Sunday, February 23, 2020

Classic Review: Call of Duty [2003]

In January 2002, the developers of EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, 2015, Inc brought the franchise which had achieved success on console to it's true representation on the PC. It won awards and accolades and established EA Game's position in the forefront of World War II shooters. Then EA for some unknown reason took development of further MOH games in-house and so 2015, who had already begun thinking about MOH:AA's sequel were left high and dry. That didn't last long because long-time EA rivals Activision had their iron sights set on stealing EA's WWII crown and they did it by hiring all the displaced 2015 developers who had reformed into Infinity Ward and putting them to work on what would become a new franchise: Call Of Duty.

In October 2003, Infinity Ward produced a game somewhat similar to, but different in several ways to MOH:AA. Graphically it was slightly better as the developers had already become familiar with the idTech3 engine on MOH:AA so they had a superior understanding before beginning work on COD. The campaign was from the viewpoints of three different soldiers, an American, a British and a Russian soldier who were all pretty green but the core of the gameplay in COD emphasised that the player, spent most of the time with A.I. team-mates who support the player and helped the immersion and the realism of the situation in difference to the common one-man-army approach winning WWII mostly by yourself. 

Including being part of a squad, the game embraces more realistic elements, so one can't bring 10 or more weapons into battle. You get two main weapons, likely a rifle or sub-machine gun together with a machine gun or a scoped rifle, a sidearm with grenades and that's it. As the levels tend to be long, one often runs out of ammunition before the end and you do well to learn to pick up and use the weapons of the Germans you kill, or you may need a different weapon than the one you have so you'll have to drop one to pick it up, a trade up which you may often second-guess. The weapon damage modelling was considerably better applied than in MOH:AA insofar as one wouldn't need to practically empty an entire sub-machine gun clip into a Nazi as was necessary in the older game.

Infinity Ward crafted a very cinematically-framed experience as this was now more possible to do dynamically, rather than predetermined scripted sequences. One could show several dozen moving characters on screen at once now, especially during the harrowing Battle of Stalingrad [pictured below], which rivals MOH:AA's Omaha Beach landing for intensity. Shooting is the core and following the compass is essential but the mission types have some variance, so every now and again you may be in a support role with a machine gun, clearing out bunkers with grenades or be the sniper taking out enemies before they have a chance to kill your allies. The British and U.S. campaigns feature on-rails levels where you're shooting your Thompson while leaning out a car window, or firing a Bren Gun from the back of a lorry, but the Soviet campaign gives you command of a tank, and you get to do both the driving and shooting, much more fun. 

Activision threw considerable resources into acquiring significant voice talent for Call of Duty. Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman in The Terminator franchise) Micheal Bell (G.I.Joe) Nick Jameson (24) Michael Gough (Diablo II & III) Neil Ross (Mass Effect, Transformers) and Steve Blum (Star Wars: Rebels) all lent their voices, and even Jason Statham, yes that Jason Statham was roped in as Sergeant Waters of the SAS - who spent much of his time yelling at you. Composer Michael Giacchino who who would later go on to compose scores for both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, had earlier provided the exceptional score to the Medal of Honor games. He was enlisted by Activision to out do his earlier work and while he did succeed in delivering a suitably brilliant and unique score, in my opinion the music for Medal of Honor remains superior.

The only aspect that COD was genuinely criticised for really was the fact that the campaign's total length was about 6 hours in comparison to the 8 or 9 hours required for Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault even though the game concentrated it's development squarely on the campaign rather than the multi-player. However, in time gamers would soon come to terms with the shorter length of single player FPS campaigns further into the decade and upon replaying, it seems a normal length today. 


It's worth noting that while Medal of Honor evoked Saving Private Ryan and Return to Castle Wolfenstein nodded to Where Eagles Dare, Call of Duty pays homage to... well almost everything else. A Bridge Too Far, Enemy at the Gates and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was referenced to name but a few. In fact it would become a staple point of the COD franchise going forward to pay homage to a notable cinematic movie sequence or two in every subsequent entry in the franchise, always resulting in a better experience than trying to play an "official" movie-tie in game.

Call of Duty itself still holds up to this day and I do prefer it to Medal of Honor. While technically and graphically inferior to all modern engines and representations of WWII now of course, it still provides the player with a cinematic experience of being part of a U.S., British or Russian squad as you and your allies proceed to take back German occupied land, destroy their weapons, defences and other infrastructure and of course kill hundreds of Nazi's which I'll admit, never gets old.

Since 2002, the Medal of Honor franchise saw more titles released by EA each year, usually either exclusive to one platform or another, with varying degrees of commercial success until 2007. In 2010 they attempted to modernise the series away from WWII as Activision had done by then, but this was successful for only a single game, as it's sequel in 2012 was enough to put Medal of Honor on ice indefinitely. Activision have released a new Call of Duty game every year without fail since 2005. All ten Call of Duty games released between 2010 and 2019 occupy a place in the top-20 highest selling games list in the U.S. It was nice to go back and see where the ideas that would define the franchise take form for the first time.

