Monday, February 5, 2018

Before CoD: “Medal of Honor”, a personal retrospective PART I

The bloodiest war in History that engulfed the entirety of mankind; the Second World War, one of the most fascinating and terrifying moments in human history has been talked about, portrayed by and reenacted in every art-form at some point; video games have not been an exception. Though the original Call of Duty remains the quintessential War World 2 shooter, it was not the first series to approach and treat the Great War with such reverence. Infinity Ward, the makers of Call of Duty, did in fact start their careers with a game in another series about World War II: Medal of Honor.


The Medal of Honor series has been a mainstay of the shooter genre for about twenty years now, starting its life in the original Sony Playstation. Not simply a pitch out of nowhere in a safe and established IP or a clone of a more popular game as it’s customary these days, Medal of Honor is actually the brainchild of none other than Steven Spielberg himself. It was Spielberg, while getting ready to release his 1996 war epic Saving Private Ryan that tasked the electronic entertainment division of Dreamworks (his own company) to work on a pitch for a World War 2 game. The developers had a herculean task ahead of them; they had to tackle an entirely new subject matter in a genre mostly foreign to it and they also had to ease the concerns of WWII veteran organizations that thought the game would be disrespectful schlock. After patience, talks, changes and an internally-circulated and very well-received demo, Electronic Arts funded the project and released the first game in 1999, simply titled Medal of Honor.
Even without the influence from Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg’s involvement, the original Medal of Honor is interesting. Not many first-person-shooters originate on consoles and especially not back then. Sure, there were versions of Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and Quake from the SNES to the Playstation, but they were all ported over from the PC versions. The successful shooters that originated on consoles were usually tie-ins to large movie licenses, such as the Alien games and, of course, 007: GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64. It’s more than a little significant that Medal of Honor was a Playstation game first and foremost; it came at the right time on a system that changed gaming forever. The Playstation took gaming into the mainstream and helped rewrite the dated notions of what the entire medium could achieve; it was the system thanks to which in the eyes of normies video games stopped being glorified children’s toys and became a real form of entertainment and/or art. In this regard, the original Medal of Honor is the perfect mirror of the very system it was first released on; Dreamworks and EA proved that shooters weren’t just about grey corridors and energy weapons, gore and killing monstrous aliens; they could be historically accurate, with high production value, entertaining but also educational and centered around one of mankind’s darkest and most important moments. That the game didn’t just disappear, but also spawned a sequel on the same system and eventually became a large IP for EA across multiple platforms makes that original endeavor very important for gaming as a whole.


Steven Spielberg on the set of “Saving Private Ryan” (With Tom Hanks in the background)
Medal of Honor places the player in the shoes of Jimmy Patterson, an agent working for the OSS, that is the Office of Strategic Services, parts of which eventually became the CIA. Patterson is tasked with a variety of solo missions, infiltrating Nazi strongholds and doing anything from locating documents and MiA Allied troops to taking down German super-weapons.
Realism and film roots proved a wonderful mix that works even now, in the game’s old age. Medal of Honor’s gunplay is satisfying. Despite its technical limitations, the weapons feel authentic, in weight, look and sound; it sounds like a given in the modern, military-infested shooter genre, but it was a breakthrough approach at the time. The lone wolf protagonist angle allowed the developers to show less and make use of lighting and shadow techniques to work around the hardware’s limitations and so most missions take place at night or inside claustrophobic German complexes, making it a great and serious looking title. There is era-appropriate artwork during loading screens in the style of propaganda posters, the title screen is a 1940s style war room instead of a simple menu with a logo and even the save/load screen is designed to look like a personnel file. The attention to detail to make the game feel like it’s taking place during the second world war is extremely impressive even by modern standards and the fantastic soundtrack that accompanies players throughout the meaty campaign bolsters the already strong atmosphere and gives off the feeling of a true cinema period classic that you get to partake in.


Where Medal of Honor really still shines is in its enemy AI. The German soldiers aren’t just dumb obstacles charging at the player like most videogame enemies; they spot the player and immediately use tactics. They crouch, they go prone, they roll to dodge, they choose the best position for cover, they even throw grenades back at the player. In rare occasions, Germans will even jump on grenades and cover them with their bodies to contain the explosion and save their comrades. Enemy AI in Playstation games simply wasn’t like this; even compared to the majority of Playstation 2 games, the Germans in Medal of Honor react realistically and complexly. Of all the things that are hard to design in a game, smart AI is probably at the top of that list, making Dreamworks Interactive’s achievement all the more significant. 
Of course, a game like Medal of Honor hasn’t aged flawlessly; the controls are a little stiff, as the game was released for a system, which didn’t even have controllers with analog sticks yet. The aiming and moving are locked to the D-Pad and in situations that the player has to quickly react to unseen threats, the game feels a little rigid. The enemies are also bullet-sponges and if more than one of them are on screen at the same time, the player is unlikely to leave the encounter completely unscathed. 
For all that’s great about the enemy AI, it occasionally glitches and it can be inconsistent, particularly in regards to the enemies’ field of vision; the view distance is understandably low, considering the hardware, but the Germans can sometimes spot Patterson from afar, before the agent and by extension the players can see them.
Lastly, there are no checkpoints in the original version of the game; much like every first person shooter of that era, if the player’s health bar hits zero during a mission, they have to start over again.


Playing the original Medal of Honor in 2017 remains a satisfying and humbling experience; not only does the game still play well enough, but it’s also a link to the past, History in game form. It’s interesting; Dreamwork’s title was one of the first shooters, especially on consoles, to try and educate people in History, but because of its origins and what it represents for gaming, it has become history itself, even if it is only in its own little niche. Those were the days that spawned everything we consider a rule in gaming today, much like the NES library did for gaming in the ‘90s; Medal of Honor is a representative example of the entire 5th console generation, from the way the market worked, to the type of game that was popular, to the involvement of big names from other forms of entertainment, to innovation and polish; it was the era of growth of the entire industry and that’s something engraved on Medal of Honor now-wrinkly skin.
From Steven Spielberg’s brain and his idea for a loose tie-in to his movie, to a multi-million dollars franchise for one of gaming’s biggest publishers, it’s hard to look at the original Playstation title and not see the amount of work, attention to detail and talent that went into making that game. By the time the WWII shooter subgenre had started becoming saturated and dying out, that first game was a distant memory in the minds of most people, assuming they had even heard of it before; yet, even to this day, it’s easy to see and recognize how many genre-defining foundations and tropes Medal of Honor alone created and established.

Note: Medal of Honor is available for purchase via the PSN “PSOne Classics” section for play on Playstation 3, Playstation Portable and Playstation Vita systems.

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