The PlayStation Portable is home to many great games in a wide variety of genres; however, none of these great games are first-person shooters. The system's lack of a second analog stick and developers' inability to find a manageable control scheme have seemingly left the PSP as a machine destined to never have a great first-person shooter. If Medal of Honor Heroes is any indication, all hope is not yet lost. In Heroes, EA Canada has crafted a fine portable version of the Medal of Honor series. While far from perfect, it's the most enjoyable FPS to grace the PSP to date.
Medal of Honor follows the stories of three soldiers, all of whom have appeared in previous Medal of Honor games. The story unfolds in short, narrated black-and-white movie clips of WWII, and orders are doled out via typewritten memos. Each soldier has their own campaign that is divided into five separate missions, for a grand total of 15 in the game. Sergeant John Baker's (Medal of Honor Allied Assault) campaign takes place in Italy, where you must capture an Enigma machine, blow up a lighthouse, liberate a small town, and more. Lieutenant Jimmy Patterson (Medal of Honor and MOH Frontline) is stationed in the Netherlands, where you'll steal important papers and retake a number of areas from the Germans. The last five missions of the game follow the exploits of Lieutenant William Holt (MOH European Assault) in Belgium. Here you'll be entrusted to capture and hold a river base, recover lost documents, kill lots of soldiers, and finally, destroy a German command center. You never actually interact with anyone, and the results of a successful mission are intangible, explained to you only in memos, so you never get the sense that you're anything other than a faceless grunt whose job is little more than to shoot everything in sight.
It takes a little while to become accustomed to the default control scheme, and it does have a few shortcomings, but overall it works quite nicely. You'll move with the analog stick and aim/look around with the face buttons. If you need to turn around quickly, double-tapping square or circle will speed up the process, though it's still not quite fast enough for you to not lose a lot of health when attacked from behind. The right shoulder button fires your gun, and should you feel the need to pummel your target, a quick tap of the left shoulder button performs a melee attack, while holding it down brings up your weapons' sights. The D pad performs a wide variety of functions, such as reloading, switching weapons, crouching, and using health packs. You can even sprint for short distances by double-tapping the right analog stick up, but you're limited to running in short bursts. You'll never have to do it even once, but should you want to hop around, you can jump by pressing the select button. A few of the moves, such as switching weapons and sprinting are difficult to pull off quickly, but they're the exception, rather than the rule. Three alternative controls schemes are available, one of which relegates movement to the face buttons and lets you look around with the analog stick.
For better or worse, Heroes' missions are less complex than what is typical of the series on consoles. Each mission consists of a main objective(s) as well as numerous secondary objectives, which almost always require you to find some sort of document. Only the primary objectives must be carried out to complete a level, even on the hardest difficulty. Completing the additional tasks will net you a higher medal upon completion of the level, and these in turn unlock characters for use in multiplayer. There's not a whole lot of variety to the main objectives. Sometimes you'll need to take control of an area by standing near a flag for a certain amount of time, and you'll need to do this in a couple of different areas of the level. The game starts to get repetitive when you're forced to capture each area twice because the CPU will recapture areas. Other times you'll simply need to kill everyone in an area or get to a point marked on the radar and press up on the D pad to arm a bomb. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all there is to it. A little more variety to the mission objectives would have been appreciated.
Even though the game is artificially lengthened with repetitive objectives, Heroes is not a very long game. Most levels can be beaten in 15 to 20 minutes, and that includes completing all of the secondary objectives. These short levels are great if you're on the go; however, there are only 15 of them, so if you have any experience with first-person shooters, the whole single-player mode can easily be beaten in less than four hours. If you choose to skip the secondary goals, it's possible to beat the game in less than three hours.
It might be short, and it might be repetitive, but Heroes still manages to be quite a bit of fun. Because there are lots of different underground paths, alleyways, and shortcuts through houses, there are many different ways to tackle each level. The game generally lets you play at a pace you're comfortable with. There are enough health packs laying about that you're able to play aggressively. Should you prefer to approach the missions a bit more carefully, most levels don't have a time limit, and when there is one it's generous, so you're free to take your time. There are lots of different guns scattered amongst the levels, so no matter what kind of player you are, there's a gun out there to suit your needs. If you like to run and gun, the Thompson or shotgun will suit your needs. If you're a little more cautious, the M1 Garand is effective from long range and can hold its own should you stumble into a firefight. And if you're the type that likes to hunker down and pick off the enemy from a distance, there are plenty of sniper rifles to pick up (though sniping is one of the control's weak points and is rather difficult).
Even though the controls are solid, they're still not as responsive as they are on consoles, so the simple artificial intelligence routines of enemy soldiers are appreciated. They're tenacious in their attacks, and they will seek cover if it's available, but there are still plenty of instances where they'll blindly charge into a room, and sometimes they just run back and forth. They seem to have a knack for winding up in your line of fire, so you rarely have to spend much time fine-tuning your aim. Unfortunately, the soldiers that accompany you into battle are just as mentally deficient. They rarely seek cover and they have no qualms standing just feet away from multiple enemy soldiers to get shot in the face. Your comrades don't fear grenades or explosives, either. You can kick grenades away by pressing up on the D pad, but you'll often kick them toward a fellow soldier, who just stands there oblivious to his impending doom.
