Tyler Wilde, Associate EditorThe first player-controlled action in Medal of Honor: Warfighter is to shoot a guard in the back of the head with a suppressed pistol. I can’t move the pistol away from his head. An icon indicates that I should press the left-mouse button to fire. I don't want to.
After a few missions, I don't want to keep playing Warfighter's campaign at all. It isn't fun. It isn't lonely, either: along with Battlefield 3 and the last couple Call of Dutys, I don't think I like military FPS campaigns anymore. They've changed, but my taste hasn't changed with them.
So I went back to a classic. Ten years ago I loved Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MOHAA) so much that I saved both discs and the CD key for my future self to play. Thanks, past me! I still love it (no rose-tinted glasses), and comparing MOHAA's opening mission to Warfighter's opening vignettes convinces me that I'm not the one with the problem. Spielberg, the devs who went on to form Infinity Ward, and their old WWII shooter have some lessons for the modern crowd.
Missions vs. puppetry
I’m not squeamish about violence. I don’t want to shoot this guy in the back of the head because I don’t have a choice. My soldier is a puppet. I have one of the strings—I can pull the trigger—but Warfighter is gripping the rest and won’t let me move on until I give in. Forcing the player to commit violence can be used for an unsettling effect, but in Warfighter it’s just a tutorial. It callously teaches me that, yes, as in every other shooter, the left mouse button shoots people.
So, why am I shooting this guy again? Because he's there? Oh, OK.
True, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault doesn't let me choose not to shoot Nazis. That's what I signed up for. It can't be played nonviolently, but it doesn't force my hand. It says, “Here are your objectives, and there are going to be a bunch of Nazis who’d really rather you didn't complete them. You’re going to have to shoot them. Good luck.”
You've got to earn advancement in MOHAA. There’s player-directed work to be done before you’re rewarded with the next chapter. In Warfighter, the mission has been programmed into my soldier, and I’m just there to help him aim. When he needs to walk so that a set piece can crumble at the appropriate distance, he walks. When he doesn't feel like holding his gun anymore, he puts it away. Warfighter wrestles me for control because I can’t tell its story competently.
As soon as I'm off the truck, it's all up to me.
Max Payne 3 also steals control when it needs to transition into a cut scene, but it’s consistent. When I’m in control, I have full control and I’m responsible for finding the correct path and shooting the dudes in my way. If I slack off in Warfighter, the puppeteer will take care of the hard work for me, because the show must go on even if one of the marionettes isn't cooperating. I tried playing the first mission firing only when I absolutely had to. I fired twice, and the game took care of the rest.
The M1 Garand vs. the Heckler & Koch HK416
In MOHAA, it's shoot or be shot, but I have the advantage that it's completely unrealistic. No one could fire an M1 Garand as accurately as I am while standing still, never mind in mid-sprint. As I invade an occupied French village to rescue a captive SAS operative, I run, strafe, and fearlessly twirl around German riflemen, haunting them like a whimsical, armed specter.
I can still die, but I have time to line up good shots and each hit is a little victory. The pop of my gun and the sight of a Stahlhelm whizzing off a Nazi’s head are great feedback. Clearing an area is a bigger victory, and once I’m sure everyone’s on the ground I’m rewarded with a moment of calm to look around before I charge into the next section.
Realistic? Not at all, but it's fun.
Warfighter isn't realistic either, but its modern approach is all about crouching behind chunks of concrete and watching out for falling set pieces. Any time I take to aim is time that I'm exposed, and as long as I'm exposed, I'm on the verge of death. It's not realistic, but it's a little closer to reality. It's also not very fun.
I’m not suggesting that all shooters be WWII shooters, but MOHAA's M1 Garand is a lot more fun than Warflighter’s 850 rounds/min HK416. Spurting bullets in the direction of bad guys isn't as exhilarating as flipping a helmet with a single shot. And instead of natural feedback, Warfighter gives me a skull icon to let me know when I've scored a headshot, because I probably couldn't tell. It isn't nearly as satisfying.
