The flashlights look pretty good.
As I went through my notes searching for something positive I'd written about Medal of Honor Warfighter, that line stuck out to me. "The flashlights look pretty good."
They do look pretty good. Whatever lighting magic Electronic Arts has handed around to its subsidiary studios is nifty and authentic-looking. Often, when a guy shines his flashlight at you, you'll think, "Wow, that really looks like a guy with a flashlight!" before shooting him.
If only the rest of the game measured up.
The questionably-named Medal of Honor Warfighter is a first-person military shooter developed by Danger Close and published by EA. The Medal of Honor series has become, in most every respect, a flagrant imitation of Activision's much ballyhooed Call of Duty series. You play the game from the first-person perspective. You hold a machine gun and shoot bad guys, almost exclusively foreigners. That's about all there is to it.
The video game industry perpetuates a number of tiresome trends, but none is more remarked-upon than the reign of the realistic military shooter. Ever since 2007's (quite good) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the world of video gaming has seen shooter after shooter after shooter after shooter, all set in modern times, all dedicated to the deft recreation of the latest in man-killing machinery. Given the earth-shattering financial success these types of games find, casual observers could be forgiven for assuming that all gamers prefer to view the world through a reflex sight down the barrel of a gun. "Don't be silly young man," the old woman replied. "It's reflex sights all the way down!"
Medal of Honor Warfighter has the dubious distinction of being the Ultimate Brown Military Shooter Of All Time. It's so brazenly unremarkable, its storytelling so amateurish, its action so rote, that it feels like a master class in middling modern warfare. Put another way: I've been playing the game for hour upon hour and the nicest thing I can say about it is that the flashlights look pretty good.
Well, that's not entirely true. There are exactly two non-flashlight things I enjoyed about Warfighter's single-player campaign. First, the fact that you can lean. This makes it possible not only to take cover while engaged in a firefight, but to use it. This is wonderful! As I plodded my way through the repetitive shooting galleries that Warfighter calls "firefights," I came to greatly value the fact that I could run up to a corner and peek around it. I would run up to the corner, lean out, shoot some guys, lean back, and reload. And then lean out, shoot some guys, lean back, and reload. It didn't exactly make the game fun, but it was a welcome change from the disorienting "run entirely out of cover, shoot, run back, reload" rhythm of Call of Duty.
Warfighter also features some pretty good driving. Wait, driving? Yes, driving! At a couple points in the game, you'll wind up behind the wheel of a vehicle, tasked with putting the pedal to the medal (so to speak) and following a prescribed route until a scripted event happens. The two car-driving missions are well put-together (the studio behind Need for Speed helped craft them), and while they don't fit with the rest of the running and shooting, they're so much better-constructed that I didn't really care.
During one of those levels, you're suddenly—and I'm not making this up—put straight into a car-stealth sequence and given a glowing mini-map that shows patrolling enemies' lines of sight. You then have to escape a locked-down neighborhood by stealthing your car through the streets. It's cool! The part of your brain reserved for new experiences suddenly wakes up, stretches out, and blinks: "What day is it?"
Maybe Warfighter should have been a driving game. Medal of Honor: Wardriver.
It would have been better than the rest of what's on offer in Warfighter. The story is a hodgepodge of unconnected ideas that leap and bound with next to no narrative glue tying them together. It's not for lack of trying—the game's writers have made every attempt to weave together some sort of vaguely emotional post-Clancy techno thriller, but by the time the last level rolled around I literally had no idea where I was, what was going on, or indeed, who I was controlling. Every character is a gruff white dude with either A) a beard or B) no beard. They have nicknames like "Stump" and "Voodoo" and "Tick" and there is no way to tell them apart. One guy wears a hat, but he doesn't turn up until the last level.
This may be a reality of the armed forces—at least, while watching HBO's adaptation of Generation Kill, I spent the first four or so episodes unable to tell all the young white guys with short hair apart. But while it may be realistic, it's not good writing—there's a reason that war movies default to clichés like The Rap-Loving Black Guy and The Big-Talking Texan. There's a reason Call of Duty's Gaz and Captain Price wear distinctive accessories. In the heat of the moment, you need to write in big letters for players to be able to read anything at all.
Anyway, the story. I wouldn't make such a big deal out of the story, but EA has marketed the story and its authenticity to an exhausting degree, and so that story demands scrutiny. Here it is: There are some guys. And they have some weapons. And you play as some other guys, who seem to do a lot of intelligence-gathering, considering that they're not CIA operatives. Or maybe they're working with the CIA? Anyway, they/you have to stop the weapons. So you visit the usual array of first-person shooter locales and shoot a lot of dudes. You'll shoot dudes in a desert, you'll shoot dudes on a boat. You'll shoot dudes in a castle, and you'll shoot dudes in a cave. Oh, the places you'll shoot dudes!
Missions usually end abruptly—you'll think, "Okay, and now we get to fight our way out!" only to have the game quickly cut forward/backwards/sideways in time to a post/pre-mission briefing. The story engages in a preposterous amount of timeline-jumping; everything is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, with no exposition breaks to let the audience know what has already happened, what that we've played/seen still has yet to happen, and what is happening now. It's a structural disaster.
