Medal of Honor: Airborne – Final Review

Medal of Honor: Airborne suffers greatly from an unfocused, unambitious narrative, abounding in the generic; exposition of any import is here absent, with few traditional cutscenes or compelling dialogue, both being confined largely to the short briefings which precede every primary campaign mission. Here, even the stylistic is spurned, the presentations comprised solely of static images projected upon a screen, accompanied by lackluster voice acting. While no emphasis upon the stylistic is present, something indefinably intriguing is attached to these images, plain and bland though they may be, possessive of a certain militaristic flair, the dialogue highly technical in nature. This slight asset, though, cannot salvage what is otherwise unremarkable. But a greater flaw is attached to the narrative, namely the dearth of any substantial character development, the only named character being Travers, the protagonist, who is mute throughout, thusly far from endearing – he seems merely to exist, the Travers at the beginning identical to the Travers at the conclusion; no growth is present, resonance absent. The soldiers accompanying Travers on his varied missions are nameless, faceless; frequently subject to violent death, camaraderie is lacking, making their deaths unimpactful, failing to elicit a strong emotional response; these are not friends, but men merely dispensable and valueless. Frustrating is the missed potential – this is a war game, detailing a brutal, pointless conflict, which in theory should unite these men, transforming them into a band of brothers; the narrative could easily soar, and yet it falls. Narratively, then, what is included exists merely as a framework, explaining the nature of the game’s various operations, justifying the leaping from environment to environment; it fails in achieving anything greater.

The nature of these environments can be quite compelling, though the game’s advanced age is easily discernible. The opening pair of missions occur at night, where visibility is understandably lessened; abounding in atmosphere, these missions possess an almost cinematic quality, stars shining overhead, while planes travel far above, distant and detached, perpetually dropping their load of eager if horrified soldiers, ready to contribute their varied strengths. Collectively, though, these two environments are rather similar – to a fault, each evoking mostly the same sensations. As the narrative progresses, though, the nature of these environments begins to excel, one notable mission occurring in bombed out city streets, piles of rubble all around, highly threatening tanks on their perpetual patrol. Descending by parachute onto some rooftop, nearly caving in, permits a clear line-of-sight; elevation is here crucial, bolstering the effectiveness of combat prowess, providing flexibility – it is a compelling environment and mission overall, reflecting the game’s evocation of atmosphere, a perfect capturing of literal, chaotic hell, death on all sides, corpses mounting, bullets flying, tanks firing their damning rounds.

This particular mission culminates in an epic scenario, seeing Travers and his squadmates traverse a bridge, guarded by both sniper enemies, and those wielding highly damaging rocket launchers. Technically, again, this environment is not exemplary, clinging tightly to realism, spurning the fantastical; color is totally lacking. Somehow, though, this assault transcends mundanity, transforming into something engaging and memorable, whereas memorability is lacking in much of the game design. Environments after this falter, before culminating in excellency, focusing on the assault of a sprawling bunker complex, existing in the middle of a city proper, massive in scope, descending downwards to considerable depth. Everything in the campaign may be grey and brown, devoid of creativity, while technical prowess is lacking. But environmentally, these flaws are transcended, the evoking of war and of place contributing to that transcendence.  

The reasons justifying these operations are universally lackluster, fast growing repetitive. The majority of these missions see Travers and his nameless companions adopting the role of saboteur, dropping down from above in cinematic fashion, before promptly settling in to disrupt the opposition’s infrastructure; whether that disruption be targeted to flak guns or rail cars stocked with ammunition, the objective is functionally the same throughout, frustratingly so, with a total lack of any diversity. Relative freedom is achieved when tackling these objectives, as they can be completed in any order, though that freedom is actually fairly illusory; true, when leaping from a plane at considerable altitude, or redeploying after a violent death, relative control of locomotion is afforded the player, fostering greatly player choice, though this inclusion does not alter the game to any significant degree, almost transforming and devolving to the gimmicky; a novelty at first, it is notable solely because of that novelty, for attempting something unique, even as practically it serves no tactical purpose.

But wherever landing, an abundance of destruction is sure to follow, countless soldiers slaughtered, enemy installations destroyed violently. The perpetual mundanity of these objectives occasionally makes the game a slog to play through; as with the lack of character development, this lack of objective diversity makes matters stale, unengaging – almost no surprises are on offer here, everything predictable and formulaic. Certain of these flaws could be easily rectified; the slightest exposition during these primary operations would elevate the game greatly, breaking up the monotony of the traditional gameplay. With the dearth of exposition, and the dearth of variance in objective, the game stumbles, hesitating, even as the gameplay systems mostly soar, balancing the forgettability of all other design choices.

Manifold guns are on offer here, each well-modelled, possessive of realistic, occasionally immense recoil, necessitating a constant maintenance of fire-rate whenever wielding automatic weaponry, this concern lesser when firing single-shot guns, themselves highly useful, indispensable to success. While a frustrating two-weapon limit in in place, more frustrating is the need to constantly carry such a weapon, limiting somewhat experimentation. Enjoyable to shoot, though, this need is not too damning, while diversity is immense even in this one subtype of weaponry. From bolt-action rifles, through those with long-range scopes, others which fire semi-automatically – variety is immense, and given the excellent weapon handling, gunplay is consistently enjoyable, the expansive armory permitting many methods of approach. Objectively, though, some weapons are more effective and efficient than others – shotguns are highly situational, while sidearms – which can be wielded alongside the other two carried weapons – are functionally useless, to be employed only in desperate scenarios, like when primary weapons are depleted of ammunition.

