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Medal of Honor: Airborne - plane flying over military outpost

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Medal of Honor: Airborne, and its many innovations, were buried by Call of Duty

Airborne was above, and before, its time

EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

Imagine a first-person World War II shooter with dense, nonlinear maps designed to be replayed. A game with seamless upgrade systems that followed you across the campaign and made your weapons more powerful with use. A game that avoids the iconic battlefields of World War II in favor of unique spaces that help it stand out in a crowded genre. A game where the strategic use of your parachute is almost as important as your reaction time.

You’d want to play that game, wouldn’t you? The good news is that you can do so right now, and it won’t even cost that much.

I’m describing Medal of Honor: Airborne, a game that Electronic Arts released in 2007 — three months before Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare would change the design expectations of mainstream first-person shooters for the next decade.

It’s difficult to imagine our industry without Modern Warfare’s influence and dominance, but look at what we might have lost: a decade of shooters that built on Airborne’s pursuit of player freedom, and making familiar scenes of warfare new again.

Let’s talk about what might have been.

What Modern Warfare brought to first-person shooters

The seventh-generation Call of Duty games had a huge impact on first-person shooters and war games, with Modern Warfare leading the charge.

Regenerating health wasn’t a new concept, but developer Infinity Ward combined it with guided, linear levels; explosive set-pieces; and character-driven perspective shifts that made Call of Duty the mainstream ideal for action games.

This led to a very narrow definition of what a first-person shooter should, or could, be. Some franchises would later destroy themselves trying to be “Modern Warfare with a twist,” with EA itself attempting to shift its Medal of Honor series in this direction with 2010’s reboot, Medal of Honor, and 2012’s Medal of Honor Warfighter. The publisher hasn’t released an entry in the series since.

Modern Warfare’s final design is the end result of a domino effect of decisions, which worked well for the series. But anyone trying to mimic this style of game would be painted into a familiar corner due to limitations inherent to the formula.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered - soldiers on a city street during ‘The Bog’
Modern Warfare raised the stakes for cinematic, tense gunfights in video games.
Infinity Ward/Activision

Modern Warfare’s particular weakness, which was copy-pasted across the industry in the years after its release, is that it cannot allow a player to be lost. Navigation in Modern Warfare is strictly guided, even within its already linear levels. Regenerating health made sense as long as the player character was relatively fragile. Why would I need to fall back and wait for my health to return if I could shrug off being shot? This meant that each scenario needed to accommodate players who could frequently retreat from the action, and further constricted space for player freedom and exploration.

The iconic moments of the game recognize and use this context. Facing stop-start danger in the sniping mission “All Ghillied Up” and experiencing the immediate fallout of a nuclear explosion both take advantage of a game built around funneling a vulnerable player character through tightly scripted sequences. The power of those painstakingly engineered cool moments would be lost if the gameplay funnel left a player confused or looking for direction.

This roller coaster-style design language for single-player campaigns worked for Call of Duty, but few others were able to mimic it well. Controlled, cinematic gunfights became the norm, with developers’ attempts to find unique hooks and differ from Activision’s polished, successful template seeming increasingly desperate.

Medal of Honor: Airborne, on the other hand, doesn’t care about any of that shit.

He knows how to survive, but I don’t

Medal of Honor: Airborne - paratrooper about to jump out of a plane EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

The year is 1943. The place is North Africa. I’m a brand-spanking-new addition to the 82nd Airborne Division, looking at some hand-chalked lines far below my character’s feet. We’re on a plane god knows how many thousands of feet in the air, and the commanding officer tells our squad that if we do not jump, we will be pushed.

On the first jump, we learn how to move in the air. It is jump one out of 50.

On our second jump, we learn how to flare our parachutes, which slows our descent so we have a little time to survey the ground before choosing a landing site. Two jumps out of 50.

On our third jump, we are told that we will personally bring Nazi tyranny to an end. I kind of feel like I have this airborne thing down a bit. Forty-seven more jumps to go.

BANG!

My character lowers a dossier with their name on it from the screen. I’m playing a guy named Boyd Travers, and a short man is walking my squad through its first mission with the help of a grainy slideshow.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - cutscene of mission briefing
Pay attention — you might learn something.
EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

Three jumps. This is the only tutorial I receive in Medal of Honor: Airborne. Boyd Travers, unseen, completed combat training without me. Boyd Travers completed the full 50 jumps. Boyd Travers learned how to survive. I did not.

The developers of Medal of Honor: Airborne set the stage for the rest of the game with a two-minute introduction. I will learn how to survive as I fight, or I will die. Health doesn’t regenerate, and the only support I will receive once I land will come from friendly NPCs or equipment taken from the bodies of dead enemy soldiers.

This framing makes mission briefings feel far more consequential than the context-setting cutscenes typically found in war games.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - cutscene of mission briefing
Or you can doze off and figure it out later — your call.
EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

Briefings in Airborne are the equivalent of a developer walkthrough. The objectives of a mission, locations of note on the maps, and information about enemy forces in the area are all discussed. Observant players may be able to deduce what details the briefing leaves out, and use this to determine potential danger zones in a level.

I ignore a lot of these briefings. When I later land by a spotlight in the Paestum ruins, right in the center of approximately 7,000 angry Nazis, I have no one to blame but myself. I die often, to be honest with you, but that gives me the chance to see one of Medal of Honor: Airborne’s best features.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - dropping into Paestum
Every drop can give you a better idea of what’s going on below you.
EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

When I die on the nonlinear maps of Airborne, my progress is kept and I’m forced to jump back into battle with a new parachute.

