My unplanned choice to look at the original Call of Duty got me thinking about some of history’s previous World War II first person games. Shortly, I got a wild notion to take a look at them all. Will this happen? Eventually, yes, probably… though I am easily distracted by shiny objects as far as this site goe…. OH, HEY, MARATHON!
To properly set this game’s debut in perspective, we need to consider two things: GoldenEye on the N64, and Saving Private Ryan in the theaters. Ryan was Spielberg’s ode to the World War II films of his youth, and its incredible visuals and gritty realism somehow ended up glorifying warfare far more than any John Wayne WWII flick ever did. Gamers who clearly missed the point of the film wanted to recreate these grisly action scenes, they just needed a game to give them that opportunity.
As for GoldenEye, well, it set the new standard for console first person shooters back in 1997, and people simply would not shut up about it, even for years after. Its N64 exclusivity was a thorn in many a gamer’s side, and an equivalent experience on the PlayStation would help all who placed their bets on the gray console breathe a little easier. PS owners were still waiting for this in 1999 – and starting to go a little stir crazy.
Enter Medal of Honor – a Dreamworks-funded title using some of the research and connections from Private Ryan, with enough money and prestige behind it to try and take on the reigning console champ. If the PlayStation could finally host an exclusive, knockout FPS – not a stripped version ported from the PC – it would finally have all the bases covered. Whether they succeeded is probably best up to interpretation. The gaming press at the time certainly felt they did, and it was indeed the closest to GoldenEye the PSX had, but it’s hardly a flawless product.
As the silent American ace Lt. Jimmy Patterson, you’re drafted into the ranks of the Office of Strategic Services and given daring sabotage missions across the Reich. These range from scuttling a U-boat, to infiltrating a fort on the Siegfried line, to blowing a V2 production factory. All your missions are done solo and all are accomplished with a mix of guns and cosplay. Jimmy, you see, is a master of disguise. Stuff him into a German officer’s uniform and he’s so convincing that he merely needs to shove the proper identification booklet into a guard’s face to cow them into instant submission.
Much like Bond’s exploits on the N64, Patterson has a laundry list of objectives to complete in every mission. Controls will be smashed, explosive charges will be planted, and all manner of loose Wehrmacht intel will be scooped up. There are seven missions in all, but 3-4 levels per mission, for around 24 levels total. Stars and medals are granted for thorough performance, as well as unlocked characters for the game’s bare-bones, split-screen multiplayer arenas. A weak reward, but it’s something.
Missions can be comfortably classified into “action” and “stealth” varieties. The action levels have Jimmy running through narrow corridors of enemy defenses to reach the objective on the other side. A variety of authentic World War II weapons are available, with appropriate period quirks. Bolt action rifles must be cycled between shots, grenades can’t be thrown very far, and powerful automatic weapons like the BAR and Thompson have woefully small magazines. This does play differently than previous FPSs and their modern arsenals.
Enemy AI will also do some clever things that sprite-based foes never could. Riflemen will drop to prone at a distance, kick grenades away if they have time, and run for alarm boxes to call for backup. German Shepherds will even play fetch – with disastrous results – if you throw a stick grenade in their presence. But the AI is still equally brainless; gleefully coming around blind corners, making limited use of cover, and often standing in the middle of the road just trading shots. They’re a little more convincing than the usual cardboard cutouts, but hardly cunning – and again, nearly everything here was already done in Gold…en… a certain N64 game.
The outright action levels are the best of what’s on tap. Objectives are placed in a linear order, so you’ll know quickly when you’ve missed one. Ammo pickups are generous, while dropped medicinal canteens offer small health boosts (with larger kits placed just off the beaten path). The Nazis here aren’t at all clever or sinister – these are flamboyant, Indiana Jones caricatures rather than any approximation of the real deal – but they make pretty good targets to populate the levels. Some ambushes keep you on your toes, some placed turrets let you mow down pursuers with impunity, and overall, there’s enough going on to keep you interested.
