‘Medal Of Honor’ Is Almost Unplayable Now, But Still Defines The WW2 Shooter
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Words: Jeremy Peel
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There are professional dancers with fewer moves than the Nazis in 1999's Medal of Honor for the original PlayStation. No sooner have you lined up a shot on a Gestapo officer with your M1 Garand than he slides to the left - then, just as you get him back in your sights, slides to the right. It's as if he's prefigured the 'Cha Cha Slide' six decades before DJ Casper took it back now y'all.
When, finally, you manage to plant a bullet in his foot, he yanks his boot from the ground - bouncing up and down on his good leg. That's right, you bastard: one hop this time.
Medal of Honor's extraordinary animation still stands up, so to speak. It was the result of an early decision to forego motion capture - despite developers DreamWorks Interactive's links to Steven Spielberg and Hollywood - and opt for a cutting-edge system of custom movement. It meant the dev team soon smacked its head against the PlayStation's low memory ceiling, but gave their game its USP: shoot an enemy anywhere on their body and something different will happen. Hit them in the head and their helmet will ping off; catch them in the shoulder and they'll sway, attempting to steady their aim for a return shot.
In greenlighting Medal of Honor, Spielberg had intended to reach an audience of kids who couldn't watch the R-rated Saving Private Ryan. And in their soldiers, DreamWorks Interactive had created the most malleable action figures a young player could dream of.
Playing today, it's not so dreamlike. It's easy to forget just how nascent the console FPS genre was in the late '90s. In terms of evolution, it had only just pulled itself from the ocean to gasp and flap about on the beach. GoldenEye had come first - Spielberg's son, Max, was a fan, and his enthusiasm factored into Medal of Honor's creation. But on the PlayStation, Medal of Honor had no real precedent.
Sony's first ever DualShock pad came out midway through development, and DreamWorks scrambled to support it - becoming perhaps the first ever team to ship a dual-stick FPS (albeit not using it for today's conventional FPS control scheme, which was pioneered by Alien Resurrection). But many players were still stuck with the standard controller, and Medal of Honor was an awkward fit.
With the d-pad and shoulder buttons, Lieutenant Jimmy Patterson could charge and strafe like Doomguy. But in order to hit enemies high on balconies or dogs in the lower third of the screen, players had to hold down a separate button to steer their aim, sacrificing movement in the process.
As a halfway step towards contemporary shooting, it hasn't aged as well as older, simpler peers, and you'll find no spiritual successors mimicking its strange control scheme. Medal of Honor may have been groundbreaking, but that fact is its downfall when returning 20 years on. It feels, understandably, like sacrificing a thumb.
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Nevertheless, there is something to its bizarre limb-operating system. It's rare to encounter more than one or two enemies at once, and each fight becomes a strange, slow duel. The elaborate choreography gives you time to observe your opponent's next move and make your own accordingly. If they're injured, pushing themselves to their feet by leaning on the butt of their rifle, then you might have a moment to reload or adjust your aim. If they're lifting that rifle to their shoulder and looking down the barrel instead, then perhaps you'd be wiser to duck.
Grenades open up a whole new set of possible actions. Nazis kick them back, and dogs tragically carry them to their masters. Just occasionally you'll see a soldier dive on the explosive to save his comrade - a move that returned in sequels and became something of a signature for the Medal of Honor series.
It's a shocking, effective shorthand for the primary theme of Saving Private Ryan: terrible, necessary sacrifice. It's also rooted in reality: more citations for the real-life Medal of Honor have been awarded for falling on grenades than any other act. In the Battle of Iwo Jima, a marine named Jack Lucas stuffed two live enemy grenades under his helmet to save his comrades. Incredibly, he lived - but over 200 pieces of shrapnel remained in his body for the rest of his life.
Spielberg considered Medal of Honor an educational tool as much as an entertainment product, and insisted that DreamWorks consult Captain Dale Dye during development. The Vietnam veteran had worked as an advisor on Saving Private Ryan, and despite reservations about video games, was won over by the studio's reverence and eagerness to get it right. Ultimately, Dye agreed to voice the game's documentary-style intro, a potted history that didn't cut corners or over-dramatise.
The release of Medal of Honor deserves to be remembered as a deeply important moment ... it showed that the FPS was capable of moving beyond gore to tackle daring raids, espionage, and even human tragedy
The tone Spielberg established for Medal of Honor - its mournful remembrance of selfless young men - has run through the FPS genre ever since. While those rudimentary shooting mechanics have been iterated to the point of total transformation, DreamWorks got the mood right first time.
Every WW2 Call of Duty game made to date, with the possible exception of Treyarch's edgy, horror-tinged Pacific campaign in World at War, has recognisably tapped into the tone of Medal of Honor. Arguably too often, in fact. The idea of worthwhile sacrifice might be soothing, but it's not the whole truth; as Catch-22 established in 1961, the 'last good war' was not immune to bureaucratic neglect or pointless death. Perhaps it's about time WW2 games took on some of the cynicism and dark comedy of Joseph Heller's book, which George Clooney expertly adapted just last year.
Even so, the release of Medal of Honor deserves to be remembered as a deeply important moment - not only for the PlayStation, which proved it could house first-person shooters just like the PC, but for games that would depict war in the generations to follow. DreamWorks showed that the FPS was capable of moving beyond gore to tackle daring raids, espionage, and even human tragedy.
As he finishes his opening slideshow, Captain Dale Dye asks the player a question: "Are you willing to rise above and beyond the call of duty?" In that line alone are the names of two major first-person shooters due out before Christmas in 2020. That's some legacy.
Featured Image Credit: Electronic Arts, DreamWorks Interactive