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Medal of Honor: Warfighter review: Mixed messages from home

Medal of Honor Warfighter reviewMedal of Honor: Warfighter gets many things wrong, but most of all it is the victim of poor messaging. Those who have been following the marketing campaign for the latest from EA’s Danger Close studio have no doubt picked up on the fact that the game was developed in collaboration with actual Navy SEALs. There’s been a lot of noise from Danger Close about honoring those who serve, and while I do think that Warfighter‘s narrative speaks to that, the actual play is driven by the same sort of over-the-top spectacle that you’d expect from a modern military first-person shooter.

My negative reaction to Warfighter stems in part from getting something that was other than what had been expected. The key words there being “in part.” My negative reaction also stems even more from the fact that, at base, this is just not a very good game.

A Love Letter to the Troops

The patriotic narrative that drives events forward in Warfighter isn’t inherently a bad thing. I can even accept the loosely tied together series of levels. They don’t do much for telling a coherent story in the traditional sense, but I also imagine it’s similar to the experience of being a soldier who simply follows orders. The bigger picture comes together over the course of an extended military campaign, but your day-to-day operations aren’t necessarily accompanied by associated context. You might come to believe that the shadowy, faceless figure handing out each assignment in the game is actually presiding over some future conspiracy theory, but he’s really just the guy tasked with pulling the strings. 

Medal of Honor Warfighter Warfighter‘s story is just about as “America, f*ck yeah!” as it can be, but again, that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s frankly more than a little bit refreshing. With so many military shooters embracing the paranoia of what we don’t know about our country’s military maneuverings, it’s nice to see a narrative like this that steps away from conspiracy and offers a nod of appreciation to the troops on the ground. The game’s coda is particularly moving despite the fact that its impact is lessened by the game that precedes it.

Players take control of two different SEALs in two separate teams over the course of the campaign: Preacher and Stump. Both teams are working to bring down a terrorist organization, and while their paths rarely cross, their individual squad efforts resonate back and forth into each subsequent mission. You need to pay careful attention to cutscenes and incidental dialogue to pick up on all of this since, as I mentioned previously, there’s a disjointed feel to the way your missions are presented. Just prepare for some nightmare fuel: the CG cutscenes feature some mind-bogglingly impressive graphics, but the lifelike facial animations, particularly on the main character’s little daughter, are ridiculously creepy.

Carrying a Big Stick

As much as the story concerns itself with looking at the real life implications of trying to balance family with the life of a soldier, the gameplay couldn’t be further removed from reality. Medal of Honor: Warfighter embraces spectacle just as much as its predecessor. It’s less a FPS than it is an over-the-top military simulation. I’d estimate that you spend only roughly half the game doing the sort of things that one would typically expect from an FPS. The rest of the play is focused on scripted sequences (such as providing sniper support) or vehicle/turret sequences.

This sort of setup is actually integral to Medal of Honor‘s brand identity under Danger Close’s watch. For the most part, it also works in Warfighter. The driving sequences in particular really shine thanks to the development time put in by EA Black Box, the team behind Need for Speed: The Run. The non-FPS moments serve to break up the action, but they’re also (for the most part) plenty of fun in their own right.


Also strong is Warfighter‘s peek-from-cover mechanic. It amounts to only a slight control tweak to the established norms for modern-day first-person shooters, but it works so well that I hope to see it embraced more widely. In a standard FPS, holding down left trigger or L2 on a PS3 controller will typically aim down your weapon’s sights. The same is true in Warfighter, but you also have the option of holding down the left bumper or L1 to aim down your sights. LB/L1 aiming locks your soldier in place, with the left stick controlling the direction and extent of your lean. It’s brilliantly simple and it works extremely well in those rare moments that you’re able to overlook the rest of the game’s technical shortcomings.

Unfortunately, Warfighter really goes off the rails in the one category where it’s supposed to excel: being a shooter. The FPS gameplay leans on some of the genre’s worst design tactics. I blame the Frostbite 2 engine. DICE’s Battlefield 3 workhorse paints a pretty picture (less pretty on consoles), but as we learned from the 2011 game’s campaign, it doesn’t fare so well outside of multiplayer.

