Medal of Honor Underground Preview
While weapons, ammunition, and various factions form the basic foundation for any war setting, DreamWorks' Medal of Honor for the PlayStation works to bring documentary and a sense of purpose to "taking one for your country."
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World War II has been the setting for various acts of entertainment and edification, from the mainstream channels of books, magazine articles, and film, to the more reflective studies found in episodic documentaries, journal studies, archival radio broadcasts, and published firsthand accounts. But the World War II game is a different beast entirely, at least in the console world, thanks to DreamWorks Interactive. While weapons, ammunition, and various factions form the basic foundation for any war setting, DreamWorks' Medal of Honor for the PlayStation works to bring documentary and a sense of purpose to "taking one for your country." The original Medal of Honor was released last October, and it not only offered the languid environment of console shooters an honorable contender, but it also entertained and enlightened on the way. An educational shooter? Hardly. As in the 3D version of the WWII adventure-game series Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II, you only learn from a wargame because you need to stay alive and accomplish your missions. If you come out more knowledgeable about WWII, consider it a bonus.
GameSpot recently got a chance to see the sequel, Medal of Honor Underground, in action at DreamWorks studios in Los Angeles. Producer Scott Langteau walked us through nearly every nook and cranny in the game and answered all of our questions, the big one being, "What is the overall objective of Medal of Honor Underground and will the first game's playable character, Jimmy Patterson, return to Europe, circa the '40s?"
"You're no longer playing Transport Corps Pilot Jimmy Patterson," answered Langteau. "You're playing his OSS (Office of Strategic Services) control from the first game, Manon Batiste. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to tell her story, from her beginning in the French Resistance at the start of the war through her work in the OSS where she meets Jimmy. We often described the scenario as 'Your country has been taken over. Help won't arrive for four long years. So, what's a girl to do? Surrender, collaborate ... or resist!' Based on some very exciting and inspirational research for the title, we decided that those individuals who had the courage to stand up and resist that which even their leaders had decided to cower from merited some serious attention. I'm so glad we chose to tell her story. It has been a privilege to meet and talk with women like her around the country. So, in essence you begin the game as a willing participant in some Resistance activities, and due to your creative success in these areas, you are soon recruited by the Allies to join the OSS and embark on missions throughout Europe. By the end of your journey, you return to France (during the days before its liberation) to help fellow Resistance fighters keep Paris from burning."
The game will include seven missions this time around, each with more than 24 levels that you must play through to accomplish your goal for that mission. We asked Langteau to describe the logistics of the missions and levels that tie them together, comparing them to the first game. "By and large, a good portion of those levels are twice the size of the levels in the original," answered Langteu. "We span a wide scope of the European theater including North Africa, Greece, Italy, Germany, and of course, France. The interesting part is that we bookend the game with Manon's work for and commitment to the Resistance, but for the body of the game, she's working as a field operative throughout Europe, so that opened everything right up for us - meaning we offer a wide range of missions that cover interesting portions of the war and don't necessarily have to lead from one to the other in a linear fashion. For instance, we cover Rommel's digging in in North Africa, the fated Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, as well as Himmler's occult castle at Wewelsburg - all seemingly different in scope, and they are, but I think we manage to get them to stand together in an interesting and coherent manner."
The missions are not blast-fests, either. Or, rather, not entirely. Storyline is key to the missions, and the game is rooted in historical data. "We pride ourselves very much on our research," said Langteau. "We do our best to make each mission something that could very well have happened as we lay it out. We don't say we're 'accurate,' we say we're 'authentic,' meaning we don't try to re-create any one particular battle or moment from the war specifically, but we base our scenarios on research we've done, and a lot of the mission objectives come right out of that research. For example, the entire first mission having to do with Resistance organization and underground newspapers is directly based on research. The war in France was one of propaganda - both from Vichy's puppet government at the time, as well as the Resistance underground information network, which we try to capture in that mission. This use of research finding its way into the mission objectives is one we carry out throughout the game."
The Story, the Setting, the Stage
The story is rich and the environments look genuinely and beautifully crafted. "The game ranges from exterior landscape environments, to the intricate streets of Europe and North Africa, to detailed interior depictions of castles, factories, historical ruins [and others]. The game's look is very realistic in nature. When all parts (design, architecture, texturing, lighting, audio) are taken in together, you will feel that you are walking through these environments during the days of WWII," said Langteau. The gameplay is deep, too. But first-person shooter purists likely want to know about the mechanisms that make this shooting game better than its parent. More levels, ammo, weapons, and perhaps characters are pretty much expected. We asked Langteau what genre purists could expect from Medal of Honor Underground, including those who haven't played the original game.
