It's been a while since Medal of Honor fans have been able to dive into the series' intense World War II battles. After the progression of the series onto the PC with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, all eyes are now on that game's PlayStation 2 counterpart, Medal of Honor Frontline. We were sent a fully playable preview version of the game so we could have a look at the code's progress. While the game shares a few elements with its PC cousin, all the story and mission elements are completely different. The only real similarities are the opening scene at Omaha Beach and some of the animations and textures.
While Medal of Honor: Allied Assault puts you in the shoes of US Army Ranger Lt. Mike Powell, Frontline tells the story of Lt. Jimmy Patterson. His task is to steal the HO-IX, a prototype German jet fighter. Standing in his way are a number of obstacles, one of them being a huge Nazi army that will do anything to stop him. The first mission, however, has you playing not as Jimmy Patterson, but as Pvt. Barnes, who must take part in the assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. Much like the similar sequence in Allied Assault, the invasion of Normandy can easily be described as one of the most intense moments in recent gaming history. Those of you who saw the movie Saving Private Ryan know what this is all about. In addition to allowing you to play through the events of the "prologue," the sequence works well to set the pace for the rest of the game. In this opening mission, you're on board a small troop carrier on its way to Omaha Beach. After a swift camera pan showing the faces of your fellow soldiers, the camera switches to a first-person view, allowing you to look around freely.
The atmosphere is incredible, with other ships following you and dozens of planes flying over your head, dropping bombs into the water, which splashes into your ship. One plane fires its machine guns at a ship to the left of you, and the ship explodes and sinks while your fellow soldiers scream and your commander shouts orders across the ship, his voice drowned out by all the noise. Then suddenly, the ship you're on also explodes, and you fall into the water and see other soldiers trying to swim back to the surface while bullets zip through the water, killing many of them. After finding cover behind a beached ship, you receive new orders: You have to help four other soldiers make it to the seawall. You accomplish that by providing covering fire that will stop the machine gunners on the bunkers. As you're doing all this, bombs fall on the beach, kicking up so much sand that you can't see anything and have to find cover in order to be able to spot the remaining soldiers. The effects are amazing and give you an impression of what it must have felt like to be at Omaha Beach on D-Day. After breaching the seawall, you'll have to cross a minefield and take out machine gunners while others provide covering fire so you can make it into a bunker at the end along with the remaining guys from your team.
Without giving away too much, Pvt. Barnes will reappear in later missions to help you with certain things. The use of known characters, coupled with similar events portrayed from a different perspective, is something that has always worked well in FPS games, as the Blue Shift mission in Half-Life showed. It's always interesting to get additional perspectives on something we're already familiar with, and it's a neat technique that not many developers make use of. Long-standing game franchises like Tomb Raider would do well to add something fresh to make their story elements interesting again. The Medal of Honor series has successfully utilized this technique before in Medal of Honor Underground on the PlayStation.
In total, there are around 20 missions if you include the D-Day prologue, with the main game consisting of five missions consisting of three to four individual levels. You'll start out in a French port village named St. Mathieu. Reports say that a German U-boat is there to resupply, and you have to find it and get yourself on board. The game makes references to past installments in the series, and these are interesting to see. For example, one of the characters you meet in the game, Fabrice, a French citizen who's fighting against the occupation, is a good friend of Manon, the lead character of Medal of Honor Underground. References like this offer a lot to the fans of the series without alienating newcomers, as they aren't really confusing in any way. Other levels will take you from France to Holland and then to Germany as you progress, both geographically and in terms of the story, to the climax of the game. As with the opening sequence reminding you of Saving Private Ryan, there are also references to other films. One level, named A Bridge Too Far, is a reference to the movie of the same name. In this mission, you have to plant explosives on a bridge while trying to deal with a huge number of Nazi soldiers trying to stop you. Needless to say, you'll die a number of times before you make it to the end, because right now, Medal of Honor Frontline is an incredibly difficult game. When playing the opening D-Day scene for the first time, we must have died around 20 times before figuring out where the heck all the soldiers were and how to properly rescue them.
With all the noise and chaos at Omaha Beach, this is not surprising. The difficulty level is enormously high, though, even when you're playing on the easiest setting. Whether this is going to be tweaked for the final release remains to be seen, but with the levels taking quite long to complete and no in-game save option in place, it's very challenging indeed. Add to that the fact that you will not be facing one or two enemies at once as in Medal of Honor Underground, but rather up to 15 enemies, and things can get pretty rough. However, it isn't always the sheer number of enemies in front of you that will make life difficult. Sometimes you'll be in village squares where bullets seem to be flying from every single corner, and it will take you quite a while to find out where the snipers are located. And because you never want to be ambushed like this, you'll sneak around through the levels with your sniper rifle (if you have one, that is, as this can change from level to level), trying to locate enemies as quickly as possible. The sound of a shot suddenly being fired will get your heart racing and certainly strike some fear into it, particularly when the volume on your TV is turned up.
In another interesting twist, a squad element has been added to the gameplay. In some missions, a squad will accompany you and aid you in accomplishing whatever task you've been assigned, be it by operating a mounted machine gun or scouring a neighborhood looking for a particular individual. The squad element is refreshing in the sense that you get a feel for being part of a larger unit and that you have team members helping you out. And it's good to see that it indeed works well, particularly since it's not possible for other human players to aid you as they do in online PC shooters. So the game's squad elements kind of make up for the lack of the co-op multiplayer opportunities that PC shooters enjoy.
Visually, Frontline is rock-solid. The frame rate drops on some occasions in the build we have, but this should be ironed out before the final release. The environments are beautiful to look at, and scripted events are included to provide a few surprises and help you identify with your character much more intensely than cutscenes would have allowed for. You always remain in control of your character, even when other persons are talking to you. All the locations and characters have been modeled nicely, particularly the facial expressions on characters like your commander, which are impressive. You may not notice in the heat of battle, but the other characters' lips are usually in sync with the dialogue.
The sound production in Medal of Honor is truly outstanding. Both the music and the sound effects are extremely impressive. The familiar Medal of Honor theme brings back memories and further solidifies any emotions you've attached to the series. The gunfire sounds so real that it's scary. Particularly in the D-Day opening scene, you'll really ask yourself if this is truly happening on your TV. You'll be equally spooked when you're sneaking through a quiet village at night and a sniper suddenly fires a shot at you. Elements like this sound frighteningly real and will definitely make you feel electrified when you play the game.
Medal of Honor Frontline is currently in its final stages of development, and it boats a truly challenging level of difficulty, more than 20 weapons, and high production values that should impress every fan of the series. We'll have more on the game as soon as it's released in Europe.