When I see a driving level in an action game, my immediate response is to roll my eyes. I love racing games, but cramming that gameplay into a shooter is rarely done well. So when last week's press event for Medal of Honor: Warfighter kicked off with a trailer revealing the coyly-named "Hot Pursuit" level, I was prepared to hate it.
Imagine my surprise when the driving segment was actually the best part of what I played.
My two-level hands-on demo kicked off with an early level titled "Shore Leave." Warfighter's missions alternate between two lead characters; for "Shore Leave" I was introduced to newcomer Stump, a Tier 1 Navy SEAL whose team finds itself under fire in Somalia while tracking down a lead on a network of terrorists.
The best thing I can say about this regular, shooting-focused level is that it was fine. As a bog-standard military shooter, it does exactly what you'd expect. Aim down your sights, wait for enemies to pop up from cover, shoot, repeat. Duck behind a car or piece of debris when you take a couple of hits and need to recover health. That's it for most of the level.
As part of its strive toward authenticity, Medal of Honor: Warfighter does have a few new tricks. At one point, Stump and crew break out a tiny remote-controlled vehicle to scout the area ahead for them. This isn't the speedy RC-XD that you may remember as a killstreak reward in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Warfighter's remote-controlled helper is slow and sluggish, but it has the ability to scale up debris and access areas where enemies might be hiding. It provides a brief but interesting reprieve from the regular shooting gallery.
Another sequence near the end of the level shows off Warfighter's take on the obligatory sniping segment. Stump pulls a table up to a window to provide a steady surface for his gun and takes aim at rocket launcher-equipped terrorist thugs perched on a series of buildings across the city from his location. I found this part of the level very frustrating, as I struggled to determine if my perfectly centered shots were missing due to real-world physics or poor scripting.
As it turns out, it's the former. Warfighter producer Luke Thai explains, "There is a bullet drop element to that encounter." A distance indicator above the heads of enemies can be used alongside notches on your sniper scope to help gauge how much you need to offset your aim. Clearly my meager virtual sniping skills need some work.
My personal favorite element of the shooting portion of Medal of Honor: Warfighter was what the team has done with the breaching mechanic. Building off the popular breaching set pieces from Call of Duty, where characters kick in a door and take out the enemies within in slow motion, Warfighter now provides a reward for performing well.
When you reach a breachable door, a menu pops up allowing you to choose a method of breaching. Initially, kicking in the door is the only option. If you manage to score four headshots against the enemies waiting within, you'll unlock subsequent options for opening locked doors, including a crowbar, an axe, and a shotgun. Like streak rewards in multiplayer, it's a tiny but delicious carrot on a stick, urging players to perform better.
The only downside? The different breaching options you unlock have no real impact on the gameplay. "Breaching techniques spawned from our discussions with various real-life operators," Thai says. The team decided these different techniques would provide a great opportunity to show off new animations, but they shied away from punishing or rewarding players based on their choice.
Upon completing "Shore Leave," Warfighter switches to the perspective of Preacher, a returning soldier from 2010's Medal of Honor. In a strangely dramatic scene, Preacher is shown on the phone with his estranged wife, who is exhausted at the toll that his military life has taken on their marriage.
According to Thai, this personal backstory plays a large part in Warfighter. "There are a few missions toward the last half of the game where the story elements that happen require the players to be invested in the characters," he says. He promises that gamers who didn't play 2010's Medal of Honor will have plenty of introduction to Preacher and his story in Warfighter to make the emotional moments meaningful.
After the break for a family update, I'm thrown into the previously mentioned "Hot Pursuit" level. As you can witness for yourself in the trailer below, Preacher is watching a target who is suddenly taken out by a sniper, initiating a high-speed car chase through the streets of Karachi.
Before I played the level, Thai brags that the team had help from some of the people behind Need for Speed. It shows. Though I don't normally play racing games in first-person view, the driving itself is tight and feels fun. I'm able to drift around corners in a Karachi market place and weave in and out of traffic as if I was playing, well, Hot Pursuit.
There's obvious rubberbanding happening in this level; my opponent clearly slows down when I get behind and speeds up as I approach him. But even with that obvious design choice, the chase is fast and enjoyable and hides its scripting relatively well. When I finally do corner and smash into the terrorist's vehicle, I can't entirely tell if the set piece was just scripted to end at that location or if I had cut enough close corners to finally catch up. Maybe I'm just less desensitized to heavily scripted races than heavily scripted shooters, but it's a refreshing change of pace.
When I push Thai for details, he tells me that they had help from the Need for Speed team "in Canada" — presumably the crew at EA Black Box who most recently worked on last year's Need for Speed: The Run. "They were integrated into the creation of that level," he says. You may think of Black Box as Need for Speed's b-team compared to current Need for Speed: Most Wanted developer Criterion, but they have years of experience in making virtual cars that are fun to control — a boon that has clearly aided Danger Close.
Though he's not willing to spoil the specifics, Thai hints that Warfighter's single-player campaign will feature more unexpected sequences that help shake up the moment-to-moment gameplay. I'm not convinced that it will be enough to make Warfighter stand out from the crowd, but after playing the "Hot Pursuit" level they at least have my attention.