Medal of Honor: Vanguard Review
The Medal of Honor franchise is one of the most accomplished and critically acclaimed FPS titles out there; it began with the original on the PS1 and another stellar first installment on the PS2 (Frontline). The following installments (Rising Sun, European Assault) weren't quite as good, but they remained solid and entertaining throughout. Therefore, despite the announcement of Airborne for next-gen consoles, we were certainly excited to check out the last one for the PS2, Medal of Honor: Vangaurd. We figured, if the series could come in with a bang on the console, it could go out with a bang on that console. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, EA had no interest in a "bang" and instead, retreated with a whimper.
The graphics are actually the best part of Vanguard, which isn't necessarily a good thing. We honestly believe Frontline looked better six years ago, but that could just be the nostalgia talking... Anyway, a myriad of somewhat dull colors (green, grey, brown, etc.) permeate the entire environment, but at least there's some nice detail here and there, and the level design is quite good. The latter has always been a strong point of these games, so it wasn't really a surprise, but it's always good to see diverse backdrops painted with the stark shades of intense action and war. There isn't much in the way of graphical errors or flaws, and while they're hardly memorable after the likes of God of War II and Final Fantasy XII, they still do the job. We had hoped for a little more clarity in those muddy textures for the last MoH on the PS2, though.
The sound is equally effective, in that it's nothing to write home about, but well produced and orchestrated. The classic soundtracks that we're so familiar with in these titles are back, as are the crisp combat and general sound effects. The Italians and Germans clearly yell out commands and orders, the weapon reports are loud and finely presented, and we even liked the little things, like the clatter of boots on cobblestones. But for whatever reason, the soundtrack usually wanted to take a backseat to the effects, which seemed to be a change from previous installments. And it's not a change for the better, because many of the more intense firefights could've used a little help in the music department. In the end, the effects are vintage Medal of Honor, but the soundtrack falls shy of the greatness it attained in earlier iterations.
Now, the technicals weren't entirely impressive, but certainly above average and definitely acceptable...provided the gameplay was up to snuff. And right off the bat, we just assumed this was a given. Medal of Honor has always been about fluid and accessible control, decent AI, top-notch collision detection, and non-stop action that never skips a beat. But somehow, some way, EA missed the target on all these bread-and-butter traits, coming up short in most every attempt. This is ridiculously bizarre, especially considering they hit the target so many times before! If the issues were minor; if they were only missing the target by an inch or two, than everything could've been overlooked. We could've had a lot of fun - as we almost always do with Medal of Honor titles - and we would've appreciated the experience.
Tragically, it's all a major step back. The instant you hit the ground from your surprisingly fast and mostly irrelevant airborne drop, you'll notice something is amiss. Sure, you can crawl now, but getting down to a crouch, then a crawl, then back up again is a clumsy and slow practice, although we could argue it was for the sake of realism. But next up is the movement and aiming controls, both of which are fine and with no visible failings, so you immediately start to feel encouraged; saying, "yup, this is Medal of Honor." You move forward, get fired upon, and advance carefully with your troop through the Italian-infested town, desperately working to secure and defend safehouses and taking objective after objective. Yes indeed, this seems just about right.
But as things progress - you move through Italy, France, and Germany during the four-part adventure - you start to realize something else: there are all kinds of glaring problems. EA decided to adopt a couple factors from the Call of Duty series, utilizing the two-weapon-only approach and erasing any semblance of a health bar. When you get nailed, the screen flashes red and you had better find some cover...fast. And when we say "fast," we're not kidding; you'll die quickly and often in Vanguard, and you'll frequently never know which enemy prematurely ended your mission. See, your weapons all have horrible range, but your foes apparently have no such obstacle. You'll get hit by dead-eyes from a hundred yards away, but if you try that, it could take as many as four or five shots to take care of the threat. It's not because you were missing, it's because, despite having the crosshairs dead on your target, the bullet never hit its mark. And you'll never know why.
Of course, even if you were having some trouble, you should've been able to rely on the other members of your squad, right? Wrong. The AI has never been spectacular in these games, but it was certainly better than this. Your comrades can't seem to hit a damn thing - although they will get the occasional lucky shot with a grenade - and your enemies are equally retarded. They'll find cover, yes, and they'll move back and forth behind that cover, popping their heads up to fire for a bit, but that's all they'll do. Their tactics are basically non-existent, their movements are static and predictable, and if you weren't around, the game would never move forward. The bad guys would just shoot incessantly at your seemingly invincible allies, and your allies will shoot forever and never hit anything. Yeah, you're the man, here.
That's not a huge drawback, though, as the series has never been about squad-based tactics. It's always been more about just an individual, and this individual is named Frank Keegan, a paratrooper with the 82cd Airborne Division. He'll narrate the black-and-white cut-scenes and get dropped into some seriously intense situations, but the story is mostly ho-hum and hardly worth detailing. Honestly, the story in the original MoH was more compelling, but then again, it's not crucial to have a great storyline or plot for a game like this. All we really needed was a little historical precedence (which we got), and a solid FPS foundation. It's what we usually got from this franchise. But EA evidently just stepped back, examined the situation, and thought they could get away with sitting on their laurels for the last installment on the PS2. What a mistake.
The game will take about 6-10 hours to complete, depending how much trouble you have with the last few levels, which are absurdly difficult. We don't mind a challenge, but all those levels managed to do was point out the significant drawbacks of the game. You'll be able to attribute far too many deaths to invisible and impossibly accurate foes, your friends will rarely help, and your bullets will often magically disintegrate halfway to the target, forcing you to "hit" an enemy three or four times before they're actually struck. But that's all the bad news; there is some good news. The atmosphere is almost perfect, complete with intimidating areas and a lot of nasty surprises. After all, this is war, and nothing is quite so challenging as attacking a bunker atop a hill, or flushing out numerous enemies who are hunkered down with mounted, automatic weapons.
The control you have really is very good, despite the kinda clunky crouching/crawling thing, and you always feel as if you're capable of overcoming any obstacle. Furthermore, being forced to choose only two weapons to carry adds a nice dose of strategy to the game, and you'll even start planning ahead more often than ever before. Another great addition is the ability to peer around corners, and despite the often unfair challenge, it is a substantial and legitimate challenge, and that's always refreshing. For fans of the franchise, it's probably worth a rent, but it's certainly not worth a purchase, regardless of how much you've enjoyed past installments.
In the end, this is the poorest Medal of Honor yet, and we truly hope we can expect a vastly superior experience from the upcoming Airborne. While we did have some fun for at least a few hours, and while that good ol' MoH feeling is intact, the final result is disappointing and frustratingly average.
5/10/2007 Ben Dutka