What could a World War II first-person shooter do that hasn't been done before? Well, if our time with Medal of Honor: Airborne is any indication, there's still plenty of room for the genre to grow. We played through the first dramatic level of the game this week, and we're impressed with just how visceral and exciting it was. So grab your grenades and ready your parachutes, because you won't have long to wait; Medal of Honor: Airborne ships in less than two weeks.
The game begins with a brief introduction to the mechanics of parachuting--and it's a good thing, because it's not as easy as it sounds. Steering to the proper destination takes a good deal of precision, and you need to be conscious of your speed and facing. You can flare your parachute to slow you down, but gravity is inevitable. Actually making the landing also seems tougher than you'd expect, but if you manage not to botch it in the Xbox 360 version, you'll have a shiny new achievement to show for it. When parachuting, you're looking for the green clouds of smoke, where you'll find relative safety and a number of friendly troops to provide covering fire.
The first level, Infinite Mischief, is the very definition of trial by fire. As 82nd Division paratrooper Boyd Travers, your task is to destroy four antiaircraft turrets in the Sicilian city of Adanti. You will choose your loadout before the mission even begins, though it's worth noting that you can exchange your current weapon with those you find on the battlefield later. Faced with a few options, we armed ourselves with an M1928 Thompson submachine gun, an M1 Garand rifle, and a trusty Colt .45 handgun. Once the mission loaded, we had little time to react, and after a brief cutscene, we descended nervously toward the looming city.
It didn't take long for us to notice that this isn't your typical linear shooter. We could land essentially anywhere we wanted to, and in our first attempt, it happened to be smack-dab in the middle of a throng of enemy soldiers who were quick to fill us with lead. It was immediately clear just how important our parachuting skills would become, because the better you steer, the better your chances are of staying alive for the mission. We improved in our second attempt, landing safely on a rooftop and surveying the situation below.
But things looked pretty bleak, considering the battlefield teeming with enemies. The recoil on our tommy gun made it tough to fire with accuracy, so we decided to play with the iron sights. When you switch to this view, you're no longer able to move, and the movement controls become leaning controls. This gave us a lot more freedom of movement than we were used to when leaning in other shooters, so we were able to pick off multiple targets without moving from our position.
We eventually made it to the ground, where we started to make progress toward the first turret. Even with the help of our fellow paratroopers, we had to move slowly and carefully. You won't run-and-gun in Medal of Honor: Airborne. Careful aiming is important, and you need to be constantly aware of your surroundings. As far as we can tell, you aren't able to lie prone. However, we made good use of sandbags and other objects to stay hidden. From behind these objects, you can enter the iron-sights view and lean forward to pop out from behind your cover and take potshots at your foes. If you're used to cover-focused games like Gears of War or Rainbow Six: Vegas, it may take a few moments to get used to the scheme, but it didn't take us long to get comfortable with staying out of harm's way until we could clear out enough room to move forward.
Then the mission got even tougher, given that two of the antiaircraft turrets were on the roof of a large, multistory mansion. A sniper at the top made it tough to advance--in fact, this part of the game reminded us of the infamous "Sniper Town" level of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Once we made it through, we found the roof was no picnic either. The game throws a multitude of enemies at you, and the artificial intelligence is tough. Your enemies rush into buildings to pick you off from windows, flank you from all sides, and move to higher levels for a better shot. Through it all, they are constantly chattering in Italian, which gives the impression that these guys are indeed coordinating their attacks. Your teammates do the same, urging you to look out, calling you by name, and shouting at you to press forward.
As we became more familiar with the weapons, we started to become more proficient with them and unlock upgrades. After a run of successful kills with the tommy gun, we earned a pistol grip for it, which made us even more accurate. Whenever you earn an upgrade in this manner, the game goes into slow-motion, reminiscent of the "bullet time" sequences of shooters like Max Payne, which gives you a chance to savor the moment. And speaking of achievements, those obsessed with earning them in the Xbox 360 version will be happy to note that you start earning achievements from the moment you begin playing, so expect your skill to pay off immediately.
The production values in Medal of Honor: Airborne are terrific, thanks to the Unreal 3 engine, which powers the graphics. The level of detail in the environments is impressive, down to the clutter of ransacked rooms and the detailed textures of the mansion's walls. The lighting and shadows are also striking. Bright spotlights provide a contrasting glow against the darkness of alleys and balconies, and shadows flicker against stone walls and iconic statues. The sound design will also grab you. The din of battle is constantly bombarding your senses, and it imparts a frightening sense of urgency.
We've only scratched the surface of Medal of Honor: Airborne, but we're impressed by what we've seen so far. Rather than a linear crawl from one objective to the next, the game lets you accomplish your goals in any order you wish, from any direction. It's an impressive and daunting way to begin your missions, and we look forward to seeing if the full game can carry that momentum from beginning to end. With any luck, Airborne will prove that World War II shooters still have a lot to offer, and we can't wait to get our hands on the final game.