The stealth sections are less impressive. Here, Patterson goes undercover as a German officer and must work his way up the command chain by stealing higher and higher levels of clearance. This just comes down to popping the right officer when no one is around, then swiping his papers. Still, you have enemies following patrol routes to keep you from easily accomplishing this, as well as trained dogs and officers that will see right through your pitiful disguise. The right papers – even if you’ve just shown the wrong ones to the same guard mere seconds ago – unlock the necessary doors to proceed. I especially love how officers recognize you, not as an American spy, but as Jimmy Patterson – your reputation apparently proceeding you. It’s all a touch bizarre, but it’s Medal of Honor’s biggest distinction in the crowded FPS market.
It’s also, essentially, just a puzzle made up of a series of precise moves. You figure out where each officer or objective item is, the path to get there, and work within tight timing windows to pull each step off. Much like other forced stealth sections in FPS titles, this doesn’t always mesh well with the rest of the game. Some technical issues (officers spotting you across the room, headshots not registering) also frustrate, and while the mission won’t end when an alarm sounds, your ammo is drastically limited in these sections. You’re certainly expected to follow the script, and will spend multiple tries attempting to figure out what that script is.
The major issues come from controls and graphics. The engine, simply, is a friend to no one. Textures are low-res and warp considerably when you move. Enemies are made from a handful of textured polygons, with simple sprites for weapons. The draw distance is abysmal across the board – even indoor areas fade to black before you can spot the opposite wall. Levels are noticeably tiny and usually last only a few minutes a piece. Speed is generally okay, but the player can get caught on level geometry and get hitchy when turning corners. The pace of combat, both through movement speed, frame rate locks, and the characteristics of bolt-action weapons, is also noticeably slower than its competition.
This isn’t from a modern perspective either. It’s a 1999 game that’s worse off than Quake, and no real competition to GoldenEye either. The action doesn’t move fast enough and the graphics can’t keep pace. Meanwhile, you could look at any game on the PC and see performance worlds away from what’s seen here. I owned this game at the time and don’t even remember if I finished it – Half-Life had my attention well and truly. However, as I brought up earlier, PSX owners didn’t have many alternatives. Kileak and Codename: Tenka were the only similar full-3D games, and neither one was that great either. I think it’s fair to attribute Medal’s popularity to a huge userbase with limited alternatives.
Controls were designed for the Dual Shock controller. If you didn’t have one, woe befell you. The primary use of the analog sticks was in fine aiming, since the auto-aim for all guns – even close range SMGs – is a fucking farce. You need to engage crosshairs by holding the R2 button, then aim with the left stick to have a chance of hitting anything. Enemies also frequent ledges or trees above you, and you need to adjust your view to hit them. Auto-aim won’t just pick them up. Otherwise, movement and navigation work, albeit a bit clunky. It’s just a shame that the aiming and shooting in a combat game isn’t that great.
The best performance comes from the audio. Michael Giacchino composed the sweeping score, recorded with a 70-piece orchestra, and the results are as impressive as the credentials. Music does not react to your in-game actions, but does find a way of hitting all the right marks for each level (or should that be “Reich marks?” ha ha… *cough*). Gunfire is apparently authentic, and special attention has been paid to the ambient sounds of city streets, loudspeakers in a train station, or machinery inside a U-boat. William Morgan Sheppard also deserves a special commendation as the smooth-voiced Colonel giving your briefings. Finally, soldiers do indeed speak authentic German – except during the stealth missions. Any time you’re expected to understand their speech, it’s replaced with some incredibly (intentionally?) cheesy accented English.
Overall, Medal of Honor’s biggest failing is that it was three years too late. It’s just enough like GoldenEye to satisfy, but still noticeably inferior. It proved the concept of a PlayStation FPS though, and better attempts would come along in the coming years. From a modern perspective, well, I’m pretty lenient in terms of how games have aged, and even I was struggling to get through this one, so modern gamers will likely find it totally unplayable. It’s certainly above average, especially for the PSX, but you hardly needed hindsight to spot vastly better experiences on other contemporary platforms.
Excellent score fits the Hollywood movie theme. Competent attempt at matching GoldenEye 007 on a technically inferior console. The war history films and voice overs between missions are a bit heavy-handed, but I thought they were a neat touch.
Graphics don’t impress visually, nor bring needed speed or large locales. Controls make aiming a bit a of a clunky chore. Stealth missions shake up the gameplay, but not in a particularly fun or satisfying way.
“Welcome back, Patterson. I hope you’ve had a chance to *warm up* after your visit to the North Pole. Heh!” – Colonel Hargrove