Far to go
October 16, 2010
"...the heartbeat of Medal of Honor has always resided in the reverence for American and Allied soldiers." --Greg Goodrich, executive producer, Medal of Honor
Much of the critical response to the new Medal of Honor game has focused on its specificity. Unlike other modern war games set in near-future Middle-East environments (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare) or fictional places like "Zekistan" (Full Spectrum Warrior), MOH clearly communicates its contemporary setting.
The game takes place during the early stages of the U.S. Special Forces invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the brouhaha over EA's removal of the "Taliban" label from MOH's multiplayer mode, the single-player campaign contains no such ambiguity. Alternating among four different character perspectives, the player takes the fight - raiding hideouts, rescuing hostages, operating helicopters and ATVs - directly to the enemy; and that enemy is the Taliban and, later in the game, Al-Qaeda.
EA has also made much of MOH's authenticity. The publisher hired consultants from the U.S. military to help its designers more accurately depict infantry soldier combat, and the game's missions are intended to simulate those issued in real-life warfare. The fleeting but unmistakable reference to 9/11 in the game's opening sequence leaves no room for doubt. This game will attempt to tell the truth. As a PR rep from EA put it, "Medal of Honor is set in today's war putting players in the boots of today's soldiers."
Ironically, EA's decision to avoid ambiguity ultimately disables Medal of Honor's narrative and impairs the game's authenticity. MOH's refusal to address complexity (or go anywhere near it); its saccharine deification of the American soldier; and its persistent refusal to allow the player to think for himself, neuter what might have been a powerful interactive experience.
And that's a shame, because MOH leaves so many possibilities unexplored: the strategic improv required when intel fails to match reality on the ground; the tension between 'liberator' and 'occupier'; the distinctive personalities of soldiers who make mistakes, experience fear, and exhibit human frailty; the reality that non-combatants and displaced civilians are ever-present factors in Afghanistan, despite their complete absence in this game.
EA's effort to get it right is laudable, I suppose, but in the end, they punted. Medal of Honor is yet another formulaic war game: a typical good vs. evil FPS; a vainglorious celebration of American exceptionalism wrapped in 'war is hell' portentousness. It's a shame because this Medal of Honor - a war game about a real ongoing war - could have been a game changer.
In his Ars Technica review, Ben Kuchera calls MOH "a love letter to the armed forces," and I can't think of a better description. Compassionate soldiers and mindful officers take every precaution to ensure each target is a "bad guy." Without exception, every battle in the game is preceded by clear assurances that all targets are enemies. No Afghan civilians die in this game because Afghan civilians don't exist in this game.
And so we watch Taliban fighters tote rocket launchers out of caves, assemble them, and, lest any doubt remain about their evil intentions, load them with grenades before finally receiving the go-ahead to kill them. Intercom orders repeatedly remind us "We are engaging combatants only!"
These elite force soldiers are humane warriors, going out of their way to remove an Afghan goat shepherd from danger seconds before combat begins. An innocent hostage is spared when the game slo-mos a gunfight, enabling us to pick off the bad guys without hitting the good guy.
Of course, mistakes are made and soldiers die, but not because of anything resembling fallibility in the Afghanistan-stationed military. No, it's a clueless suit in Washington (a blowhard General named "Flagg," looking, oddly, like a burn victim) who barks misguided orders at the boys at Bagram, forcing our heroes to embark on dangerous missions with random time limits against great odds. When good soldiers die in Medal of Honor, it's because politicians and career-minded Generals in far-away offices don't know how to fight a war. Our men and women in uniform do their duty and pay the price, which only heightens their nobility.
The pre-release controversy over MOH centered on concerns about playable Taliban, issues of free speech, and perceived insensitivity to real-life soldiers and their families. Those concerns were genuine, but misplaced, in my view. The greater insult to the men and women who have fought the longest war in U.S. history is EA's refusal or inability to depict them as skillfully as the weapons they wield.
Critics who decry EA for making a game out of a bloody current event have a point. MOH treats its soldiers like video game characters - sympathetic, courageous, self-sacrificing heroes to be sure - but 2-dimensional video game characters nonetheless. Characters in games needn't be so simplistic, of course; but most games don't know that.
Midway through MOH a soldier is heard to say "At least we're gonna make it farther than the Russians did." Perhaps, but they're a long way from winning a war that may ultimately prove unwinnable. Maybe EA's effort to put us "in the boots of today's soldiers" treads farther than previous games, and maybe that effort will prove valuable in the long run. For now, Medal of Honor suggests we still have far to go.