The Germans called America's airborne paratroops "the devil in baggy pants" during World War II, and for good reason. These elite soldiers dropped behind enemy lines and, armed primarily with light weapons, wreaked havoc against German units, thus satisfying Benjamin Franklin's prophetic vision more than 150 years prior of "men descending from the clouds" to cause "infinite mischief" upon the enemy. And the paratrooper experience is precisely what EA is looking to capture in its new Medal of Honor: Airborne, a World War II shooter that looks to redefine the genre, busting it out of its rigid narrative and making it a lot more free-form. We earned some virtual jump wings ourselves recently, as we finally got a chance to check out the game, both on the Xbox 360 and the PC (a PlayStation 3 version is also coming).
Airborne represents a major change if you're used to any of the previous Medal of Honor games or the competing Call of Duty series. That's because those games are highly linear in nature. Everything that you see is carefully scripted, and the designers know where you're going to be at all times, because there's only one way to play through the game. Thus, after you've played through a level the first time, you know what to expect the second, like a group of German soldiers always run across the street at a certain point or a Panzer tank always appears when you reach another point. Airborne ditches that formula completely, because you have control over how, and where, you enter a level, thanks to the fact that you're parachuting from the sky above. All that diligent scripting seen in other games is useless in Airborne, because the player has complete freedom of movement in the level, and thus the ability to make the battle unfold in countless different ways.
We played through two of the earliest levels: Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and Operation Avalanche, the invasion of Italy. Airborne will chronicle the entire breadth of airborne operations during the war, including Operation Overlord (D-Day), Operation Market Garden (the failed airborne attempt to seize a pathway to Germany's industrial heartland), and Operation Varsity (the airborne drop on Germany itself). Anyways, back to Operation Husky, the mission plays out as a night drop into an old Sicilian town that has an encircling wall from the medieval days of warfare. You can pretty much land anywhere in town, and there are benefits or downsides to almost every location. Land on the wall, and you can use it and the rooftops of buildings to quickly get to almost any point in town; land in the streets, and you're closer to the action.
Parachuting is going to take some practice, as you have to use both analog sticks on the controller to try and steer your way to the ground. It's not easy, as there are a number of things to keep in mind, like your momentum, the speed of your descent (you can "flare" the parachute to slow you down a bit), and how much swinging around you're doing. Land in the wrong spot, like in the middle of an enemy compound, and your life will be spectacularly exciting, but also very brief. While you can land anywhere, the safest landing zones are those marked with green smoke, because they'll receive a continual stream of reinforcements that can help you. But if you land on a rooftop, you suddenly have elevation on the enemy, which makes it easy to snipe away at them with a rifle. And there are five "skill drops" on each map, indicated by a white parachute draped near them. These represent the ultimate risk/reward, and if you can land in one, you'll not only get an achievement, but also have a cushy start spot, like the bell tower of a church. The downside is that if you miss the skill drop by even just a little, you'll probably find yourself in the middle of a hornet's nest of angry Axis troops.
Once you land, you have to go through a decision-making process that's not unlike those used by real-world paratroopers. First, you have to orient yourself and figure out where you are in relation to the enemy and your objectives. Then, you have to figure out a course of action based on the situation and the conditions. You no longer can rely on your reflexes and ability to memorize a level's scripted events; now, you have to think, even if it's just a little bit. It's a refreshing change of pace from most games, which require little analytical thinking at all.
It doesn't take long after you land to get into combat, and that is shaping up very nicely. Sure, it's World War II infantry combat, but it's well done. The enemy soldiers are pretty good, and they move around and use cover effectively. That was one of the primary challenges for the developers, because getting rid of the scripting meant rewriting the artificial intelligence to adapt to unpredictable situations. The behaviors we saw were sharp, as soldiers leapt over walls and through windows for cover or to get away from a grenade, and soldiers were pretty aggressive about trying to get around to your side where they can flank you. They can also be pretty good about tossing grenades at you, and your eyes will go wide when you see a German grenade land at your feet. Either get out of its blast radius ASAP, or, even better, kick it back toward the enemy.
