‘Medal Of Honor: Above And Beyond’ Makes Shooting Physical
My M1 Garrand makes an embarrassing ping as I fire the last round in the clip and completely miss the Nazi soldier in front of me. Instead of reaching for a new clip I grab the nearest thing I can find in the hotel kitchen in which we're fighting - a frying pan. I throw it at the soldier as he raises his MP42 and the metal pan clangs against his head knocking him to the ground. I look over my shoulder and see another soldier entering through a pair of swing doors, I duck forward towards the body of the man I just killed, pick up his helmet and fling it at his friend. He too goes down with a satisfying clonk. The new Medal of Honor makes combat fraught and challenging, but also gloriously silly.
Announced at this year's Oculus Connect conference, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond sees Respawn Entertainment bringing back the classic World War 2 shooter. This time, however, as a virtual reality game for the Oculus Rift headset. You'll play an American OSS agent, going behind the German lines to support the Allied resistance efforts and throw a spanner in the works of the Third Reich.
After a short tutorial, I'm dropped into a mission where I'm infiltrating a German HQ to find and destroy a list of names of French resistance agents. I say infiltrate but there's no sneaking in my approach. I enter the converted French hotel via the kitchen. I've a Tommy Gun in hand, an M1 Garrand over my shoulder, a brace of grenades clipped to my chest, and a couple of healing syringes pinned to my wrist. I'm tooled up for a fight. Of course, being VR, I can look down at my body and see my full inventory and, with both my hands being tracked using Oculus' controllers, I have a full range of movement. To change weapon to my Garrand I let go of the grip on my Tommy Gun, reach over my shoulder, grab, and simply pull the rifle off my back. To look down its sights I need to bring the rifle up to my eye. If I want to have a decent aim, I need to grip the front of the rifle with my free hand. It's all extremely intuitive.
One of the first things I find in combat is just how bad my aim is. I peek around a corner into the kitchen (by physically leaning to one side) and see a German soldier waiting for me. I step out to fire on him with my Tommy Gun and it's like something out of a cartoon - I shoot all around him without hitting him once. It reminds me of a story about the development of Doom 3. In lots of shooters in the '90s and early '00s, it was a lot easier to shoot enemies because the hit boxes that surrounded them were literal boxes, rather than meshes that were the same shape as the models. When Doom's developer refined hit detection so your bullets had to actually hit a part of an enemy's body to be registered, their testers realised just how bad at shooting they'd been before. It's not that Medal of Honor is an awkward shooter, it's that I'm an awkward shooter who needs to get better.
After clobbering those soldiers with the frying pan and helmet. I take a moment to prepare for the next fight. Clearly I'm not going to be able to advance as quickly as I would in a traditional first-person shooter. Like everything else, reloading weapons is more physically involved in VR. For the Tommy Gun, I have to pull the empty clip out of the bottom of the gun, grab a new clip from my left hip, slot it in, and then pull back the pin on the right side of the gun. Every action is matched with the sound of metal clicking and snapping into place. The M1 is easier as it ejects the clip when it's empty, so I only have to slap a new clip in the top and pull back the pin.
A corridor from the kitchen leads into a ballroom that's been filled with desks, a home for the bureaucrats that keep the Nazi war effort running. Learning from my mistakes in the kitchen, I raise the rifle up to my eye and take careful aim before firing. My first shot takes down a soldier instantly, but before I can shoot another in the head the room is all in motion - guards are taking cover calling for help. I reach down to my chest and grab a grenade, by lifting it up to my face, my character pulls a pin out with his teeth. I throw it behind the desk, where one of the soldiers is in cover, and shoot him as he tries to run from the explosive.
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It's odd to talk about Medal of Honor as a cover shooter, considering there's no buttons that snap you to a wall or get you ducking down below a low wall, but I walk close up to one of the virtual walls and lean out with my rifle, taking pot shots at Nazi officers as they try to get a good shot on me. I'm not going to be playing this game as a run and gun shooter, at least at my current level of incompetence.
Once the room is cleared, I can walk into the ballroom and admire the architecture. Virtual reality is excellent for giving you a sense of space and scale, so this vast room with a vaulted ceiling juxtaposes nicely with the desks covered in papers, pencils and radio equipment.
Among the bodies I find a Kar98, a german rifle and my weapon of choice in the old Medal of Honor: Allied Assault days. It's wickedly powerful and accurate over range, but being bolt-action means that in Above and Beyond, you need to physically load each bullet into the chamber. I end up abandoning it in favour of a trench gun because in the confines of the hotel it's not fast enough to operate - something that's not been a concern for me in regular first-person shooters.
As I take an elevator to the top floor of the hotel, I find myself on much firmer ground with the shotgun. Fired from the hip, the spread of shot can take down most enemies as they sprint for cover. Plus, as you'd expect, you pump in fresh shells by hand, which just feels cool (until you realise that you're playing in a public convention centre and if it weren't for the headset over your eyes you would see everyone in the queue watching you play soldier).
I go room to room, opening the door a crack and tossing in a grenade for good measure before opening it fully and blasting the survivors with a shotgun. At last I find a room with a safe that I need to blast open with a stick of dynamite. Inside there's the list I came looking for which, like the dynamite fuse, I ignite with a zippo lighter that you can flick open and shut like you would in real life.
My time with Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond was brief but it's a really exciting shooter. One that doesn't try to be like a traditional first-person shooter, trying to make the VR game a smooth, fast-paced experience. Instead, it adds in the rough edges of real life - manual reloads, physical aiming, true throwing. There are no targeting reticles, UI elements showing where your throw will land, or automatic reloads by holstering your weapon, and while it's in no way a simulation, these features make for engaging gun battles.
I don't know if Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond could be a system seller for Oculus headsets, I'm not sure any one game will convince someone to invest in virtual reality gear. What it is, though, is a complete, original game that will only be playable in VR, and, if you have a VR headset, it's a game to look forward to as a unique experience, one tailor-made to take advantage of all the sensors and functions at your gear's disposal.
I wouldn't have thought to want a Medal of Honor VR game, but after playing it once I can't wait to play it again.
Featured Image Credit: EA