EA's Medal of Honor series has been around a long time. Once the pinnacle of first-person shooting in a world war setting, it has since slipped back somewhat to be a pretender to Call of Duty's throne, overshadowed even by EA's other great first-person shooter franchise, Battlefield.
But that's not how developers Danger Close see it. They've got big plans for the franchise and, thanks to a major technology shift over to the Frostbite 2 engine (the same one Battlefield 3 uses), they've got a very real chance of achieving them.
Warfighter is all about the secret goings-on that are only hinted at in the evening news. It follows the fortunes of a number of soldiers known as tier 1 operators; special mission units whose form and function are carefully concealed by the governments that run them. It's set behind enemy lines, and players will be tasked with doing things like rescuing hostages and assaulting enemy strongholds in surprise attacks.
It is, quite simply, very different from Battlefield - as Kristoffer "Hoffe" Bergqvist, Creative Director of Multiplayer at developer Danger Close Games, explained to me.
"Battlefield, for us, is the sledgehammer. It's the all-out war.
It's the massive attacks. Medal of Honor is the scalpel. It's small, tier-1 units, fighting with their boots on the ground, man versus man, personal, close-quarters combat. That's the core difference between the games."
"That was the first question we had to answer when we started developing this game: what is Medal of Honor? How is it not Battlefield, or any of the competing titles? You'll feel it when you play it; it's a totally different experience. It's different, because it had to be"
My hands-on with the game definitely didn't give me a Battlefield vibe. It's natural to make that connection, of course, with the publisher, game engine, and even many of the staff shared between the two titles. Just moments in, however, and it's clear that the singleplayer component of the game is once again aligning itself much more closely with Call of Duty.
The sequences I played involved storming a beach, controlling a land-based heavy weapons drone, sniping from building to building, and racing at breakneck speed through an occupied town. All intense, and all enjoyable, they nevertheless felt like sequences that would be right at home in Call of Duty. Rather than derivative, however, it felt like EA might finally be able to deliver on the blockbuster promise that has eluded the franchise since it handed the big-budget entertainment mantle to Activision's franchise all those years ago.
"The ambition level has been high since day one," Kristoffer told me. "We knew that we wanted this to be a big title. We wanted to have great singleplayer; we felt that we had an important story to tell, which inspired the team a lot. And we knew that we wanted to make a multiplayer that lasted for months and months - even years!"
Transitioning from 2010's Medal of Honor, itself a solid - if unremarkable - title, to something that has a real shot at regaining top-tier gamer interest doesn't just happen overnight. "It's been hard work," Kristoffer explaned, "there's been a lot of effort going into this game. One big thing for us has been having the multiplayer and singleplayer teams working together. Traditionally, that hasn't really happened in the Medal of Honor games; not for a long time, at least."
Last time around, the multiplayer part of the game was handled by the team at DICE (the Battlefield studio). While that team is obviously very experienced at creating solid multiplayer gameplay, Kristoffer nevertheless believes that there's an advantage to bringing all of Warfighter's developmental resources under one roof.
"We wanted singleplayer and multiplayer in Medal of Honor to be the same kind of experience. We wanted it to feel like they were part of the same universe, the same fiction. It was incredibly difficult to get that when the teams were are different parts of the globe. All the knowledge that's in the Medal of Honor studio, people who have been sitting there making Medal of Honor for the last 15 years - they have the ability to add those finishing touches to make it feel like Medal of Honor."
Whether you're playing singleplayer or multiplayer, the theme that underpins the entire experience is the expertise of these multinational tier-1 operators. The game features 12 different special mission units from ten different countries, each of which is replicated as closely as possible in the game - right down to the specific weapon configurations that each prefers.
It's hard to ignore the fact that, while Australia's SASR are present and accounted for, New Zealand's SAS are nowhere to be seen. It turns out, however, that this omission may just be temporary. "I have such a long list of units I want to add, post launch," Kristoffer said, hinting "You are definitely on that list. I have a great reference library with the SAS in it." It's somewhat short of an announcement, sure, but the sparkle in his eye suggested that our elite special forces stand a reasonable chance of inclusion down the line.
While it's far too early to tell if Danger Close Games and EA will achieve their goal of toppling Call of Duty from its throne atop the pile of first-person shooters, what was clear to me is that they're giving it a very real attempt.By Alan Bell