Blowing stuff up is always good times, and the grenade mechanics in Airborne are a lot of fun. The grenade controls are mapped to the analog trigger, so if you pull hard on the trigger, you'll toss the grenade as hard as you can. However, if you slowly pull down on the trigger halfway and then release it, you'll softly toss the grenade away. It'll take some practice to get used to the system. You can also use this method to "cook" a grenade before you throw it, so that the enemy doesn't have time to get away from it before it explodes. As soon as you put pressure on the trigger, you've effectively pulled the grenade's pin and a clock begins to tick, indicating how much time you have before it explodes. We had a lot of fun with grenades, bouncing them around corners and over cover.
Each weapon has multiple upgrades, and you earn these by using a weapon spectacularly. For example, score three, or even five, kills in a row with a specific weapon, and your experience with that weapon jumps up. Whenever you fill up a weapon's experience meter, you unlock an upgrade for it. These can range from a satchel pack to carry extra grenades (the next upgrade is a bandolier of grenades); a hair trigger for the automatic pistol, allowing you to fire much more rapidly; a pistol grip for the Thompson submachine gun, improving accuracy; and more. When you do unlock that upgrade, the game slows down to something like bullet time while it presents you with it, and you're temporarily invincible during these sequences, so if you're quick, you can use it to good effect. Even better, these weapon upgrades are permanent, so if you upgrade the Thompson during the first mission of the game, you'll have that upgraded Thompson the rest of the game.
Put it all together, and there's a tight, visceral feel to the action. For instance, the hit detection and rag-doll physics are a lot of fun to watch. In one hectic battle, we shot blindly at a charging German soldier, hitting him in the knee and watching him tumble accordingly. Or, the blast from grenades will send enemy soldiers flying through the air. The audio from all of this is top notch, but perhaps the best sound we've heard in a long time is the metallic clang of a bullet hitting a helmet, resulting in a headshot and an instant kill. But as much fun as it is dealing death, you've got to be pretty cautious yourself. This isn't a one-shot, one-kill kind of game, but you can get cut down pretty easily if you're not careful. You have four health squares, and when they're all empty, you're dead. The good news is that a square will regenerate after a few seconds if it has a partial amount of health in it. However, if a square is drained completely of health, it will not regenerate, and the only way to restore it is to find a health pack.
The controls are laid out quite a bit differently than most Xbox 360 shooters, but it doesn't take long to adapt to them. For instance, to zoom in and use the iron sights on a weapon, you have to hold the left trigger, rather than push down on the right analog stick. We also played the PC version, and the keyboard-and-mouse controls were pretty much identical to the vast majority of shooters. Indeed, after a little warm-up, we were battling through the game without a second thought to the controls.
Both the PC and Xbox 360 versions looked excellent, and they're visually indistinguishable from one another, thanks to the highly modified Unreal Engine 3 technology that powers the game. The level of detail in these kinds of games continues to get even more impressive, but what really caught our eye were the elaborate light and shadow effects. Battling it out in a darkened manner and then seeing the face of a German soldier illuminated by the bright, white burst of his assault rifle is a very cinematic effect.
Perhaps the best way to sum up our experience is to point out that we started each battle multiple times, and each was a completely different experience due to where we landed and what we decided to do. In one play-through, we were content to simply stick to the rooftops and snipe at pockets of enemy resistance. In another, we charged down and battled to an objective, which involved blowing up an antiaircraft gun. In another, we went straight for the enemy headquarters, running inside the mansion and engaging in close-range firefights. It goes without saying that this helps keep the gameplay fresh, and you have to stay on your toes, as opposed to the old days of simply memorizing the timing and appearance of each enemy in the game. Medal of Honor: Airborne looks more than capable of rejuvenating the franchise and injecting some much-needed innovation in a very tired genre. But perhaps the best news is that the game is in the late stages of development, and it's scheduled to ship this August, just a few months from now.