One of the reasons we play video games is to escape reality, and thus our games are usually rooted in fantasy. The Medal of Honor series nobly strays from this norm, instead evoking perhaps the grimmest conflict in human history: World War II. The original game cast you as an agent of the OSS, infiltrating enemy lines in an attempt to thwart Nazi plans from the inside. Its sequel, Medal of Honor: Underground, takes a character from the original game named Manon Batiste and places her in the lead role so that her full story can be told. This setting is a welcome change, as Underground provides a meaningful historical context that's rare in most video games today.
Manon is a French rebel fighting covertly against the puppet Vichy government that Germany established after its conquest of France. The beginning of the game finds her fighting alongside her brother, but after his tragic death, she meets up with agents of the OSS and begins to play a larger role in their secret war against the Third Reich. Manon's missions will take her to a variety of locales that were instrumental in the development of World War II.
Medal of Honor: Underground is a first-person shooter that is fairly similar to its predecessor. Each mission is preceded by a short briefing that details the location, situation, and objectives. In addition to her resourcefulness, Manon has a large assortment of WWII-era weaponry at her disposal, from side arms and rifles to Molotov cocktails and the Panzerfaust (an antitank rocket launcher). It falls to you, then, to make effective use of these weapons and guide Manon through occupied territory so she can complete her objectives. The objectives are fairly varied, though many can be reduced to "find the proper switch or item and proceed to the exit."
Underground plays very much like the first Medal of Honor. You're allowed the same range of freedom as in most other first-person shooters - you can move around, look up and down, crouch, and jump. You can also aim independently of your view - à la GoldenEye 007 - which comes in handy for taking out enemies perched up in a window, for instance. A "use" button is also provided to facilitate weapon reloads and interaction with game world objects. Playing the game will almost certainly feel awkward at first, especially to those more accustomed to playing first-person shooters with a mouse. After a couple of missions, though, you should adapt fairly well, and a bevy of control options are available to facilitate the process.
The Nazis in Medal of Honor: Underground are usually realistic, but not without their faults. On one hand, they sport fairly impressive AI routines - it's not uncommon to see them run behind a corner or pillar to get out of your line of sight, then peer around to take a couple of shots at you. On the other hand, though, they'll occasionally do some pretty stupid things. At one point, a soldier snuck up behind Manon, but instead of taking a shot, he ran around her - directly exposing himself - and was dispatched easily. Also, enemies are oftentimes far harder to kill than realism would dictate. Though the game has a location-specific damage model that allows for head shots and the like, it sometimes works against you. In the course of the game, some soldiers absorbed three, four, or even five rounds in the midsection without going down - only a well-placed shot to the head successfully ended them. This sort of thing doesn't happen enough that it seriously mars the playing experience, but it can be something of a pain.
DreamWorks clearly put a lot of work into the overall presentation of Medal of Honor: Underground. The game starts off with old newsreel-style footage depicting a frenzied Germany, during which Manon describes her predicament in a voice-over. Further video is interspersed throughout the game, giving you a more concrete sense of the war's magnitude than the game's levels alone could provide. Even the game's credits show interviews with women who supported the war effort. The game itself is pretty nice to look at and listen to, as well. The PlayStation graphics are definitely showing their age, but Underground looks about as good as can be expected. Its audio really shines, though. Immediate sound effects like the shouting of soldiers and gunfire are well produced, but perhaps more important is the ambient sound in each level, which really helps establish a sense of place. Far off one can often hear the sound of orders being barked or troops marching, which adds a lot to the immersion factor. The game's movielike orchestrated score is also a nice touch.
The vast majority of gamers are under 30 years old, and so they never had to bear the full brunt of such a massive conflict as World War II. Like Medal of Honor before it, Underground provides these younger generations with a look back at a period of history that, although immeasurably bloody, also deserves attention. Though nobody will realistically write a thesis on German attrition after playing the game, it does stir up interest in World War II and the issues that it involved. At the same time, it's one of the better first-person shooters available on a console, and as such, fans of that genre and history buffs alike owe it to themselves to give it a shot.