Welcome, once again, to The Lawless Perspective, an infrequent editorial series that acts as a second opinion of recently released games. But let’s not stick to the pretence that this is a review. No, it is a biased, though balanced, analysis based on what I consider to be the highlights and lowlights of the title in question and how it ties into what I view as the ideal future for the medium. There is no quantification and no recommendation to be found at the end. As always, I am duty-bound to offer a minor spoiler warning at this point. This time, I’ll be taking a look at EA and Danger Close’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which has inspired several members of the team. Originally reviewed by Will, Lachlan provided almost half an hour of gorgeous HD footage from the PC version and Daniel used it as one of the centrepieces for his argument that FPS games still have some growing up to do.
As a preface, allow me to iterate that I do not typically play shooters. You need not be told that the prevalence of an online focus amongst them generally results in short campaigns, poor stories and simplistic gameplay, meaning that the genre is not usually considered as among the best for single players. Still, enjoyment can be derived from them due to their singularly hectic nature. Having seen some of the reviews for Warfighter, I was expecting a dull mess of a game. In some ways, that is what I got, but most critics looked solely upon it as a derivation of what had come before rather than basing it upon its own merits, and I can guarantee that someone who doesn’t often play games of this type will walk away with very different impressions. Before dealing with those, however, I’ve always thought that storytelling should be the focal point of just about any production, and the advertising of Medal of Honor: Warfighter pitched it as a tent pole feature. As such, that is what I will start my analysis with.
The purported goal of the game falls in line with that of its 2010 predecessor: showing a more human side of war than is typically seen in like projects. In order to fulfil this objective, Warfighter follows Tom, a man known on the battlefields as ‘Preacher’ in two separate narrative threads that should have been inextricable. The primary portrays him as an elite Tier 1 soldier, responding to the call of duty when and where it arises. The secondary depicts him as the patriarch of a family broken by his frequent and prolonged absences. The dichotomy of these two very different halves could have provoked a powerful sense of drama as the character is torn between the allegiances that mean so much to him. Unfortunately, this ideal is never achieved and you are left with a story that is severely neutered by the necessity of relying on the action.
Bearing this in mind, it should come as little surprise that the most powerful scenes, the ones showing the marital woes of Preacher, are set between analepses. It is curious that the first such scene is arguably the best of the entire game. It is constructed with minimalism in mind; the character alone in a barely furnished room, arguing and pleading with his wife over the phone. There are no distractions, allowing you to focus on the respective anguish and seeming indifference of the husband and wife. It promises so very much to come, but this emotional height is never reached again as the game shifts away from this personal tale, using it as a platform to send Preacher back into action, with no regard for the reconciliation that he seems to desire so much in this opening, when the time comes. Once the narrative reaches that point, the attempt seems to become a sham.
The main storyline begins eight weeks prior to the aforementioned scene, with Preacher and a fellow Tier 1 operator on a mission to interrupt terrorist activities. This goes awry when their detonation of a truck carrying black market weapons causes a chain reaction that destroys the shipping docks that the operation took place in. It doesn’t take long for the source of the consequent explosions to be discovered, as the game turns its attention to the frantic chase across the globe in search of the supplier of the P.E.T.N. Though a high-stakes undertaking, it feels peculiarly muted. Warfighter adopts the propensity of the God of War series in kicking off with its greatest spectacle and there is never any mention of politics or a potential of World War Three. It’s actually rather intelligent and different in the fact that it is so low-key.
Unfortunately, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. You’re never completely lost, but the events seem discontinuous and you never really get an idea for who the enemy is supposed to be, meaning that the climax of the story doesn’t feel like one at all. It just feels hollow and rather empty. Besides this, the characters, outside of Preacher, barely feel identifiable at all, meaning that the obligatory execution scene, which could have brought on a sense of righteous anger in the search for justice, feels more like its inclusion was the result of a need for shock value. The decision to offer a second playable character was almost foolish. It allows for elements of the story to be made clear that would be impossible without ‘Stump’, but you never get a feel for him at all. The characterisation provided is minimal at best, and this means that you barely recognise when you take control of him. It creates dissonance, which is something that the game could have done without.
So yes, in the story, there is quite a lot to be disappointed by, and the highest points serve to make the rest of the narrative feel of less quality than even the bare mediocrity that it really is. It is in those domestic scenes between Preacher and his wife; the ones that show the camaraderie between the soldiers; and those even more rare examples when everything slides into place and the battle seems to become worth fighting, that the game shines. There are many drawbacks, however, and it often feels as though concessions were made to fall more in line with its fellows by featuring genre stalwart sequences. It’s hard to tell whether this is due to the design-by-obligation nature of the AAA market, the meddling of EA in the game’s production, or some other facet that affected development. Whatever it is, the same sentiment of tempered quality is also applicable to the gameplay.
