OK, I admit it: I've got a soft spot for World War II shooters. Leaving aside the fantastical Castle Wolfenstein, an early id Software title that came before DOOM, this love affair most definitely began with the original Medal of Honor, a 1999 PC classic that spawned a number of add-on packs, all excellent, and a sequel of sorts, the lamentable Medal of Honor: Pacific, which, for whatever reason, never resonated for me. Medal of Honor is also notable as it presaged the Call of Duty series (see my reviews of Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 for the Xbox 360), of which I've also dutifully played each and every version, including various PC-based add-on packs for the original Call of Duty. (Which, like the original Medal of Honor, remains surprisingly playable today, years later.)
The Xbox 360, of course, has already had its fair share of WWII-themed shooters, beginning with Call of Duty 2, which was a launch title, Call of Duty 3, the lamentable Hour of Victory (see my review), and a variety of related games like Blazing Angels and Company of Heroes. And no wonder, really: WWII is a rich tapestry of history and destruction, and though it may seem like the possible settings have already been exhausted, I'd be happy if these companies simply released new WWII-themed shooters every year. That, apparently, is not of interest to Activision: The next Call of Duty title, Call of Duty 4, is leaving behind the Second World War for a modern if fictional setting, and early word is that the game will be quite excellent. I'll decide that for myself when that title is released in November. In the meantime, we have something else to celebrate: The release of a new Medal of Honor title, the first in a few years, and the first for the Xbox 360. It's called Medal of Honor Airborne. And it's made me very happy.
That said, MOHA, as I'll refer to the game, isn't perfect. The game is shorter than I would have liked, and for a game that's so thoroughly consumed by Airborne Rangers and jumping from planes into battle on every level, there's precious little in the way of actual jump training in the game. Heck, it's barely mentioned in the instruction pamphlet that accompanies the game either. But it's good, really good. And while it may not be that perfect five-star-rating I've been waiting for since Call of Duty 2, it certainly fixes many of the problems I had with the buggy and sometimes frustrating Call of Duty 3.
It's World War II and America has joined the war. You know the drill: It's time to assault the continent, and since you're an Airborne Ranger in this game, you'll be doing so from the air. The game progresses through just six missions, two in Italy, one each France and The Netherlands, and two in Germany, along with an amazingly short training mission that just lets you jump onto targets and doesn't teach you about weapons or anything else in the game. (Apparently by this point, we all know how to play these types of games.) You're always the same character--Boyd Travers--and while most of the game is firmly grounded in history, the final mission features a bizarre fantasy tower/fortress called Der Flakturm which, if I understand things correctly, is the conical final battle ground for the remainder of the Nazi regime in Berlin.
If you've played one WWII shooter, you have apparently played them all: The control scheme in MOHA is very similar to that of the Call of Duty titles, with some odd but easily handled changes. What I really appreciate is that EA has fixed some of the truly silly things that, for me, made Call of Duty 3, especially, somewhat frustrating. For example, there are no real team kills: When you take aim at a fellow soldier (inadvertently, presumably), there is a red circle icon with a line through it, indicating that you should not shoot. But if you do shoot, nothing happens: You aren't reprimanded, or forced to start the level over from the last checkpoint, as happens in COD3. Bravo. Likewise, you can often jump from pretty high places without dying or hurting yourself, which is really appreciated. I'm sure the rationale for this is that you're an Airborne Ranger, after all, but come on: This is a game. It doesn't have to be super-realistic if doing so gets in the way of actually just playing the game.
There's also a neat system where you can be crouching and then start running; when you stop running, you return to the crouch immediately. This lets you crouch-run-crouch in useful ways, making your way from obstruction to obstruction while keeping safe. Nice. MOHA also does some things right that COD3 just screwed up horribly: When you apply Comp B explosives to a gun placement or other object, you just have to press the "A" button, and not virtually screw the thing in as you're forced to do in COD3.
