There’s something peculiarly admirable about Danger Close’s Medal of Honor, even though it’s a boring and derivative entry into perhaps the most boring and derivative genre of video games in existence. Taking on the cultural behemoth that is the Call of Duty franchise was always going to be a losing battle, but healthy competition is pleasantly encouraging and the much-maligned military shooter doesn’t have enough of it.
That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of first-person shooters about soldiers, but significantly fewer which are advertised and promoted as a genuine competitor for the industry titan. Medal of Honor is a reboot of a critically-acclaimed series published by one of the industry’s biggest and most influential companies, and from the jump it was marketed as exactly that – a big deal.
The game’s selling point was always intended to be authenticity: it was given a contemporary setting, military advisers were hired to assure the most accurate depiction of real-world warfare and organic situations on the ground, and a young squire from EA’s public relations department boldly claimed that “Medal of Honor is set in today’s war putting players in the boots of today’s soldiers”. And ironically, that’s where the game fell flat on its face.
I have several friends who are enrolled in the Armed Forces – a couple in the Army, a couple in the Air Force, even one in the Navy – and every story they tell me of their time spent there reinforces the idea that it really isn’t for me. Marching, kit inspections, rigorous physical training, living in muddy holes on the Welsh moors… I’m fine where I am, thank you. But I enjoy military shooters (for the most part) because they strip all of that out and just present the exciting, fun stuff. I’ve talked before about how shooting things in video games is fun, and also about how Call of Duty, while not exactly artistically progressive, is still an enjoyable action experience regardless. This is largely because in these games authenticity is generally abandoned in favour of bombast and an almost stylized version of warfare. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that actually going to war in real life probably isn’t all that fun.
So there’s a fine balance between realism and accessibility which needs to be achieved in order for a game like this to be successful. Too much of one or the other is problematic; you don’t want a game with such lofty commercial ambition to play like Operation Flashpoint, but likewise you don’t want a game so heavily advertised as authentic to channel Red Faction. But the thing is, that authenticity doesn’t necessarily need to characterise the actual gameplay. There’s nothing wrong with using the Call of Duty template, and then layering well-researched and considered elements over the top of it. Outside of the actual shooting, there’s plenty of room for scenarios and incidental details which are refreshingly grounded in reality without being a barrier for the player’s enjoyment.
Medal of Honor fails to be a compelling representation of armed conflict on multiple levels, but primarily because it, like almost all military shooters, refuses to acknowledge the fallibility of military personnel, instead drawing battle lines between the “heroes” (that is, the soldiers in the field) and the “villains” (in this case both enemy combatants and the bureaucrats pulling strings back home.) The soldiers themselves are the typical impossibly noble, courageous patriot caricatures, so generically stoic and admirable that they’re almost entirely devoid of relatable human characteristics. Real soldiers aren’t like that. They have the same emotional spectrum as you or me; they get scared, have doubts, panic, but what sets them apart is that, despite the emotional strain they’re under on a daily basis, they are still willing to put their life on the line for their country and their beliefs. Being able to shoot a man in the head from close to a mile away is impressive, but it isn’t what should define the person pulling the trigger.
Every bad decision in Medal of Honor is attributed to a guy behind a desk on the other side of the planet; one of those obligatory ex-military government types who barks orders irrespective of consequence and is clearly fuelled by his own personal agenda. When things go wrong, the game never attempts to explore how drastically those on the ground can suffer as a result of military intelligence not corresponding with what’s happening in the field. The troops don’t respond to drastic changes of circumstance in a way that is meaningful or believable, instead brushing off every disastrous turn with nothing but a nonchalant “let’s just get on with it” mentality.
In fiction, nobody really wants to see beautiful people being awesome at everything all of the time – there’s no drama in that. Reality isn’t like that. Bravery isn’t about that. There are no braver men and women among us than those who choose to serve their country and put their lives on the line for our freedom. But they are brave because, in situations most of us frankly couldn’t handle, they are able to rise above their weaknesses as human beings and confront those who mean to do us harm. A military FPS is uniquely positioned to be able to explore that; not to present soldiers as unstoppable badass killing machines who are the pinnacle of efficiency all the time, but to present them as real people with real feelings who occasionally get by on chance and good fortune alone. A military FPS striving for authenticity needs to do that, because the only real way to depict the people who live that life is to actually depict them as people carrying weapons, not weapons being carried by people.
War is such a fundamental part of our species that I think it’s important we work towards understanding the horrors of combat and what soldiers go through in order to keep us safe and secure. I want to play a game which simulates that. I want to play a game which captures the moral ambiguity; that treads the thin line between a non-combatant and someone who might let off an IED; a game which lets us accidentally shoot an AI squadmate and have to deal with it. I want to play a game which gives soldiers the respect they deserve, and lets us even pretend to be as brave and as valuable as they are.
Unfortunately, Medal of Honor isn’t that game.