The AI governing both your allies and your enemies is blindingly stupid. Foes will prioritize you above all targets, even if that means they’re running right past your completely exposed squadmates as they rush you. Not that your squadmates will respond in any appreciable way.  They’re similarly dim and generally unreliable, leaving you with the grim task of killing every gun-toting brown person (Eastern Europeans, at one point!) that you see.

The armies of bad guys will pop up out of nowhere too. It’s not quite on the level of Doom‘s “monster closets,” but Warfighter‘s enemies spawn in unrealistic ways. You might thoroughly check and re-check one area, only to cross an invisible checkpoint and suddenly find yourself facing half a dozen armed foes who have magically appeared in that very spot. Of that group, four will almost certainly dip behind any nearby cover, popping out in an easily predicted pattern like you’re playing some modern warfare-themed shooting gallery. The other two will run blindly toward you, no doubt hoping to shoot you in the face.

Medal of Honor WarfighterThis blunt-force AI is what ultimately shatters any sense of investment in the action. You may as well be shooting metal ducks on a track with an Airsoft rifle. There’s no nuance, no sense of tactical engagement. See bad guys, shoot bad guys, move on to the next gallery. Again, the issue comes back to the Frostbite 2 engine in my mind. You’ve got a campaign-focused shooter here relying heavily on a game engine designed, first and foremost, for a multiplayer gaming environment. If Danger Close and EA really want to challenge Call of Duty with Medal of Honor — and, after playing the game, that certainly seems to be the case — it’s going to take more than pretty graphics and a story built around lip service.

Finding Your Fireteam

Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Warfighter‘s multiplayer is up to the same standards, generally speaking, as Battlefield 3 (after its various post-release patches). The scale is much, much smaller, with more compact maps and zero vehicles to be found. The action also has its own distinct feel; this is not a carbon-copy of BF3‘s Close Quarters map pack nor is it easily described as a Call of Duty clone. Warfighter‘s adversarial multiplayer definitely has its own flavor, thanks largely to its fireteam mechanics.

Similar to BF3‘s squads, fireteams are the individual two-person units that make up the ranks of each match’s two opposing teams. While you’re always fighting as part of a larger group, your fireteam buddy offers several specific advantages. You can always spawn on your partner, provided that he or she is out of combat and relatively safe for a few seconds after you’re taken out. Your partner is also always visible as a silhouette even if you don’t have direct line of sight, and you can use him or her as a resupply and healing point (as you can with anyone on your team).

There are a few cool returning objective-based game modes from 2010’s Medal of Honor in addition to the standard Team Deathmatch. The new mode, Hotspots, is actually a personal  favorite. Attacking and defending teams work to plant/defuse bombs at three of five possible locations. The twist is that the three locations are only revealed one at a time, and they’re picked randomly out of the five total spots. The flow of the action is dictated by the moving attack/defend locations, requiring lots of on-the-fly tactical thinking.

Medal-of-Honor-Warfighter Multiplayer

Unfortunately, a clunky interface and confusing profile customization features make Warfighter‘s multiplayer more unapproachable than it really needs to be. I’ve spent several hours now leveling up my various classes, and I’m still not entirely clear how everything works. I’m constantly unlocking tokens for use on the MedalofHonor.com website but none of that is ever really explained inside the game. There’s a very deep weapon customization system as well, with numbers tied to both cosmetic and functional unlocks. What’s not clear is which numbers those refer to. A tutorial, even just a non-interactive video, would go a long way toward explaining how things work. It’s not enough to make this information accessible online; it really ought to be included as part of the game.

Conclusion

I really wanted to like the Medal of Honor: Warfighter that I’ve been reading and writing about over the past bunch of months. Unfortunately, the game that Danger Close released isn’t quite that. The multiplayer offers good times once you get the hang of its various systems, but the campaign is an unrestrained mess. The driving sequences are solid and the peek-from-cover mechanic is genius in its intuitive simplicity, but the campaign that wraps around the good stuff simply doesn’t measure up. In a season where every game released is in a week-to-week shootout with competitors from the same genre, Warfighter just doesn’t have enough firepower to ensure a victory.

Score: 6.5 out of 10