There's no doubting the continuous popularity of the World War II first-person shooter, but you couldn't exactly say the genre has driven innovation in the last few years. The typical WWII game presents a linearly designed level that relies on you following a path from a start point to an end point, and it peppers that path with hand-placed enemies and scripted action sequences that rely on you to approach them from the front, just as the designers intended. That traditional sort of design is well and good, but Electronic Arts' LA studio has had enough. With Medal of Honor: Airborne--the latest entry in the long-running WWII franchise that arguably kicked off the genre--the developers intend to do away with that linear mission structure in favor of a more dynamic experience that will hopefully give diehard fans of the genre something new to think about.
The big difference between Airborne and past WWII games--especially those in the Medal of Honor series itself--is that the new game's missions don't have specific start and end points at all. If you looked at the levels in past MOH games as resembling a line, the ones in Airborne are more like a circle. But let's back up a bit. As the title implies, the new game places you in the role of a paratrooper who's part of the Allied airborne forces that dropped behind enemy lines, often in advance of the main, ground-based invasion force, throughout the European theater of the war. Every level will thus begin with you and a bunch of other paratroopers squeezed into a C-47, awaiting the inevitable drop that begins your mission.
You only have look control while you're in the plane, so you can at least observe the nervous precombat chatter of your comrades. But the gameplay doesn't really start until you hit the open air. You'll be able to see the entire mission area below you, and as soon as you deploy your chute, you'll be able to control your descent to choose where you land on the battlefield. And this is where Airborne really diverges from the WWII pack, because your choice of landing points will determine how the mission proceeds. Each mission will have around a dozen objectives, some of which must be tackled in a set order, but how and from which direction you come at these objectives will be up to you. The specified drop zone will be visible from the air, and while your allies will always follow their orders and land in the zone, you can land anywhere--on rooftops, on towers, in the streets--and approach the tasks of each mission as you see fit. Then again, when three dozen Nazi soldiers stand between you and your goal, fighting it out solo may not be the best idea.
EA played a demo for us set during the famed Operation Husky--in which the Allies led a very costly invasion of Sicily that took two years to prepare for--so we could see how all this is coming together. You won't be able to draw a weapon while you're dropping, so your attention will be focused entirely on where you're going to hit the dirt. It sounds like there will be some finesse involved in landing smoothly, because if you flare or cut your chute at the wrong time, you'll hit the ground too hard or you'll need extra time to get out of your gear. But if you perform a perfect landing, you'll have your weapon at the ready almost the instant your feet touch down. Some objectives will be set in stone, while others will be rolled out based on where you are and what you're doing in the level--but luckily, if you're killed before you complete any goals, you'll restart in the plane so you can try a different landing strategy the next time around.
Since you can begin a mission from anywhere on the battlefield, and since there are no scripted action sequences, Airborne's developers have been forced to create a more robust artificial intelligence system for the soldiers on both sides of the battle. All AI characters will have an awareness of affordances in the environment, which are simply features of the terrain or urban infrastructure that provide a tactical advantage. This can range from taking cover behind some crates to using an alleyway as a choke point--but the point is, the soldiers you're fighting (and the ones you're fighting with) will theoretically take intelligent combat actions based on their surroundings.
Furthermore, Airborne will track the tug-of-war battlefield dynamics between the two sides throughout the entire level, not just where you're currently fighting. You can pop up a tactical map of the level that indicates different types of friendly and enemy units, which move around on the map in real time as they push each other back. The game won't respawn an infinite number of enemies to stymie you; rather, you'll have to clear out and hold a territory to stop the enemy from appearing. We saw an unexpected example of this during our demo, when we stopped to examine an unrelated gameplay feature. As the player idled for a couple of minutes, a group of enemy soldiers advanced on and reclaimed their previous position, nullifying the progress the player and his AI allies had made. According to executive producer Patrick Gilmore, you can think of all this a little like a real-time strategy game unfolding from a first-person shooter perspective.