"Well, I believe the game stands alone incredibly well. It has all the same great gameplay that original Medal of Honor fans already love and appreciate, while at the same time it adds additional layers of fun and exciting new features," answered Langteau. "Surely the moving vehicles (tanks, half-tracks, and motorcycles) are going to bring a whole new spin to the game. They lumber, they creak, they crush you into the ground if you're not careful, and that makes for an entirely new level of gameplay that wasn't there before. In addition to battling vehicles, you get to ride in the sidecar of a motorcycle as you careen down a mountainside escaping a destroyed V1 plant. This is a wholly new creation for Medal of Honor Underground. We went very cinematic for this level - in this I mean that we scored music and created sound effects to be specifically triggered for each of the three sections of the motorcycle ride that are timed precisely to the duration of each segment, keeping them all different and fresh for each portion of the ride. Meanwhile, the driver is speaking to you - giving tips, warnings about what's ahead, and preparing you for upcoming objectives you'll need to complete. After each segment of the ride, the user gets off the bike, completes a task, and returns to the cycle to continue the ride - all while battling enemies."
Vehicles, Weapons, and Ammo
Addressing the new vehicles further, Langteau explained that most of the vehicles in the game will function as enemies. "When you see them, get the courage to fight - or else run, because they are deadly," he said. "Our Panzer tanks have a forward-firing machine gun as well as the turret tracking your movements at all times, and if you're hit by that shell, you'll need to find some serious health. You can take out the hull or the turret, and when both areas are incapacitated, the tank will smolder in smoke, and you will have completed your job. The half-tracks have three enemies on board and function similarly to the tanks in that you can take out the hull and stop them in their tracks. Unfortunately, you will still have to deal with the gunners aboard. The motorcycles have a passenger in the sidecar laying waste to anything in his path by keeping a heavy trigger finger on his mounted machine gun. Besides their increased mobility over the tanks or half-tracks, they are much faster. Then, as described earlier, users will be able to actually ride the sidecar, putting that mounted machine gun to use themselves in an exfiltration mission in the latter stages of the game."
Besides mounted machine guns such as the French Hotchkiss and the German MG-42, Medal of Honor Underground will include many of the first game's weapons, such as the sniper rifle, but with new features. Langteau explained the new armaments, including the crossbow. "You'll be using Petrol Bombs as part of your Resistance weapon set, as well as the antitank Panzerfaust, Big Joe Crossbow, STG-44, and the ever-popular with-war-movies weapon - the Sten," he said. "The sniper rifle will zoom in faster, which we improved from the last game, and the site has been perfected to be more accurate. The crossbow is a great silent weapon that we use as a one-hit kill weapon if targeted on the chest or head."
We asked Langteau if the sniper mode will offer a greater horizon line than in the first game, to which he answered no. "This just wasn't one of the things we were able to get into the game this time around," he said. "It has an improved sight, though, and zooms in on enemy targets faster, which will make a number of players happy."
Items other than weapons and ammo will be scattered around the environments, many of which are pivotal to completing your objectives, such as demolition charges, cameras, disguises, falsified papers, crowbars, wire cutters, and so on. "You name it, you most likely pick it up at some point," said Langteau.
Manon and Her Enemies and Allies
The French Resistance movement marks an enormously important time in the history of women's involvement in the war effort. And while the main playable character in Medal of Honor Underground, Manon, is not based on any one woman in particular, she's an amalgamation of many women's stories told firsthand to the developers at DreamWorks.
"One of the most inspiring women we met with was a woman named Hélène Déschamps-Adams," said Langteau. "Her family had been in the French military for 500 years, and the family name appears inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A member of her not-so-distant lineage even appears as a bust in the Louvre, and her father was a French general. Her brothers were taken captive during the war, and she and her adopted sister (who, tragically, did not survive her Resistance work) joined the Resistance. Because they had to be entirely secretive about this (as even friends and familial collaborators would denounce Resistance supporters), their mother thought they had disowned the family. Hélène soon joined forces with the OSS, and was eventually the last female operative serving France at the end of the war. I can't even begin in the span of this interview to detail her experiences during the occupation, other than to say that she has my lifelong respect. Her book, which is currently out-of-print, is titled The Spyglass Chronicles. Hélène summed up her experience in the French Resistance by saying: 'You lose your name. Your family will never know. You lose all your friends. You have nobody. And if you are arrested, we don't know you.'"
