Omaha Beach mission in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault might be the single most intense moment I've ever felt in gaming. But now as I experience more and more of these moments, I'm starting to feel both detached and guilty. There's something nonsensical about reducing these brutal, terrifying experiences to five-minute segments in games. I know, that's what games do, but am I the only one who has reached a collective fatigue about this?

I just reread what I'd written so far and I think it slants more negatively than it should. There are many moments in the game that are very, very slickly done. It's clear that some very talented people produced this game. And if you like the genre, I think you'll be more than satisfied with the results. I was just deeply struck by the inconsistencies behind the excellence.

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