Medal of Honor: Warfighter multiplayer hands-on

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I’ll admit: my first thought upon hearing about the multiplayer in Medal of Honor: Warfighter was that it was EA Games’ response to Call of Duty. Battlefield isn’t in the same category of shooter, but Warfighter‘s small-team game types and vehicle-free maps feel like more of a surgical strike on the fast-paced twitch shooting of Activision’s series. It quickly became clear how very wrong I was after playing through a few matches in Warfighter at a recent EA preview event in New York City. There are definitely more common attributes between Warfighter and its chief FPS competitor than there are between it and the Battlefield series, but the upcoming Medal of Honor game’s multiplayer mode really has a flavor and identity that is all its own.

Yes, these are small-team matches on vehicle-free maps. You’re looking at a maximum 10v10 lineup for a given match. A big deal has been made of Warfighter‘s respect for real-world Special Forces units and proper military tactics, and this becomes immediately apparent in the game’s fire-team mechanics. Just like a real military op, all players in a Warfighter multiplayer match are paired off with another player, forming a fire-team. The idea is to work with your partner, and the game’s mechanics and reward structure favors that.

How? For starters, you can always get a visual sense of where your fire-team buddy is, with the avatar appearing as a silhouette whenever you don’t have a direct line of sight on each other. There are also bonus XP rewards to be earned for fighting together, with the biggest boost coming whenever you and your partner manage to wipe out a fire-team on the opposing squad. The biggest advantage gained from sticking together, however, is the potential to minimize your respawn delay. You can of course spawn back into the match on your partner if you’re taken out, but you can also skirt around the respawn delay entirely if your mate manages to take out whichever enemy gunned you down.

It’s all fairly no-brainer tactics, and the abundance of visual aids a useful for cooperating with another player even when you’re unable to chat using mics. In the Domination-like flag capture matches that were lined up for the demo, I found it easy to stick with my partner thanks to the always-visible silhouette and, together, we managed to basically devastate most of the resistance we encountered. It’s not a reinvention of the wheel of course; similar mechanics have been seen before, and recently even in games like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. It works though, and it works well.

Warfighter‘s strong sense of identity is carried across in the way its soldier classes are set up. You’ve got XP to earn, level progression, a wide assortment of unlockables… all of the trappings that are necessary to compete as a multiplayer-focused AAA first-person shooter. Instead of using classes like “assault” or “medic” or “engineer,” however, you’re using Poland’s GROM, or the UK’s SAS, or Russia’s Gruppa Alfa. You’ll be able to tweak loadouts with various unlocked weapons and support gear, but it’s neat to be selecting an actual real-world military designation rather than some nameless, vanilla soldier class.

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Let’s also talk a little bit about the gear in Medal of Honor: Warfighter. I’m not entirely sure how unlocks and custom classes work in a practical sense, though EA assures me that players will be able to customize to their heart’s content. The preview session featured an assortment of pre-built classes, spread across a variety of Special Forces outfits. More importantly, each class came equipped with different support gear and resources. You can do everything from toss a flimsy UAV into the sky to calling in air support from an AH-6 “Little Bird” chopper.

In truth, it felt like a bit much at times, in that I would spawn and immediately be melted down to goo when a napalm strike flared up overhead. This is the nature of a multiplayer shooter of course– occasional spawn-deaths sort of come with the territory. That said, if the demo map is any indication then these are small battle zones that you’ll be fighting in. I definitely didn’t walk away from the preview with a clear sense of how frequently you can expect to be able to access air support, but things could get hectic when 10 players on each team are all lined up, waiting to call in their airstrikes.

There are other tools as well, gear that is more specific to your soldier on the ground. A stealth-oriented build, for example, was able to activate an magnetic resonance view, which renders the world in shades of blue and highlights enemies, even through walls. Compare this to a shotgun-toting heavy, who, with the press of a button, could sacrifice mobility for protection by pulling down a visor and taking advantage of heavy armor plating. Abilities like these appear to be governed by a cooldown timer, so they must be used sparingly and intelligently.

Wrapping it all together is DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine, the same one that powers Battlefield 3. Medal of Honor: Warfighter looks positively stunning, or it did on the high-end PCs that were trotted out for the preview session. You’ve all likely seen what BF3 is capable of on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles by now; expect Warfighter to deliver a similar level of eye candy. This is one good-looking game, no question.

That about covers the extent of my preview time. The most important note that I walked away with: Medal of Honor: Warfighter is, first and foremost, fun. Shooter enthusiasts will definitely appreciate the nuances that color this game differently from any of its competitors or siblings. I’m still not clear on the particulars of how customization works of what the balancing is like with regards to your more powerful tools, but the basic arrangement of 1s and 0s certainly seems to promise an epic FPS multiplayer game, and one that stands apart in its own, special way. Look for Medal of Honor: Warfighter in stores this fall, on October 23, 2012.