Elizabeth McIntosh, the author of Sisterhood of Spies and a former OSS member, established the connection between the DreamWorks Underground team and the women who inspired the Manon character. "It was truly enlightening and eye opening. One of the best things about working for a studio like DreamWorks and a corporate parent like Electronic Arts is the freedom we are afforded to make the best games possible. They understand the quality that can be gained from in-depth research. These women opened up their homes and their histories to us, and I am extremely grateful to them for that," said Langteau. "It has helped to make this a far better and more authentic game. One that, I hope, does them great credit."
Margaret Collins Weitz, author of Sisters in the Resistance and foremost American scholar on the women of the French Resistance, spent two days with DreamWorks, offering a personal account of her times during the occupation, including hers and the experiences of the women she knew - focusing largely, according to Langteau, on what they endured. "The two days spent with her were invaluable in the area of propaganda during the war," said Langteau. "As well as a fantastic history lesson on life under the Vichy regime."
The Other Characters
Besides Manon and hordes of unnamed Nazi enemies, Manon's brother Jacques will join the story at the game's onset, where he and Manon are an active part of a Resistance group called Combat. His role in the game will become clear as you go along.
Langteau explained other characters further. "Manon's OSS control is a newly introduced character for this game - Captain Ted Aubrick. He's a fun-loving, high-spirited American who was part of the original group of OSS operatives in Washington. He gives Manon most of her mission instructions, while the returning Colonel Hargrove, voiced by the incomparable Morgan Sheppard, provides most of her mission briefings." "We also introduce a number of random Resistance characters from level to level meant to help make the [player] feel that part of the Resistance movement experience was about seeking out and establishing new contacts and new allies to trust - not always to the safest of results."
Intelligence in the Resistance was key to establishing information and a solid force. In Underground, artificial intelligence also factors in highly. Langteau explained how the Underground AI sizes up next to the original game. "Enemies use waypoints better, smarter, and more often - especially using moving vehicles as cover, [for example]," said Langteau. "They're much more accurate with their grenade throwing arms -and there's even a new surprise in this area (watch for it!). Also, the new buddy AI is a huge new addition to Underground that adds an incredible amount to the game.
"Buddies function in two ways: as a basic task-doer (protect and keep them alive so they can complete tough jobs that you can't - like opening locked doors), or they fight right along side of you as fellow Resistance fighters. The best part about this is that it's different every time. You never really know what will happen to your buddies, but if you help protect them, you'll have an easier time getting through some levels, because they'll be around to help - otherwise, you're on your own."
Langteau continued that the disguise mode has been reworked and reexamined to function as a camera, and the enemies have a number of improved interactions in this area.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Underground is in beta currently, and it's well on its way to shipping on time in October for the PlayStation. We asked Langteau about the decision to ship another Medal of Honor for the PlayStation, in light of the PlayStation 2's coming US launch.
"We've pushed the PlayStation to its limits and then some on this title. The PlayStation is doing things we weren't even sure it could, to tell you the truth - and we've been very lucky," said Langteau. "The game plays beautifully and looks great. Many of our Underground artists worked on the first game and have put all their best tricks to work on this title to great success. Not to mention all the best ways to stretch this system being implemented by every other department on the team. We don't feel that the PlayStation has too adversely limited our wish list for what Underground could've been. This game is getting what's left out of the PlayStation, and then, the PlayStation 2 is opening up whole new avenues to explore."
Langteau explained how the team has managed to technically reach its goals for the game, which in appearance seem to well exceed anyone's current PlayStation expectations - primarily in the memory department. "We are constantly waging the war of memory," said Langteau. "One of the first things that helped us is something called tri-stripping, which helps us reduce memory usage while improving performance of the renderer. One of the things that our engineers have devised (also used in the original MOH) that no one has really discussed is that we stream both audio as well as geometry from the disc in real time, allowing us to create massively larger worlds - literally from 6,000 polys to 40,000. Our largest level in Underground has 29 compartments and is a whopping 40,000 polys. It's really become an art form of balancing every department's contribution and memory budget to a given level and getting in as much as we can to make that level look great, sound great, play great - and not crash the game!"
In spite of its usage of archival Smithsonian footage for cutscenes and true-to-life environments, Underground isn't all graphics. Sound is key to the game. The sound designer of the original Medal of Honor, Erik Kraber, created all new sounds for Underground, and the game's original score was composed by Michael Giacchino and performed by a 70-piece orchestra and a 25-member boys choir. Langteau expanded on the game's sound and music in general. "Sound is pivotal," said Langteau. "Without the sound in Medal of Honor, it's simply less of an experience. A tremendous portion of the Medal of Honor Underground experience is in the sound. The atmosphere and mood created by the sound effects, ambient audio, and the score provide the tension, stress, emotion, fear, anger, joy - all of it. I will forever sing the praises of the sound department as I will all of the other incredibly important areas of the production - from design, animation, to background art, and engineering. They're all miracle workers in their own right. In addition, you cannot argue with the sound that a live, full orchestra brings to your ears. I think the Underground score is the best game score I've ever heard, and the use of the boys choir puts it right over the top."