Just like MOHAA, Warfighter features an early beach landing mission. Unlike MOHAA, it's boring.
Cover shooters aren't fundamentally bad. Red Orchestra 2, another WWII shooter, is more dedicated to realism than either MOHAA or Warfighter. It's a lot of creeping, crawling, and peeking, but at the end of all that, my perfect shot feels earned. Or I miss and it's a huge letdown, but I still feel something. I don't feel much in Warfighter. I just do what it tells me so I can advance to the next scene.
It seems that in an effort not to be called “unrealistic,” Warfighter fails to ask, “But is this any fun?”
Being realistic vs. being real
Warfighter's desire for authenticity goes further: it wants me to believe these are real wartime heroics. “This personal story was written by actual Tier 1 Operators while deployed overseas," reads the official description. "In it, players step into the boots of these warfighters and apply unique skill sets to track down a real global threat, in real international locations, sponsored by real enemies. It doesn't get any more authentic than Medal of Honor Warfighter, coming October 23, 2012.”
It's real, real, real, and authentic. It was written by actual Tier 1 Operators. I wasn't there, but I’m highly skeptical that Warfighter depicts real anything. Men planting explosives then dashing through collapsing shipping crates while picking off a shooting gallery of bad guys is not the truth. So what's Warfighter's dose of reality? In the beginning, at least, it's a story about a soldier’s strained relationship with his wife.
How Warfighter handles a gap in between missions.
War is a terrible emotional burden, but shooting a guy point blank in the back of the head is just a tutorial? It's dishonest, and when you make a game about a war we're currently invested in, well...maybe you shouldn't. If you do, it'd better be intellectually challenging, or it'll just come off as jingoistic tripe.
MOHAA has a strong advantage here. It can say "Allies good, Axis evil" and we're fine with it because it's the globally accepted version of the truth. In pop culture, Nazis are equivalent to zombies and murderous robots, so MOHAA can skip all the posturing and get to the mission briefing. But even controversial wars, like Vietnam, benefit from perspective and distance. Battlefield: Vietnam didn't try to prove anything about American heroism to players, it was just a war game set in Vietnam.
How MOHAA handles mission briefings.
I know it's not in the spirit of the series, but what the hell is wrong with fictional wars? Call of Duty and Battlefield get it. The Chinese! The Russians! I'm fine with xenophobic pretend land. People aren't dying in xenophobic pretend land. And who would a truly realistic Medal of Honor be for, anyway? It would probably look a lot more like Arma II, but without the fictional country, and it'd be much more grisly than Warfighter’s glossy action scenes. A Linkin Park song wouldn't quite capture the gravity.
So, what happened?
In an early Warfighter mission, I drive an RC bot through a crumbled building, shredding guys foolish enough to point their flashlights at me. It's a cool idea for a scene. It adds variety, swapping constant danger for lack of danger. But it's not fun. Was Ender's Game fun after Ender figured out the game?
I'm still not sure why I'm gunning these guys down...something about illegal munitions?
So why is it there? Is it there to make us say, "Ooh, how authentic"? Maybe I little, but I think it's mostly there because robots are cool. Campaigns have turned into Universal Studios theme park rides. They're only sustainable as entertainment for a few minutes, and they bombard the viewer with every spectacle they can--robots, explosions, whatever keeps them invested. The viewer is under the ride’s control, because no one can be allowed to wander away and miss an explosion.
When I reviewed the first Medal of Honor reboot in 2010, I liked it more than most. I don’t regret that—I was being honest when I said I had fun—but the spectacle doesn't impress present me as much as it did past me. Too much spectacle is the problem. Rather than give us objectives and put obstacles in our way, Warfighter gives us a series of obstacles, and the objective is to watch them blow up. It doesn't work, because we don't have to do the work. We're just along for the ride.
If Warfighter were more like MOHAA, it would be accused of having a dated design, but isn't that better than having a bad design? I'm happy to play one of them ten years after it released, and the other I probably won't finish, no matter how "authentic" it is.