Airborne takes place over four other campaigns in addition to the aforementioned Husky. There's Operation Avalanche, the rescue operation in Solerno, Italy, that the Allies only had two hours to prepare for; Operation Neptune, the airborne component of D-Day in which paratroopers dropped inland the night before the Normandy beach invasion and fought backward to clear the infantry's path into France; Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt to secure Germany's roads and bridges; and the game's finale, Operation Varsity, which saw 30,000 soldiers parachuting into Germany in the single largest military airdrop in history.
But wait a minute. If each mission in the game begins with a drop, and there are only five operations, doesn't that mean Airborne will only have five missions? Au contraire. You'll actually drop into each mission twice, as two different characters, at different times and with different objectives. The first time around, you'll play as pathfinder Eddie La Point. The pathfinders dropped roughly an hour before the bulk of the airborne force and were tasked with marking off the drop zone, setting up the Eureka telemetry device that guided the pilots to the DZ, and exploiting any targets of opportunity that presented themselves. So we expect your mission objectives will tend toward these activities during the pathfinder levels. Then you'll take control of Boyd Travers, a member of the 82nd Airborne who will jump with the main portion of the paratrooper force and take part in the primary objectives of the given operation.
Though we didn't get to take the controls for ourselves, it looked to us like the action will be classic Medal of Honor once you're on the ground. The Operation Husky level's first set of objectives required the player to neutralize four anti-aircraft guns located throughout the level by planting explosives on them, and each one was marked by a spotlight that could be seen over the surrounding buildings. All the classic Medal of Honor-style combat you've come to expect was in evidence--taking cover, using iron sights for better aim, and so forth. Enemies seem to behave more intelligently, too, from what we saw. For instance, anytime the player threw a grenade at enemies without cooking it, they would immediately flee the area and usually not take any damage.
The developers are making a few additions to the standard formula, though. For instance, when sniping, the trigger on your controller will act as an analog for the actual trigger on your weapon. Anyone who's ever tried to fire a gun with any precision knows you have to smoothly squeeze the trigger rather than pull it quickly, and similarly, squeezing the controller trigger slowly before popping off your shot will allow you to stabilize your weapon for greater accuracy.
Airborne will also feature a weapon-upgrade system for the first time in the series, which Gilmore says is consistent with the modifications real-life soldiers made to their weapons on the battlefield. For instance, one of the available upgrades in the final game will include a Cutts compensator for the trusty Thompson submachine gun, which ejects gas upward from the barrel to counteract muzzle climb. We saw an example in a test level where a fully modified Tommy gun had a much tighter grouping of shots than the fairly inaccurate factory model.
You'll have to find your weapon upgrades in the field, but you can't use them immediately. You'll actually accrue battle proficiency with each weapon, and each upgrade will carry a minimum proficiency rating that you'll have to obtain to use it. So if you get the upgrade for the grenade attachment on the M1 Garand rifle--which essentially turns the weapon into a rocket-propelled grenade that was highly effective, from what we saw--then you'll have to whip out that M1 and start shooting the heck out of it so you can attain the necessary proficiency to apply the upgrade.
The team at EA LA is using a "heavily modified" version of Unreal Engine 3 to create Airborne, and naturally it's the best-looking entry in the series to date. Aside from the attendant detail increase in geometry and textures and more realistic lighting and particle effects, the team is using a new animation system to bring the game characters to life with far more emotion than in the past. The characters are modeled from real human reference, and the new "e-cap" (think emotion capture) animation system lets the animators articulate each character's face in a lot of specific ways. Based on the impressive concept demo we saw of this system, you can expect to see realistic creases and folds, furrowed brows, and so forth in the facial animations of the characters on both sides of the battle during gameplay, not just cinematic sequences. But why take our word for it when you can see the exclusive first gameplay footage for yourself?
Airborne is looking like the most ambitious Medal of Honor game yet in the series, and it's certainly nice to see the designers paying real thought to evolving the genre rather than simply filling in the status quo for yet another game. Hopefully the development team will have the time and resources to realize the potential of its new ideas--and with the game not due out till sometime next year, there's still plenty of time for polish.