Some of the sound treatments in Underground include automatic pitch bending to make the vehicles sound realistic when turning, accelerating, decelerating, and simply moving about, as well as "triggerable" streaming audio, which lets developers trigger different audio (music and ambient tracks) at any given place within the levels.
Getting Into the Game
Medal of Honor Underground will include a single-player game as well as a two-player multiplayer that will incorporate all 12 weapons sets from the original game and Underground, six new arenas with moving platforms and such, and more than 30 new multiplayer characters. One-on-one deathmatch is the focus of multiplayer, as in the original game.
We asked Langteau what type of experience the serious, straightforward first-person shooter fan will get out of Medal of Honor Underground. "The hard-core fan will get exciting gameplay, smart and fast-reacting enemies, fantastic and lifelike animation, 24 huge and beautifully designed environments, authentic weapons and scenarios, pulse-pounding sounds, and out of this world music. This is the hard-core first-person shooter fan's game to buy. I really believe that," said Langteau.
"I'm really proud of our user interface. It turned out to be absolutely inspired. Where the front end of the original Medal of Honor was set in the Cabinet war rooms beneath the streets of London in a very organized war effort, the front end of Underground could not be less so. Our base of operations is a converted French basement wherein everything is covertly hidden. It's an innocuous basement until you begin clicking around to reveal all the hidden treasures of the Resistance movement. However, the basic function of the front end is the same as the original. We wanted to keep the game incredibly familiar. If you played the first, you'll be able to pick up Underground and be off and running. The controller configs are the same (with one important added bonus - there's a selection in the config options to keep the crosshairs onscreen at all times, should you desire), and all the main amenities of the original shell are represented - only in a differently atmospheric way. All cutscenes, briefings, and Smithsonian Institution gallery footage are all in the same style as the original as well. We award medals in a slightly different manner as well. Though the user will receive a number of official medals throughout the course of the game, he or she will also receive a number of mementos that will be stored in a tin box - not a medals case like before. The entire atmosphere of our front end, carried through the interface, is very grassroots and civilian."
All Systems Go
Medal of Honor Underground maintains the look and feel of the original. It appears to be well on track toward satisfying the first-person shooter audience, while supplying a richer experience than many games of its kind. Langteau rounded up the ideas that surprisingly came to fruition, as well as those that fell off the radar for one reason or another during the game's development.
"We had our concerns about buddies early on, but they've come around, and I'm very happy with the way they've turned out for us. We've been able to add a lot more hidden surprises for the user than I ever thought we'd be able to get in, and I know the player is going to love a couple of the biggies," said Langteau.
"Much more interactive environments and moving geometry was a suggestion that came directly from Steven Spielberg during one of our demo sessions that ended up being one of our most refreshing new features. Now you can use the environment to help you out - dropping pottery, chandeliers, crates, and so on on your enemies, as well as board trams and riding on a moving subway train car are all examples of this new feature. We've gotten in a lot of environmental extras that I'm happy about, too. Stukas that fly low on bombing runs that can take out enemies and the player - that's a cool new addition, and we have seven daylight missions, which we weren't sure we could pull off on the PlayStation, but the blue sky looks great. "We've got something we call CLUT-fogging that we were able to get in wherein the distance is 'fogged' by different default gradient colors to simulate fog or - in the case of our Casablanca mission - a sandstorm, which limits your visibility (as well as the enemy's) and creates a whole new atmosphere/tense environment. We were also able to get a number of noted monuments into the game that we didn't know we'd be able to: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Moulin Rouge, and others." "There's very little we wanted to get in but weren't able to. We wanted Kettenkrad vehicles (basically German motorcycle tractors - very odd-looking vehicles), but they fell by the wayside, [as did] one or two weapons such as mortars and the Gewer, but mostly everything made it in - and there is next to no space left on the disc, I can tell you that much."
Langteau credits the new features, the careful eye toward detail, the research, the inspiration and information from actual Resistance participants, the strong historical authenticity, and the masterful technical skills of the team for the game's outcome. "It's an all-around, wholly immersive, tense, and exciting game," said Langteau. "I'm really proud of it and the team that created it - they are the absolute best."
Medal of Honor Underground, developed by DreamWorks and published by Electronic Arts, will ship on October 17 for the PlayStation.