Players are regularly subjected to odd glimpses into the private life of one of the characters, a soldier who, like the others, doesn't have a name. We meet his wife and daughter, whose character models and behavior occupy a part of the uncanny valley somewhere between "Why is it staring at me" and "There are many copies." At one point, the camera performed a slow-mo zoom on the little girl's tightly-drawn, hideous visage, and I half expected her to ask me to come play with her forever and ever. Also, the cutscenes hitch and freeze a lot. And most of them can't be skipped.
Back to the action. It just isn't engaging. The artificial intelligence is certainly artificial, but does not feel intelligent. Your teammates will dumbly fire into a wall while enemy soldiers hunker down on the other side, dumbly shooting… into the same wall, on the other side. See the video here to get a sense of what I'm talking about. Often, enemies will just run straight at you without making any attempt to take cover or use any tactics at all. With so many games on the market that feature smart, nimble enemies, it's increasingly inexcusable for a modern video game to pit players against the sorts of braindead whack-a-terrorists seen here.
Let's talk about door-breeching. It's the strangest thing, how much Warfighter loves door-breeching. (Door-breeching, for the uninitiated: When you and your team kick in a door, toss in a flashbang grenade, and swoop in, shooting all the dudes in the room.) You will breech more doors in Medal of Honor than in every single other first-person shooter combined.
There's even a progression-based minigame associated with door-breeching. Every time you breech a door, you'll have an opportunity to shoot the men on the other side in the head. If you shoot enough men in the head, you'll unlock new ways to breech future doors. (When you say it out loud, you become aware of just how creepy it is.) The oddest thing about all of this is that the various unlockable breeching methods (crowbar, tomahawk (?), knob-bomb) are all slower and less effective than the simple "kick the door in" option you start with. Strange.
At least the multiplayer isn't as bad as the single-player. It's much better, in fact; far more assured, and entirely functional. But it still doesn't feel particularly sturdy, and certainly doesn't bring any distinctive ideas to the table. For the most part, Warfighter's multiplayer is exactly what you'd expect—teams of players duking it out in a variety of game modes via slightly modified takes on capture the flag, king of the hill, and deathmatch.
The best new idea in multiplayer is the fireteam—every time you start a game, you'll be paired up with another player in a two-man fireteam. If you go down and your teammate is still up, you can spawn back next to him or her. It's surprising how quickly the fireteams engender feelings of trust and camaraderie, even with complete strangers. Something about having one person to rely on makes things feel more focused and trusting than having a whole team. (You'll have a team too, mind.)
But the rest of the multiplayer suite is Just Another First-Person Shooter Multiplayer Suite. None of the levels stand out as particularly balanced or fun, and in the maps I played, the "routes" felt off—it may be because I haven't learned the maps yet, but I often was at a loss for a place where I could regroup and get a sense of things. Multiplayer is buggy, too—I saw my share of pop-in and clipping weirdness, and there are reports of players encountering bugs that disable chat and rob them of earned experience. Even if and when that stuff gets patched, Warfighter's multiplayer doesn't feel nearly robust enough to compete with the likes of Black Ops II, Halo 4, or even EA's own Battlefield 3. The shooting feels thin, and the action a touch ungrounded. The pinch just isn't right.
Modern first-person shooters are designed for the long multiplayer game; players are actively encouraged to dedicate huge chunks of time in order to unlock the best gear, classes, and weaponry. Warfighter, based on my limited time with it, does not feel like it earns that level of commitment. That said, EA delivered our review copy on launch day (two days ago), so I'll be spending more time with the multiplayer over the next week or so. I highly doubt that anything I'll see will cause my opinion of the game to change, but if it does, I'll update this review.
Somehow, in their misguided effort to create a Call of Duty-killer, EA decided to fully and unironically embrace realism. "That's the ticket!" said the man in the boardroom, calling up a sniper-rifle manufacturer to work out a sponsorship deal, "Realism! Call of Duty is so silly, with its Michael Bay antics and its James Bondian storylines. We'll stand apart by being authentic!"
And yet Warfighter's dedication to authenticity is ultimately its greatest downfall. These soldiers may spit believable jargon; they may call enemy troops "skinnies" and effortlessly sling all manner of slick-sounding military acronym. But they never manage to feel like people. They're plastic army men fighting in a ridiculous video game world. Authenticity is more than real-world locations and accurately modeled weaponry. In order to feel authentic, a creation must, on some level, feel human. For all of Medal of Honor's jingoistic, on-some-level-well-intentioned hollering, it feels as lifeless as an abandoned amusement park ride.
If you have played a military shooter in the last five years, you've already done every single thing you'll do in Medal of Honor Warfighter, and done it better. The game so epitomizes the thoughtless, drab military shooter that it frequently lapses into inadvertent self-parody. It is lackluster in almost every way. But hey, at least the flashlights look pretty good.