It is related to this gunplay where the game shows its greatest strength – its upgrade systems. Each weapon has three distinct tiers, while the achievement of those tiers confers a weapon upgrade. Often offering substantial improvements, they can alter the game in fundamental ways, reducing the immense recoil of a submachine gun, transforming it from the situational through to something consistently viable. In other, less imaginative instances, reload speed can be decreased, while rifles can be fashioned to fire grenades. Pursuing these upgrades marks the game’s greatest draw, and the upgrading systems are intuitive, seamless – numbers in any capacity are here lacking, progress instead indicated by a weapon silhouette, which gradually fills upon inflicting damage or delivering a killing blow.

While the gunplay is mostly intuitive, not breaking greatly from the norms of the genre, a steep learning curve is also present; in a frustrating decision, guns can seem arbitrarily inaccurate, even while employing a theoretically accurate rifle. The immensity of recoil makes certain weapons unviable, even while fully upgraded. Alongside the learning curve is a marked difficulty spike; as illustration, in the initial level, no deaths transpired. By the third and fourth missions, that death counter numbered in many dozens. Failure here seems not so much attributable to a lack of player skill, but more so to the cheap nature of the game’s varied enemies, deadly accurate, possessive of immense strength and endurance. The massive quantity with which they spawn only increases frustration, their forces seemingly unending, sometimes literally so – in certain areas, infinite resawing seems present, representing terrible game design. Collectively, these design decisions necessitate a slower, more cautious approach, not dissimilar to other games in the genre, though here it is laboriously slow, the game punishing – remain exposed for any considerable duration and death is sure to follow.

Amplifying this frustrating slowness are an abundance of cheap encounters, one instance seeing Travers and companions bottlenecked, forced to proceed in one direction, a direction overwatched by a heavy machine-gunner; countless were the deaths here. In a similar fashion, enemies which dropped with one bullet in the opening level can inexplicably endure two, with no explanation provided to justify that increased endurance. Flinch systems are lacking, enemies able to absorb a bullet without so much as reacting to its reception. With infinite respawns, enemies with perfect accuracy, capable of withstanding an absurd amount of gunfire, lobbing frequently devastating grenades, relentless in their approach – frustration here abounds. Understanding this minutia is critical, as its nature is crucial to understanding the overall player experience; even the game’s greatest strength – its gunplay – is compromised by an absurd degree of cheapness.  

As a war game, the game both excels and fails. The evocation of place is a marked achievement, capturing expertly the nature of war on a foundational level, naming through environments and sound design, while an admirable degree of scope to the conflict is also present, a near constant supply of soldiers dropping into these battlefields from above, their chutes visible always just above, dotting the skies, making considerable riot upon landing. Gunfire and explosions exist in abundance, while the sound quality is impeccable, evoking an almost distressing environment, conveying a sense of hostility and smallness. Hearing believable German, seeing the dilapidated ruins of some ancient Italian architecture in the dead of night, sole source of light being the stars above – these things ground the title; place is important, far more so than exposition or narrative heft. Great tonal failings exist though. As a genre, war films and video games need adopt a certain sense of maturity, a violence of tone, if success is to be achieved; neglecting the true horrors of war only lets down and ruins the experience, when an accurate, unflinching depiction of conflict can achieve unparalleled resonance and emotional investment. Blood, gore, profanity, they all seem fundamental to a war game’s success. In Airborne, men are victim to grenade blasts, their corpses sent sprawling dramatically. And yet, scant blood is present, the occurrences unintentionally comical in tone. Profanity is absent, and everything overall has a tamer feeling. Here is another failing. Even if the gritty is spurned, if war is not portrayed faithfully, lighthearted playfulness can instead be embraced, evoking decidedly different emotions, though still evoking emotions. Here, in terms of narrative the title is neither gritty nor playful; it merely exists, the game having no tonal or thematic direction.

Medal of Honor: Airborne is not a wholly bad title; certain successes are present, though they are ultimately lost in a sea of failures, an unambitious, uninspired narrative chief among them. Here are no aspirations towards the achieving of something greater, lasting, or resonant. With this dearth of ambition, the narrative fast shows itself as formulaic, relying heavily on tired, sometimes intriguing military jargon, clinging always to realism, spurning creativity. The gameplay supported by this framework is mostly positive, with enjoyable gunplay, intuitive yet complex. Solid gunplay cannot alleviate other failings in game design, like the excessive degree of challenge, Travers facing a constant barrage of opposition, slaughtering hundreds in certain of the more elaborate operations, an absurd admission.  

Such statistics would point to Travers as being some kind of superhuman, possessive of an immensity of strength, unparalleled, being a gifted solider. In actuality, Travers is characterized by vulnerability and fragility, easily dispatched by that opposition if anything but the slowest of approaches is attempted; here is no superhuman, yet the expectations thrust upon the player are immense. Checkpoints are fairly scarce, and collectively these faults compromise what is otherwise remarkable, destroying pacing, hampering creation of the cinematic; notable, too, is that the game was completed on the normal difficulty; hard, then, would be even more brutal, unfair. If the game were a bit more forgiving, the varied gameplay systems would be more easily appreciable; gunplay would soar, as would the basic exploration. In many ways, though, it is the failing as a war game which destroys resonance; partially captured and partially not, here was an avenue for the game to express its uniqueness to convey a dark, gritty, human story; none of these are achieved, potentials squandered.

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