Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, the latest in a series that dates back to 1999, is a game at odds with itself.
Developer Respawn Entertainment has created a state-of-the-art virtual reality experience in Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, with excellent gunplay and a standout multiplayer mode. It’s paired with a series of documentaries that feature a diverse collection of World War II veterans coming to grips with past traumas and their impact on history. These vignettes are moving, and extremely well-produced. But they stand in stark contrast to the game itself, which comes off as campy. While the gameplay is solid overall, the end result is a very mixed message.
Electronic Arts and Respawn gave media access to Above and Beyond late last week, and I found the basic gameplay lots of fun. Like other VR shooters, I had weapons plastered all over my virtual body — a pistol on my hip, two long guns strapped to my back, and a bandolier of grenades on my chest. The challenge comes in feeding the various weapons ammunition through complex hand motions, which include inserting magazines and pulling on the charging handle before you can fire. Hitting the target is a breeze, with an excellent sight picture available on every weapon and plenty of tracers to walk in rounds. Even rifles — traditionally a challenge in VR because they require two hands to steady — were surprisingly easy to use.
Multiplayer in particular was a real delight. The closest comparison to the game’s frantic close-quarters action is Rare’s classic shooter GoldenEye 007. Game types include staples like deathmatch and team deathmatch, but also novel new modes, like Mad Bomber, which has players stashing explosive all over the map. Coming upon a ticking time bomb while under fire, scrambling to find it while rounds are whizzing by your head, is a thrill.
My only complaint was that the weapons themselves didn’t allow for combat reloads, which allow you to drop a partially full magazine and replace it while keeping a round chambered in the weapon. That means every reload required an extra action — pulling on the charging handle — that tended to slow me down, especially in multiplayer.
The single-player campaign is lengthy — I’d estimate somewhere between five to eight hours in all, although I’ve not yet finished it. There are a total of five missions scattered all across WWII’s western front. As a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, I started off my career by dropping into Normandy to link up with the French Resistance. That’s where I was introduced to the main characters, which have varying degrees of likability.
There’s Manon, the female freedom fighter who has featured prominently in past games. Ollie is a young British volunteer who lied about his age to enter the military and take vengeance on the Nazis for killing his entire family. Juliette is a blonde bombshell who works for the Germans, but is secretly a spy working for the Resistance. She ends up being the damsel in distress during the game’s second mission.
The most ponderous character is Sarge, a grizzled Army veteran who is your constant companion for much of the game’s second mission. He gets tasked with delivering most of the game’s jokes, which invariably land with a thud. The voice acting is all done with skill and grace, but the actors are working with such hokey material that it’s hard not to roll your eyes on occasion — especially when everyone is gathered around a sand table or a map, chewing the scenery while their legs are locked firmly in place.
A highlight for me came early in the second mission, which placed me inside the bowels of a B-17 bomber. Moving through the interior of the historic warplane is something that I’ve had the pleasure of doing in real life, and Respawn absolutely nailed the aircraft’s claustrophobic feeling. The immersion broke, however, once I had to take up arms and defend myself from Messerschmitt Bf 109s, which whizzed through my line of sight like aliens in Space Invaders.
The pacing of the game, which is delivered in roughly eight-to-12 minute chunks, feels more like a series of minigames than a more traditional first-person shooter.
There are two reasons for the piecemeal approach. First, these massive, detailed environments require a tremendous amount of horsepower to render in real time. Once you leave a 12-car luxury train or an underground German bunker, Above and Beyond needs time to reload the next area before you can keep going. But also, the game is very physically demanding — and I don’t mean the ducking and moving around in VR.
I had to play through the first few levels and all of the game’s multiplayer content in a single weekend. Sitting here on Monday morning, after a decent night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I still feel motion sick. It’s as though the room I’m sitting in keeps rotating whenever I move my head or blink my eyes. Even with comfort settings turned on — which include a seated mode, flick turning, and a black-rimmed “tunneling” effect while running — Respawn still recommends that players step away after every eight-to-12 minutes to take off the VR headset and rest.
I have plenty of VR experience under my belt, but even I wish I had been able to heed their advice.
Just like the first Medal of Honor for the original PlayStation, Above and Beyond comes with a gallery of historical documentaries. Rather than relying on archival footage, the development team produced them as full-fledged television-quality shows that you can collect by completing the game. They include interviews with veterans from both sides of the conflict, and from all walks of life. Subjects include a Native American man who participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy, a Black Marine who served in the Pacific, a German who fought for the Wermacht, and a female member of the French Resistance.
The most moving sequence for me was when an 80-year-old man returned to the Netherlands for the first time since the 1940s to visit the very spot where his best friend died. On an overcast day in a recently culled field he gets down on his knees to show the cameraman how he found his buddy’s lifeless body, posing with his head down and his arms limp. Later, he lays a picture of the man’s family at his grave.
Placed adjacent to the at-times comedic main campaign and the over-the-top violent multiplayer modes, the seriousness of these documentaries felt incredibly jarring to me. Respawn wants to have its fun, often irreverent action game and celebrate the Greatest Generation at the same time, but it’s hard to make those dual visions fit inside the same VR game. I’m curious to see how that contrast shakes out once I’ve completed the main campaign.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond will be released on Dec. 11 via the Oculus Rift platform and on Steam.