To be sure, that element of difference that leaves a title feeling unique does not stem from the core gameplay. At heart, Medal of Honor: Warfighter is a typical shooter, complete with the feeling of being a disembodied gun floating with little regard for the physics of human movement. Unlike many similar games, you are able to see the legs of your character if you pan the camera down to its extremity, but it feels, as ever, that it is not enough. In reality, we are always aware of our bodies in our periphery, so why is this never applied to the viewpoint in a game? It would be a subliminal connection, but there is no point in singling out this game for these sins. It is almost enough to offer shades of Mirror’s Edge by allowing you to see the anatomy of the character.
Like that aforementioned game, Warfighter also offers light parkour elements by allowing you to slide under and vault over objects at speed, with accurate button presses. As interesting an inclusion as it is, it isn’t nearly as fluid as a game dedicated to the idea. Nor is it unseen in shooters, but such small touches always add something to a production that the bigger flaws and standard fare feeling cannot evaporate. This free-run ability is especially helpful in the on-foot chases, which are in themselves among the highlights of the campaign. As with so much, we’ve all seen these before, but they feel invigorating due to the necessarily high-paced, though not high octane, nature of them. Because it is about the chase, they are more subdued than the straight combat scenarios, even in those instances where you’re forced to pull up mid-sprint to deal with a sudden bevy of enemies. It’s always simple fun, but also secondary to the driving missions.
In recent times, these have become a genre stalwart, with almost no shooter being complete without allowing you to pilot a vehicle of some description. Here though, they’re something altogether different. They’ve been crafted with the assistance of members from fellow EA studios Black Box and Criterion (known primarily for the Need for Speed and Burnout series respectively), giving them the feeling that they belong to a dedicated driving/racing game. Bear no delusion, as lengthy and stimulating as they are, they are still just as heavily scripted as the rest of the game. Their excellence serves to break it up in far grander fashion that the same idea implemented elsewhere.
Outside of these few very enjoyable aspects, the design-by-obligation feeling already mentioned permeates the rest of the production. From sniping random targets, to controlling an unmanned drone to a rather poorly executed forced stealth/small arms mission, it all feels very tame and the feeling of tedium that one receives from these segments is undeniable. If their lack of any sense of identity isn’t enough to deter you from playing over the game a second time, the abysmal enemy AI is almost sure to. The appearance and tactics ascribed to your targets is so incredibly scripted that, even if you do choose to change your playstyle, there will be only the slightest amount of variation in the game as a whole. When the game can be beaten in under five hours, this makes it extremely hard to recommend Warfighter to anyone who is primarily a single player.
Making it even more difficult to do so is the presence of some very annoying, though not exactly game-breaking glitches. Quite a number of these have been brought to the public’s attention since the game released, though I think that I may have gotten off easily compared to some. Throughout the duration of my game, there were issues with kills not registering in the sniper segments; the failure of a trigger point to activate, which allowed me to walk out of the level geometry and a bizarre visual effect that filled a portion of the screen in a pixelated white mess whenever I faced a certain direction. It seems clear that there was not enough time for quality assurance at the end of the development period due to EA’s decision to launch the game in time to get the jump on the still upcoming Black Ops II.
And this is also a very valid reason for the generally unimpressive atmosphere of the game as a whole. You see, Danger Close seems to have agreed to EA’s mandate that all future games must be built upon DICE’s proprietary Frostbite 2 engine. What this effectively means is that the team had to learn how to program for it and push out a game in only two years, a feat that anyone would have difficulty achieving. Concessions would have to made somewhere to reach this goal and so this decision is easily one of the easiest to point to as a contributing factor for the poor reception of the game.
Conversely, the switch to Frostbite is also one of the best decisions for the game in that it allows for the graphics to be pushed further than almost any other game on the market. Everything about the visuals is top-of-class, engaging the player in the experience in a way rarely seen and this is backed up by some stellar sound design. This doesn’t have quite the same level of excellence, held back as it is by some questionable voice acting and a few balance issues.
My overriding reaction to Warfighter is that the execution failed to match up to its incredible promise. The ideas are there for this to be a very human, very different shooter, but the necessity of being familiar holds it back from being just that. Perhaps now that Danger Close have gotten a handle on the engine, they can focus on differentiating the core gameplay, though this may require another step. The modern war setting is feeling increasingly tired and EA would be better served to move one of their series away from it. Should Medal of Honor be the one to change? Considering its history in the realm of World War II, I would argue that it is.
Either way, Danger Close deserves another shot with the experience that they have garnered from this outing behind them. It will be the ultimate litmus test of their skills and if they fail to deliver with a third, then I will be more than happy to lambaste them along with the rest of the world of gaming journalists.
PS3 review code provided by EA ANZ. Thanks from OnlySP!