It seems you can't read a preview or review of a World War II-based FPS without hearing about how many games there are in the genre. With good reason, too--it's a crowded one. But just because there are a lot of them doesn't mean there can't be some good ones. Medal of Honor: Airborne is one such game. It starts off really slow, and the whole parachuting hook is little more than a gimmick; but later on the game realizes its potential and gets good.
There's not much of a story to Airborne. It's WWII; Nazis need killing and the world needs saving. You're in the Airborne division, so you'll be jumping out of planes and doing your part to swing the war in the Allies' favor. Before each mission you're given a brief rundown on what's going on and list of objectives to accomplish. Rather than spawning on the battlefield you'll arrive in style by parachuting out of a plane. As you fall to the ground you'll want to maneuver toward green smoke, which indicates a safe landing zone. In theory, parachuting into the level is supposed to open up a whole new style of play. You're free to land wherever you want, but invisible walls prevent you from getting too clever, and nine times out of 10, when you do land somewhere other than the safe zone you'll end up dead in a matter of seconds. There are some special landing zones to discover, and sometimes these areas will provide you with an advantageous starting point. But because you find most of these locations when you're already on the ground, they're of little use.
Once on the ground you'll take on waves of Axis soldiers over the course of the game's six levels. Six levels might not sound like a lot, but each generally takes an hour or more to complete, so it'll probably take most people around eight hours to finish the game. Your objectives are shown on your radar and you're free to tackle them in whatever order you choose. Between choosing your starting location and being able to pick what to take on first it might sound like there's a lot of freedom here, but there's really not--you can't start from many different places, and you have to do the same tasks regardless of the order you start them. Mission objectives range from blowing up AA guns to clearing buildings of enemy soldiers, taking out tanks, and detonating lots of explosives. On their own these tasks aren't anything unique, but because the levels are so long and feature so many objectives you often feel as though you're performing monumental feats rather than routine tasks.
The first three levels aren't very interesting. They're fairly linear, take place in unexciting settings, and don't play to the game's strengths. Starting with the fourth level the game picks up since you're given more freedom as to how you want to tackle the levels. You might decide to climb towers to take out snipers (their position is given away by a reflection off their scope), clear the area of ground troops, and then make your way into a building, while a different player might head to the building first, clear the ground troops second, and hide from the snipers rather than kill them. The game's artificial intelligence isn't very good, but at least it's aggressive. You can pick off guys as they peek around corners, but they won't just take it lying down. They'll spray bullets in your direction without looking, and they're rather fond of blindly tossing grenades over their backs. If you get too close or they get some reinforcements, enemy soldiers will charge right at you and inflict serious damage until you can fend them off with your weak melee attacks.
The controls are pretty standard for a first-person shooter. A sprint button comes in quite handy when trying to dash from one bit of cover to the next. Once you're behind that cover, the ability to lean and fire is extremely useful, as is the ability to raise your weapon and aim using its sights. As you progress through the game you'll be able to upgrade your weapons, earning bigger clips, faster reloads, and secondary firing abilities. You can carry two weapons at a time as well as a pistol, which isn't very powerful but has unlimited ammo. Grenades are often tough to come by, but ammunition is plentiful, as are health packs, which are scattered throughout the levels. It's a good thing, too, because once you start getting hit your health depletes in a hurry.
While most of Airborne is good, it does have its share of problems. Many of the automatic weapons have too much recoil, making them extremely difficult to aim--a problem not shared by the CPU, who is more than capable of hitting you from across the level regardless of the gun. Your fellow soldiers are sometimes quite useful, but other times they don't do anything at all--or worse, they stand right in front of you and block your shot. We also fell out of the level a few times, though this was usually when we parachuted someplace the game probably didn't want us to. When all of these problems come together the game can be extremely frustrating, as you're forced to try the same part of a level over and over again in an attempt to find the best way to circumvent the game's sometimes cheap tactics. One way in which the PS3 version has seen improvement over the Xbox 360 and PC versions is that it seems to take far fewer bullets to take down an enemy soldier on the PS3. It was really frustrating to empty a clip into someone only to have them shake it off like the Terminator, so it's good that this issue is fixed here.
Unlike the last Medal of Honor, MOH: Airborne has a solid online component. Up to 8 people can hop online and play ranked and unranked matches on half a dozen maps and a few different game types. The action's always fast-paced and for us, at least, lag-free. Interestingly enough, multiplayer is the one area where choosing where you want to parachute into a level actually lives up to the hype. As you descend you can see both friends and foes and, if you're quick enough, can land in areas that are quite advantageous--like right behind that jerk camping on a rooftop with a sniper rifle.
Airborne isn't a great-looking game, but except for a frequently terrible frame rate, the visuals don't hamper the experience. The frame rate wasn't an issue on the PC or Xbox 360, but the PS3 version will often come to a near standstill when the action gets hectic. Outside of a few nice-looking buildings, most structures are simple and look pretty much the same--not only to one another, but to every other WWII game out there. There are only a few different types of soldiers and while they aren't very detailed, you can tell one type from the next easily. At least, you can if you're up close. It's tough to tell the good guys from the bad guys when you're far apart, and it's even harder to hit them thanks to a lack of transition animation, meaning they might instantly jump from one position to the next. Weapons look great, but explosions look embarrassingly last-gen. Not only do weapons look nice, but they sound great, too. The rest of the game sounds pretty good as well. You'll hear the familiar orchestral theme from previous MOH games, and there's lots of chatter from both Axis and Allied soldiers.
Medal of Honor: Airborne is a game that rewards those who are patient enough to stick with it. The first half of the game is dull and just rehashes the same sort of gameplay you've seen countless times before. But about halfway through, things pick up and gradually get better and better until the last two levels, which are quite intense and a lot of fun to play. The multiplayer isn't anything groundbreaking, but it's quite good and adds some value to an otherwise short game. If you're tired of the genre, Airborne won't do anything to change your mind, but if you're looking to fight for the Allied cause yet again, it's a worthy tour of duty.