There's a tremendous amount of clipping in the game, and while occasional instances can be forgiven, it's prevalent enough here that it has a distinct negative effect on the gameplay. Grenades that explode on the other side of a wall can hurt you, and soldiers will routinely run right through walls. It's not uncommon to walk through an empty area, only to suddenly find yourself blistered with enemy fire. The culprit is quite often a soldier in another room who has the ability to not only see through walls, but also stick his legs and arms through them. You can shoot offending bad guys by pinpointing any exposed extremity, but sometimes you just can't find them, and it's incredibly frustrating to die at the hands of shoddy programming.
Heroes has a host of multiplayer options available for both ad hoc and infrastructure play. Ad hoc lets up to eight players battle each other locally. Gamesharing is not supported, so each player will need their own copy of the game to join in the fun. Even with the full eight players, the large levels end up feeling empty, and you'll end up spending more time searching for people to shoot than you'll spend actually shooting them. Infrastructure play offers the same play modes and it's a more exciting experience thanks to support for up to 32 players in a game at once. You can create a session for up to eight players on the PSP, but if you want to make a game for more than eight people, you'll need to download software from the game's website and use your PC as a game server. The program lets you set a map rotation and also allows you to set a password to restrict the game to friends or clan members.
After making it through EA's cumbersome initial login process, getting into a match is as easy as finding a game with an open slot. You can even join conflicts already in progress. Once you're in a game all you have to do is pick sides, select a uniform, and decide on a weapon. There are six different multiplayer game types to choose from. The only free-for-all mode is a standard deathmatch, and the rest of the modes are team-based. In demolition mode one team tries to blow up one of two targets while the other team attempts to stop them-- either by killing everyone, or by disarming the bomb. Infiltration is a capture-the-flag-style game, and the other modes are all similar in that the main goal is to gain control of certain areas of the map. Online play is decent, at least compared to many other PSP games, but it's hindered by a number of problems. For starters, there's no voice chat--you can only communicate via text messages. This makes it difficult to coordinate any sort of team play. The game appears to run smoothly most of the time, but it's extremely difficult to shoot anyone that's more than a few feet away, because human players are much quicker and craftier than the slow-moving CPU soldiers from the single-player mode. Part of this can also be attributed to lag caused by players with lousy connections. It's also not uncommon to suddenly wind up dead, with the game declaring you killed yourself--even though you were just standing around.
If you're playing alone and still want the multiplayer experience, the skirmish mode pits you in a deathmatch against up to 16 CPU-controlled enemies. The action here isn't very complex, and the game's got an annoying habit of respawning you in front of one or more enemies that are all too happy to blow your head off, but it's fun in short bursts and good practice for multiplayer.
Heroes' visuals are good but are in need of more polish. The frame rate is steady, even on the levels with snow and rain--though it does waver during multiplayer when the action gets heavy--and it's fast enough that it doesn't feel as if your character is wading through mud. The effects aren't striking when compared to what is found in previous Medal of Honor efforts on consoles, but for a PSP game, they're impressive. Grenades explode with a flash and cloud of black smoke, guns spark and eject empty shells as they fire, and errant shots leave bullet holes in walls. Enemy soldiers' animation could use some work. They don't have much in the way of transition animations, and because of the minimal effect shooting has on their movements, it's very difficult to tell if your bullets are finding their target, especially from a distance.
The levels are decent-sized, but they don't feature a tremendous amount of detail. For every lighthouse towering over a moonlit beach, there's an ugly, nondescript building containing nothing more than a few crates. The textures are blurry and repetitive, as well. You'll find trucks, planes, and tanks scattered amongst the levels, but they can't be driven, they don't move, and you can't even blow them up. After successfully setting and detonating a charge in the lighthouse, it's quite disappointing to not see it fall down. Instead, you'll hear the bomb explode, the game will tell you "mission accomplished," and the game fades out with the lighthouse standing tall, unblemished by your destructive efforts.
One of Medal of Honor Heroes' highlights is its audio. The main orchestral theme is gorgeous and gets you in the fighting mood. It would have been great to have music in the levels, at least in tense situations, but the only time you hear it is in the menus. All of the explosions and gunshot effects that you'd expect from a World War II game are here, but it's the ambient sounds that make the game so intense. Even when you're not firing your weapon, the sounds of war are all around. Your equipment rattles as you run, fallen soldiers cry for help, and the distant sounds of mortar fire and planes flying overhead fill the air.
If it had more depth, Medal of Honor Heroes would be a great game. No matter how you shake it, with a single-player story that's just four hours long, the game's over far too quickly. It doesn't even manage to stay fresh for that short amount of time. If you're planning on spending a good deal of time online, you'll likely get your money's worth out of Heroes. But, if you're planning to stick primarily to the campaign and skirmish modes, the $40 price tag is less justifiable.