Medal of Honor purports to give us a raw, unflinching look at the experience of modern warfare. An audio montage during the opening credits refers to 9/11, and that's sufficient to hurtle you into the mountains of Afghanistan for skirmishes against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces based on real-life events in Operation Anaconda. Bold choices, to be sure. Could it be that Medal of Honor is, at long last, the video game that deals frankly with the morass of war?
Don't kid yourself. Despite the marketing materials assuring consumers that this game was developed with the input of real-life Delta Force operatives, its realism goes no deeper than the surface. Afghanistan is drab, all right, and I've never seen a more detailed rendering of a sniper rifle obliterating a foe's head from a mile away. But EA gave away its true intentions when, shortly before Medal of Honor's release, it made a small but telling change: in multi-player mode, the team formerly called "Taliban" was redubbed "Opposing Force." No material alterations were made. If accuracy was the goal, why was this significant detail so inconsequential?
As you play Medal of Honor, you start to realize why. The Taliban are just a premise to let you slaughter hundreds of opponents, guilt free. They're a bogeyman. It's the same role the Russians used to play. Multi-player makes little distinction between the technological might of the US forces and the guerrilla tactics of their opponents. That would have been too interesting. Instead, you get modes ripped straight from other shooters, like DICE's own superior Battlefield series: take objectives, defend objectives, or just rack up more kills than the other team.
It's competently produced, but nothing you haven't seen before. In recent years, console shooters have taken so many bits and pieces from one another that it's increasingly hard to tell them apart. So, yes, it's neat that you can choose from three classes of player and customize them with experience points that you earn along the way, but only a pedant would emphasize Medal of Honor's differences from other shooters, instead of its similarities. We seem to be approaching a military-shooter singularity — but if it works, it works.
More disappointing is the single-player campaign. Given our vexing, decade-long engagement in Afghanistan (one that shows no sign of ending anytime soon), you might have hoped for a storyline with more ambition. War is hell, all right, but at least you can always count on the man next to you. And why not? In Medal of Honor, anybody wearing an American flag on his shoulder is a good guy, and everyone else is a target. Sure, some bureaucrat back in Washington is making life difficult for the troops on the ground, but even this plot detail carries shades of the dolchstoß claim (popular on the right) that we'd have conquered Iraq and Afghanistan years ago if only our politicians had let us win.
Here's what you won't find in Medal of Honor: misguided Predator drone strikes that take out innocent people, confusion about the rules of engagement, rising panic as isolated soldiers attempt to determine whether an Afghan native is hostile. They're all hostile. You don't have to pause before pulling the trigger. True to life? This is a fairy tale.