I spend as little time backtracking as possible, because cleared objectives remain complete. This changes the rhythm of the game based on my skill level. If I’m prepared, I can carefully choose a landing site at the start of a mission and battle through the map one firefight at a time. If I’m not doing well for whatever reason, I can instead peck away at self-contained objectives individually, using my time dropping in to gain additional situational awareness and find a fresh approach whenever I run into serious trouble.

This makes Medal of Honor: Airborne one of the most accessible FPS campaigns I’ve played, and brings it in line with more innovative approaches to progress seen in later games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Airborne doesn’t address Travers’ journey into the afterlife — I’m always the same soldier dropping into battle — but death itself isn’t a penalty. The difficulty shifts occur based on how long I can survive and where I choose to drop, not in the ability of the enemy to aim better or absorb more bullets.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - standing behind a sandbag barrier, looking toward a town square
You can choose how you want to tackle each level.
EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

Medal of Honor: Airborne also avoids the typical video game battlefields of World War II. From Italian ruins to a monolithic flak tower in Essen, Germany, there isn’t a single well-trodden event like the Normandy landing in sight. Flaring my chute to find safe, tactical spots to land is important, especially since I can’t use assumed knowledge from the areas other World War II games seem to echo.

Levels actively encourage replay. It’s easy to complete a mission within roughly an hour, but I notice other entrances, avenues, or drop locations almost every time I turn around.

The possibility space is still reasonably contained, so the number of choices I can make from moment to moment never feels overwhelming — though I am making choices. Instead of always running forward to trigger the next cutscene or set-piece, I use the exciting possibilities offered by a new scenario (such as a vertical trainyard assault filled with snipers and walkway networks) to my advantage.

In the environment offered by Medal of Honor: Airborne, I can get lost, I can become bored, and I absolutely can be surprised.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - customizing M1 Garand loadout
Find guns, use guns, improve guns.
EA Los Angeles/EA

Medal of Honor: Airborne still nails compelling feedback loops, even though I’m playing over a decade after the game’s release. I choose an initial loadout after each briefing, adding any guns I picked up in the world in the previous mission for future use.

While weapons are lethal from the start of the game, every kill or achievement claimed with an individual gun brings it closer to receiving an upgrade in the middle of battle. These upgrades give me an incentive to switch weapons frequently and to build up a powerful arsenal of solutions to varying obstacles.

The world slows down when a gun is upgraded. Travers will often pull an object from an unseen void to physically attach to the weapon, and players have a delicious five-second period of slow motion to exercise their newfound power before the world roars back to life. It’s both a celebration of what I’ve achieved and a quick, practical demonstration of how a familiar weapon was tangibly altered.

A satisfying rhythm emerges:

  • Killing Nazis gives me a bayonet.
  • I kill a Nazi with said bayonet, and the bayonet kill gives me points that upgrade the weapon to kill even more Nazis.
  • This is the way the world is meant to work.
Medal of Honor: Airborne - peeking out of cover and aiming a pistol
Even the cover system was interesting.
EA Los Angeles/Electronic Arts

I could go on about the sound of the weapons and how they crack and snap. Sidearms buck with the force of a small, angry god as effective last resorts. I could dive into the game’s modular cover system, which is a combination of traditional FPS firing stances and an adaptable lean system that turns every piece of the world into a potentially effective firing position. The important point, however, is that I haven’t listed all the innovative ideas this game has, even in 2019.

The structure of Medal of Honor: Airborne and its execution of FPS mechanics is filled with exciting details that culminate in the remarkable whole, which is still playable on Windows PC and Xbox One (via Xbox 360 backward compatibility) today. However, what I truly find fascinating about Medal of Honor: Airborne is how it now feels compared to the juggernaut that may have killed it.

Modern Warfare is an origin point. The design trends it introduced would see iteration for the next decade or so. As a result, as groundbreaking and polished as Modern Warfare is, its seams grow more visible as time passes. Hitches in flow, little gaps of fidelity that were filled in by its successors ... there are only so many ways you can iterate upon a straight, cinematic design, but that’s exactly what some AAA shooters still attempt to do.

Medal of Honor: Airborne, on the other hand, feels like an independent, cohesive anomaly. An evolutionary dead end despite a host of features popularized by games today. Nonlinear maps with self-contained objectives that can continue to be pursued after death; seamless, minimal upgrade systems; parachutes.

Despite having some genuinely stunning set-piece scenarios, Medal of Honor: Airborne doesn’t offer a straight line — it offers a constellation. Dropped out of time, it’s stunning to see gaming at large only now iterating on the army of concepts that feel fully formed in this debut. Would the AAA war game genre be more mechanically diverse and open if this had been its model 12 years ago? Did everyone follow the wrong leader?

The tragedy of Medal of Honor: Airborne isn’t that it’s filled with innovations that gaming still hasn’t recognized; it’s that it directly precedes modern design movements to a standard that still holds up today ... and no one remembers it.

Let’s fix that.


When he isn’t busy helping create the strange alternate internet of Hypnospace Outlaw, Xalavier Nelson Jr. is an IGF-nominated narrative designer, game developer, writer, PC Gamer columnist, IntroComp organizer, and MCV Rising Star. He is very tired as a result, and appreciates your understanding.