Tedious jungle combat holds this Medal of Honor entry back, but Pacific Assault is still worth any WWII buff's time.
Opening with an intense teaser on Tarawa, Pacific Assault then takes you back to boot camp, and you spend the rest of the game getting back to the opening fight. The main protagonist, named Thomas Conlin, has a habit of giving dramatic speeches in his head during the cutscenes and there's a lot of cheesy patriotism, but the story as a whole is surprisingly engaging, with a nice cast of supporting characters. The opening levels due a great job of setting the stage, with a fun jaunt through boot camp and a quick trip through Pearl Harbor before the attack starts. The Pearl Harbor battle (which combines rail-shooting and adventure elements) is great - even the D-Day landings of Allied Assault and Frontline can't compete with the intensity and spectacle on display here. After the attack subsides, the game jumps ahead to the Makin Island Raid in August, 1942. At first, as you creep through the lush jungle environments with suspenseful music in the background, things look good. By the time the shooting starts, however, some major problems arise.
To begin with, it has to be said that Pacific Assault is HARD, even on the default setting. Enemies take around ten health-points with each hit, and there are almost no health packs anywhere in the environment. Luckily (given that you'll probably face at least 1,200 Japanese over the course of the game's twelve-hour campaign), you can regenerate your health by calling your medic, who can be used a limited number of times per level. The medic needs around thirty seconds without either you or him getting hit, so it's best to plan your recharges carefully. The problem is that you never know how far you are through a level - use up your health too early, and you may find yourself against unwinnable odds (and some of these missions are really long). If you do end up biting the dust, you have a limited amount of time for your medic to reach you before you pass out (or a Japanese soldier shoots you in face, whichever comes first). The idea is that if you charge out ahead, your medic realistically won't be able to get to, but there are some bugs - sometimes the medic magically clipped through gunfire to save me, or sometimes a scripted Japanese soldier would turn up and shoot me in the face with my squad standing two feet away, totally oblivious. At one point, my squad killed my attackers shortly after I got taken out, then immediately continued on to the next objective, leaving Conlin to die floating in a river. Thanks, guys.
A bigger issue, however, is a common problem with many jungle-set shooters: enemies can see straight through the foliage and shoot you through it, and there's nothing you can do about it. Given that you can usually only take a maximum of 40 or 50 hits in a level, constantly being hit by enemies you can't see is very frustrating. Sometimes enemies will literally be sniping you from the centers of bushes, making them as good as invisible from any angle. The game also wasn't afraid to spawn enemies (but not infinitely, thankfully) right in front of me when I crossed a trigger point - I'd be walking along searching for enemies ahead, and then one would materialize out of thin air two feet away. Enemies can also banzai-charge you, leaping out of the scenery to stab you to death with a bayonet in seconds. The linear nature of these scenes (with plenty of invisible walls) and the cheating AI meant that the jungle got old fast (which is unfortunate, because it makes up around 50% of the game). Suffice to say, this is the sort of title where you're going to be quick-saving and quick-loading a lot (too bad it takes over 30 seconds to load, even on a computer that vastly exceeds the recommended requirements).
That said, whenever the setting shifted to a small village or military base, Pacific Assault shines. No longer shooting through trees, the enemy AI actually shows itself to be quite good, and the battles build up a very satisfying rhythm to them, with a good deal of strategy needed to get from point A to point B. These more urban missions were still really hard (and you'll still be punching F5 every few seconds), but in a satisfying way that makes you want to keep playing. The final levels on Tarawa are all like this, allowing the game to go out with the same bang it came in on.
Pacific Assault also includes some team commands, and they're a useful addition. With your doctor around, your squad is as good as invincible (which makes you wonder why the doctor can't heal you infinitely), so you can use them to draw fire all the time (they're pretty good at killing the Japanese too, but given your health situation, drawing fire is their most important function). The command interface isn't close to as polished as, say, Brothers in Arms (or even Medal of Honor: European Assault), but it's always nice to have the option. The actual shooting mechanics are excellent, with powerful weapons and some Havok physics that look great for 2004. As with Crysis, you'll be able to blow the walls off shacks and watch barrels tumble around from explosions, and it all looks very cool.
Another similarity between this game and Crysis is a sloppy penultimate campaign that places you in a mouse-controlled aircraft. While your Dauntless controls a bit better than Crytek's VTOL, this mission still feels goofy and poorly thought out. It doesn't fit very well into the story, either - since when is Conlin an expert dive bomber pilot, and how do you sink an aircraft carrier with a machine gun?
On the audio side, EA's title has crisp sound effects and excellent voice acting. The battles sound chaotic and intense, which is really par for the course with this franchise. Christopher Lennertz provides the music, which is dominated by somber violins and patriotic trumpet solos. His score is very well done, although it's not also very original. At one point near the middle of the game, a track is lifted directly from Frontline, and Michael Giacchino's music seems so much more passionate and alive than Lennertz's work. That said, by video game standards, this is still good stuff.
Oh, and I have to mention the menu, which might just be the coolest UI I've ever seen. The menu takes place in a 3D representation of your squad's tent. The weather and time change and the tent becomes more tattered as time goes on, but the best bit is the radio, which is always on. From it, you can hear then-current world news (based off where you are in the campaign), commercials, and a good deal of vintage licensed music from musicians like Bing Crosby and Sammy Kaye - I don't think I've ever spent so much time lingering at a game's menu before. Amusingly, the very first thing you'll hear when Pacific Assault starts up is a radio broadcast about Citizen Kane. There's also an option to have some interesting (and often obscure) WWII trivia pop-up in-game, and the Director's Edition also ships with some documentaries, classic Medal of Honor music, and more historical information. In a way, all these little bonuses do as much to establish the 1940's atmosphere of the title as the actual gameplay does.
Pacific Assault splits into two halves: tedious jungle sections and exciting semi-urban combat. Unfortunately, there's just too much of the former to make the game easily recommendable, but is still one of the more interesting and ambitious WWII adventures I've played. Sure, the jungle sections are a tedious pain, and the game doesn't quite counter the then-new Call of Duty, but it's clear that EA really tried with this one (indeed, they likely overreached themselves). And WWII buffs will love the extras.
+ Intense, tactical urban combat
+ Nice graphics, physics, story and music
+ WWII trivia is fun
+ That awesome menu
- That sloppy flying level
- Jungle combat is frustrating
- Blatant AI cheating
Reviewed on 10/11/2010