But the biggest improvement in MOHA, when compared to the Call of Duty games, is the non-linearity of each mission. Those missions are few--again, there are just six of them--but each comes with an increasingly lengthy set of accomplishments which must be completed before the mission is done. Since you're jumping in from the air--an action you will repeat when you die, with rare exceptions--you are free to complete these accomplishments in any order you like. In other words, you're not on a rail, as you are in the COD titles. This is handled particularly elegantly in-game, too: If you wander into an area near an accomplishment, the radio will kick in and explain what you have to do. At that point, you're free to do so, or simply navigate to another area of the map. There's only one place in the game this doesn't work well, the aforementioned Der Flakturm tower, as that's the one place where it makes sense to complete the accomplishments in order (that is, from top to bottom). But since MOHA is truly wide open, you're free to do what you will. This is, to my mind, a major accomplishment.
The other nice thing about MOHA is that the game starts off with a very easy difficulty level and then gets progressively more difficult as the game progresses. At the time of this writing, I've completed the game on both Normal and Casual difficulty levels (and in that order), and this was true of both: By the time you finish the game on Casual, the difficulty level is anything but casual. But it starts off easy--apparently the Italians were something of a pushover compared to the more highly trained German troops you face for most of the game--giving even casual gamers a friendly way to get going without embarrassing themselves.
Of course, since dying in this game results in you once again jumping into battle from a plane--the game's signature and unique feature--you may not feel too bad about that. The jumps are usually pretty fun, though again the game does barely anything to help teach you to jump properly. In fact, the first time I completed training, I had botched all three jumps and still passed. No advice was given about improving my jumps, and I was off to war. Lovely.
And since we're on the negatives, the game is just horribly short: I don't exactly play games all day long, and I was able to finish the entire game on Normal difficult mode in under three days. Then I played through on Casual in just two. I spent considerably more time on both COD2 and COD3.
Graphics and sound
MOHA doesn't really break any new ground graphically--BioShock (see my review) and Gears of War (see my review) are both dramatically better looking and offer richer, more immersive environments. Of course, this game begs to be compared to the COD titles, and on that note, I'd say that MOHA is about on par with COD3: Quite good, of course, and serviceable given the job at hand. As with COD3, there are odd graphical glitches here and there--especially in multiplayer--where you might see a gun or ammo box hovering in the air. I also witnessed enemies popping up out of thin air a few times in the single player campaign. Nothing serious.
The one unique graphical effect in the game, from what I can tell, occurs any time a grenade explodes: There's a sort of slow motion effect as a curtain of gray dirt expands out from the explosion. Actually, dropping onto each map from a plane is pretty unique too, and is nicely presented.
Old-time Medal of Honor fans will smile when they hear the familiar MOH theme music kick in; I certainly did. The music throughout is typical of this kind of game and well-done. Sound effects are typically well done too.
While I'm quite experienced with the MOHA single player campaigns, I've only hopped into multiplayer matches a dozen times or so. What I've seen is quite positive: As with the single player match, some of the MOHA multiplayer modes feature jumping into the battle from a plane. So depending on what team you're on, you'll either be jumping into the thick of things each time you're killed, or you'll be attempting to snipe incoming enemies as they arrive. I'm not sure yet if this is a decent improvement over standard COD2/3-style multiplayer or just a hokey trick.
Further problematic, MOHA multiplayer is Xbox Live only, so you can't practice against a friend on the console or via System Link. There are just six maps, too, which is also limiting, and they're all based on locations in the single player campaign. There are just three multiplayer modes, Objective Airborne, Team Deathmatch (no plane jumps), and Team Deathmatch Airborne. MOHA supports both Ranked and Unranked Matches.
Though Medal of Honor Airborne doesn't really break any new ground, it's a satisfying World War II shooter that undoes some of the bad will I felt after suffering through some of the problems with Call of Duty 3. Jumping out of a plane is just fun, in both single player and multiplayer, and it does add a new dimension to what should be a pretty tired genre by now. On the other hand, MOHA is too short, and it's unclear if the limited multiplayer modes will provide the sort of replay value that even COD3 offers in spades. I enjoyed MOHA quite a bit, and will keep plying away at multiplayer, but you'll need to decide for yourself whether you need yet another WWII shooter. If you do, Medal of Honor Airborne is an excellent choice. Recommended.