In many ways, games such as Call of Duty and the upcoming Brothers in Arms owe a lot to Medal of Honor Allied Assault, EA's 2002 first-person shooter that helped usher in a new wave of cinematic first-person shooters. Allied Assault featured intense World War II battles that seemed directly inspired by those seen in big-budget Hollywood movies, such as Saving Private Ryan, letting gamers feel like they're on the front lines. Now, two years after Allied Assault, EA is busy putting the final touches on that game's successor, Medal of Honor Pacific Assault. We've been playing with a near-final version of the game and we have much to report.
We played through the opening levels of the game, starting with Marine boot camp in San Diego, with a drill instructor straight out of Full Metal Jacket, but without the profanity. In addition to serving as a basic tutorial to the weapons and equipment in the game, boot camp will also serve as an introduction to your squadmates. EA really wants Pacific Assault to have a more coherent sense of story than earlier games, and your squadmates will add color and personality to the game. You'll also be able to issue them rudimentary squad commands in battle, though we'll cover that a bit later.
After boot camp, you're sent to Hawaii, where you report for duty on the morning of that infamous day in history. You'll open the level with one of the game's scripted sequences, with a Navy chief driving you around and giving you a tour of the naval base at Pearl Harbor. It's a nice little touch that lets EA show off some of the immense historical research in the game. After the air raid starts, though, you'll pick up a Thompson submachine gun and dodge strafing attacks in order to reach one of the torpedo boats tied to the docks. Once on board, you'll man one of the antiaircraft guns and try to down as many Japanese planes as you can while the torpedo boat goes on a harrowing speed run through the burning and exploding Battleship Row. This entire sequence is a lot more chaotic than it sounds, and there's plenty of action to keep you riveted the whole time.
It's during the Battleship Row sequence that the game actually changes gears a bit. The torpedo boat pulls up along the USS West Virginia, and you'll board her through a gaping hole in the hull. Your initial task will be to stop the ship from sinking by navigating through the smoke-filled engineering quarters and turning the valves needed to stabilize the flooding. After that, you'll climb up through the decks of the ship, pick up a fire axe, and try to save as many sailors as you can. You'll use the axe to knock down buckled hatches, and there's some rudimentary puzzle-solving involved here. For example, you must figure out how to blow open a locked metal hatch using the equipment around you. You can then pick up wounded sailors and deliver them to a nearby corpsman.
On board the West Virginia is where you'll encounter one of the first hero moments in the game. These are optional moments where you have the opportunity to go above and beyond the call of duty by accomplishing a certain task. In this case, you need to locate and rescue the wounded executive officer of the West Virginia and then carry him to safety. Doing so will unlock a special keepsake that will appear in your locker in the game's shell, or main menu screen. If you examine the keepsake later on, you'll hear an audio flashback to the moment you earned the souvenir, as if you're reliving the moment in your mind.
EA decided to start fresh with Pacific Assault, so instead of using the Quake III engine that powered Allied Assault and many other first-person shooters, the company wrote a brand-new graphics engine built to take advantage of the latest hardware advances. As a result, Pacific Assault ups the visual ante considerably. For example, the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor is a visually dazzling sequence, with the air full of Japanese planes, flak bursts and bomb explosions everywhere, battleships burning in the distance, and sailors and Marines on the ground trying to fight back. But it's the subtle little details that will catch your eye, like the way your vision blurs when you're firing the heavy 50-caliber machine gun, or the way a concussion or blast will turn the world a blurry black and white.
Makin HistoryAfter Pearl Harbor, you'll join the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion for the raid on the Makin Atoll. This was an early operation conducted by the Marines to serve as a prelude of sorts to Guadalcanal. It'll be on Makin where you'll get to experience squad-based jungle fighting for the first time. Going through this level, we discovered that Pacific Assault plays a lot differently than earlier Medal of Honor games. You're no longer a one-man army, and rushing forward brazenly in Pacific Assault will get you killed quickly. Director Brady Bell told us that the majority of the scripted enemy behavior has been replaced with procedural-based artificial intelligence, meaning that Japanese soldiers and American Marines will all behave appropriately to situations. If they come under fire, they'll seek cover or even fall back to better positions. We also saw Japanese soldiers change firing positions and use cover to advance on our positions. And in keeping with the historical reality of the war, the Japanese soldiers will often banzai charge with reckless abandon if they feel all is lost, rather than surrender. Japanese soldiers are extremely dangerous up close, as they'll use their rifle butts to knock you to the ground, then plant a bayonet in your chest.
It'll also be important for you to rely on your squadmates in battle. That way, you can maintain a high rate of fire, and someone will be there to cover you while you're busy reloading. In addition, you have the option of issuing rudimentary commands to your squad, such as advance, fall back, and regroup. These are mapped to the arrow keys on your keyboard by default. However, we're told that the game is still designed so you can play through without having to issue orders, but they're there for players who want a bit more control over their squad. There may be moments in the game where you have to rush forward and rescue a wounded comrade, and telling your squad to provide covering fire can make that job a lot easier and safer.
You can still take and absorb quite a bit of damage in the game, and if your health bar is knocked down to zero, you'll go into the verge of death cam. Basically, the entire world will turn a fuzzy black and white, your hearing will be muted, and you'll fall to the ground and stare up at the sky. You'll still see the battle raging around you, and your only hope at this point is for your corpsmen to be able to reach you and patch you up. If so, you'll get back up on your feet and resume the battle. But if a Japanese soldier reaches you first, he may look down at you and then plant his bayonet in your face to finish you off, or you'll simply bleed to death. In that case, the world will slowly turn black as the cold embrace of death wraps around you.
The developers conducted so much historical research for the game that they felt compelled to share as much of it as possible. That's why there's even an option to turn on pop-up facts during the game, much like the little factoids that appear in pop-up videos. These pop-up facts cover everything from historical tidbits, such as the average weight of gear that American Marines carried during World War II to details in the development of the game, such as historical liberties the designers took with the facts in order to preserve gameplay. We were also told that there will be two editions of the game, a standard edition that will ship on multiple CDs and a director's edition that will ship on a single DVD. The director's edition will pack a ton of extras, including several video documentaries, an interactive timeline of the war, animated diagrams of the major battles in the game, a compilation of World War II propaganda posters, all the high-end concept art used in the Medal of Honor series, and the best songs of the franchise.
The sheer amount of content and detail in Pacific Assault is impressive. We're told that there are slightly more than 30 levels in the single-player game as well as a full multiplayer component with new gameplay modes. It's also clear that EA is treating this as a major installment in the series, and the company is gunning for Activision's superb Call of Duty series. Pacific Assault looks like it has all the components needed to compete with Call of Duty. We'll find out how successful the game is when it ships next month. Medal of Honor Pacific Assault is scheduled to be in stores on November 17.