Thursday, August 10, 2006

Medal of Honor: Airborne gets Jeep

Electronic Arts and Jeep Brand announced that they inked a deal that will put the Willy-Overland Jeep in Medal of Honor: Airborne, the next installment for the World War II first-person shooter franchise.

The Medal of Honor series has been renowned in the WWII genre since 1999 due to its faithfulness to historical accuracy and authenticity. Jeeps played an important role for in WWII moving troops, information, and tracking the enemy. More than 350,000 Willys jeeps were built and used during the war.
Medal of Honor: Airborne lets players fully control where each mission begins and how it plays out. This is the first time the series has included fully player-drivable vehicles like the classic Willys-Overland Jeep. Authentic to their use in WWII, the Willys Jeep will be able to access more areas than the other drivable vehicles featured in MOHA, because of their four-wheel drive features and can-do attitude.

"The Medal of Honor: Airborne experience begins with unprecedented freedom of approach from the air. With the addition of the Willys Jeep, that freedom continues on the ground, on road and off, and in combat scenarios of all types." explained Patrick Gilmore of EALA. "This is the first time in any Medal of Honor game that a player will have the ability to drive a Willys Jeep, and we're very excited to see this new addition increase the fun and intensity of the gameplay."

But there is a trench war going on in the World War II shooter sub-genre. Electronic Arts' original WWII FPS, which first debuted on PlayStation in 1999, has reached great heights, but during its run, games such as Call of Duty have stolen a lot of the series' thunder. About a year ago, EA took a different direction with MOH, opening it up with larger, wide-open spaces, giving choices to players, where there was simply a single trail before. Medal of Honor: Airborne, the newest game in the series, takes it one step further, offering players the chance to drop from airplanes into the battlefield.

Now that EA has announced its official partnership with Jeep, the publisher has opened up a little, giving us information on a number of subjects. EA is digging deep to re-capture the sub-genre with a game that people will love, and pretty much everything else -- from AI to graphics to vehicles to the newly implemented air drops.

Apparently, players will be PFC Boyd Travers, a soldier in the Army's newly-minted Airborne division. After Nazi attacks in Crete and Belgium, American military officials saw the need for an army capable of a vertical envelopment tactic—that is, they could drop into combat from the air. Volunteers were recruited and specially trained in America and England. Generally, the Airborne preferred soldiers who were bilingual and self-managing, given that they would be dropped behind enemy lines, and largely cut off from command. Travers is no exception. He is fluent in German, and self-managing almost to the point of insubordination.

As Travers would say, he likes to, "go for the long odds." That means he'd rather crash and burn doing something spectacular than see victory doing something mundane. The Airborne division is perfect for him. Travers winds up in the 82nd Airborne, then later transfers to the 17th to participate in Operation Varsity, the invasion of Germany.

Travers' war takes him through every major Airborne operation of WWII; his story is the story of the birth of the Airborne, which continues to help define American combat forces to this day.

While you don't spend a high percentage of game time in the air, the decisions you make in the drop have a significant impact on the game that follows. Thinking of it a different way, the airdrop might go by quickly, but some of the most significant decisions need to be made in that short time frame: Where will I land? What tactics will I employ? Where is the enemy base? What are the relevant approaches? Where are there potential support targets? What are the good sniper/squad/infiltration/assault points? And so on…

Jeep was such an integral part of the airborne experience, EA felt like they'd be shortchanging the concept if they didn't include them. That having been said, Medal of Honor: Airborne is first and foremost an FPS with some cool driving components. Mounted weapons are not standard, but the jeep vehicles will support them. The standard Willys Jeep comes with a high caliber weapon mount which can be operated by a passenger, AI can board the jeep with you and someone has to handle the mounted .30 cal. But for Airborne soldiers in WWII, a Jeep was one of the most valuable resources available. Most soldiers took exceptionally good care of their Jeep; if they were lucky enough to land one, they hung onto it as long as they could. As great a vehicle as the Willys was, sadly, it was not indestructible. While the Jeep affords players additional armor and firepower, various components of the jeep, including tires, suspension, engine, hood, grille, etc., have health. The damage each part takes impacts the performance of the vehicle; ultimately, it can be destroyed entirely.

Apart from many of the features which are already becoming clear visual signatures on next gen graphics (high dynamic range, bloom, crushed blacks, post effects, atmospherics), a couple of next-gen features unique to Airborne that should have a strong visual impact. Among those features is a suite of methods and technology EA shorthand as "best humans." It includes a method for animating and rendering character faces to create more emotional expression and intensity on the battlefield. It also includes some cool tech for higher fidelity environment interactions and an enemy movement style that's a lot more aggressive and in keeping with German army tactics in WWII. All of these features, as well as the integration of vehicles into gameplay, help to make the experience more authentic and more realistic.

Airborne is fundamentally about freedom and player choice. From the first step out of the plane, the player is in control of how the experience plays out. The player defines their landing spot, angle of approach, tactics and style throughout the game. That's a big difference from the rail-ride shooting galleries we've seen within the genre in the past. Basically, the commitment to make a more choice-driven game has required EA to change the way they design levels, and the way non-player-character interactions are crafted. The NPCs are largely driven by the new Affordance engine, which makes enemies aware of the value of the terrain around them, and causes them to prioritize high-value resources (like a pillbox) over lower value (a trench) or even lower value (a blasted tree stump) or no value (open ground). This results in lots of cool dynamic offensive and defensive tactics, no matter which direction the player approaches from.

Don't expect to see Medal Of Honor: Airborne until next summer if we're lucky.

Sources: IGN, Gamespy, 3DGamers