Call of Duty is available from Steam for €19.99 which for a 17 year old game is fucking ridiculous. This is the worst thing I've personally experienced with Activision - while the game certainly was worth the full price in 2003, today most 17 year old games are under €5* when on sale but the pricing of Call of Duty franchise, even when the maximum 50% off remains premium and thus prohibitive to this day.

*Steam full price today of example games released in 2003: Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy / Knights of the Old Republic (€8.19), Deus Ex: Invisible War (€6.99), Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (€9.99), Rainbow Six 3: Gold Edition (€4.99)

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Classic Review - Medal of Honor: Allied Assault [2002]


In 1997 when Steven Spielberg was making Saving Private Ryan he observed his son playing GoldenEye 007 and had the great idea of creating a realistic World War II experience that would satisfy both history buffs and people what wanted to kill Nazis. Two years later, Electronic Arts published Dreamworks Interactive's Medal of Honor for the Playstation. The game, in which players filled the shoes of fictional Lt. Jimmy Patterson, an OSS officer, received favourable reviews and quickly spawned a sequel in 2000 entitled Medal of Honor: Underground in which players became french resistance operative Manon Batiste. It was not until 2002 however that developers 2015 granted the franchise it's true form - Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for the PC. It exceeded the mark famously, earning earning millions for EA and won universal acclaim including 91% on Metacritic.

Using a modified version of the id-Tech 3 game engine, developers 2015, inc crafted Medal of Honor's best self - a genre-defining game that rejuvenated interest in the the era and propelled the developers to later create the Call of Duty franchise. Allied Assault was able to utilise the superior power of the PC to push graphical boundaries and introduce superior gameplay elements into players hands which was most notably seen during the harrowing Invasion of Normandy and the Omaha Beach Landings where the action on screen featured many characters moving during the relentless assault from German guns. Spielberg himself considered his work done when he saw this work and left the series to EA at this point but not before crafting the interwoven stories of his three protagonists with the Allied Assault saga telling the story of Lt. Mike Powell as he undertook dangerous missions for the OSS (meeting Manon Batiste and raiding the same fort as Lt. Patterson did in the original Playstation game).

MOH:AA is a bit more than Quake with a WWII skin however. While you get to use and shoot authentic WWII weapons at hundreds of Germans there's a little more 'realism' at work here influenced by Spielberg with his angle of educating the masses about the era. Your run speed and jumping height are a lot less than you may be used to as an FPS player, likely an effort to be more realistic. That said, you can still in common FPS fashion, can quite happily lug a fine collection of weapons such as a Thompson SMG, M1 Garand rifle, Springfield Sniper rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle, Winchester Shotgun and a Panzershrek anti-tank weapon along with a pocket full of grenades and a Colt 45 sidearm all at once - maybe that's why running and jumping are curtailed? Unlike most games at the time however the Medal of Honor franchise did not feature blood or gore, as Spielberg asked for it to be absent as the Columbine Massacre happened just months before release.

There are a number of elements that set MOH:AA apart and were used in many later games. One of the more useful mechanics was a compass with objection pointers rather than the staple mini-map. This allowed the player to follow his practically linear objectives quickly without breaking immersion or consulting a map every few minutes wondering where he needed to be going. While not the first game to use the 'lean' mechanic, it was the first time I used it and by all accounts much better implemented than previous efforts such as Soldier of Fortune and Return to Castle Wolfenstein . It was also the first non-tactical FPS game in which you had an AI 'squad'. They were basically useless and died easily but it did give the appearance that at least for some of the game, you were not responsible for winning WWII entirely on your own, but for the vast majority you were.

Along with the obvious attention to graphical details, the weapons, uniforms, vehicles and scenery of the era, sound played a very important part in Medal of Honor. Everything from the 'ping' of the M1 Garand to the rumble of a Tiger tank sounded unique and atmospheric while Captain Dale Dye and W. Morgan Sheppard among others leant their voice talents to NPCs. However it was the music of the game that stole the show. A young Michael Giacchino who had only composed scores for either little known or movie tie-in games up to the point where Dreamworks got him to compose Medal of Honor and Underground, took the scores for both games, added some new Allied Assault themes and crafted what is not only one my my favourite but easily one of the best video game scores of all time many years before achieving the fame he enjoys now.

While it feels overall very like Saving Private Ryan and the Omaha landing remains one of PC Gaming's defining moments, the majority of the game feels like a very sanitised version of WWII in comparison to more modern efforts. However it's still worth taking for a spin especially with 3rd party enhancements such as this texture pack

Medal of Honor:Allied Assault is only available with the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault Warchest, which includes the expansions Breakthrough and Spearhead on Origin for €9.99 or on GOG for €9.09.