EA's Medal of Honor beta: first impressions

Having bought Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on Steam, I'm one of the lucky, er, many to have access to the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta. The two games share a publisher, EA, and Bad Company 2 developer DICE actually whipped up the new Medal of Honor game's multiplayer component. I can taste the synergy from all the way over here.

Medal of Honor is the latest in a slew of shooters based in the present day, usually involving coalition forces in the Gulf. (No, not the one with all the oil, the other Gulf... oh, never mind.) This present-day theme seems to be the rightful heir to the World War II craze, which game publishers milked completely dry in the early part of the last decade. This time, they've replaced Nazis with insurgents, M1 Garand rifles with M16s, and European meadows with some rocks and sand. Cashing in on the present conflict seemed like such a good idea even the folks on the other side gave it a shot, albeit with somewhat more limited success.

EA's upcoming blockbuster will be a little late to the party when it launches in October, though. The original Modern Warfare from Infinity Ward hit stores back in November 2007, and Battlefield 2 was out even before that, in June 2005. Of course, if someone wants to take another crack at the concept, and they do a particularly good job of it, who am I to complain?

Eager see what EA and DICE had thrown together this time, I giddily downloaded the 1.6GB Medal of Honor multiplayer beta a few days ago and promptly joined a multiplayer battle. Well, not before attempting to change graphical settings using the atrocious menu interface. That's a bug report right there—the menu interface sucks! Some games make it painfully obvious that their menus were designed with console controllers in mind. This is one of those titles. You can't even quit a game when you're dead or after a battle ends—the "exit game" button only shows up if you press ESC while alive. And don't get me started on the "edit" button for resolution switching.

But I digress. The multiplayer beta includes two modes: Combat Mission, which is essentially a capture-and-defend type of campaign, and Team Assault, which you might better know as team deathmatch. Both modes do away with the pesky rigors of traditional PC multiplayer games by letting you respawn almost instantly at all times and heal by crouching in a corner for a few seconds. To counterbalance those tweaks to the classic formula, being shot almost always guarantees your immediate death. No progressively wounding an opponent while playing an adrenaline-pumping game of cat and mouse here—either the other guy misses and you kill him, or you miss and he kills you. Or, more likely, you get insta-killed by an unseen opponent when attempting anything more daring than crouching behind cover.

Players can choose between three classes: rifleman, special ops, and sniper. The rifleman gets an assault rifle and grenade launcher, the special ops gets a submachine gun and an RPG, while the sniper gets some type of sniper rifle and IEDs. Playing and earning points enables class-specific upgrades, so in theory, the more you play, the more deadly you can be. Sort of like World of Warcraft with the Taliban and guns, I guess. I personally only bother with the rifleman and sniper classes, since the special ops dude's rocket launcher seems useless for anything except blowing up tanks. (Oh, that's right; the Combat Mission mode has tanks. Only U.S. forces get 'em, though.)

Medal of Honor's simplified, instant-gratification-laced gameplay makes the team deathmatch mode almost unplayable for me. I loved Counter-Strike because of the team dynamics and the fact that you could carefully hunt down and eliminate the bad guys over a few, very tense minutes. Here, the instant respawns ensure there's rarely a cohesive team at one place at any one time, and taking out someone doesn't really get you anywhere. In most cases, players are scattered across the map running around, getting a kill or two before being terminated in the blink of an eye. Not really my cup of tea.

The Combat Mission mode is a little more fun, since you actually feel like you're part of a real conflict, either boldly attacking an insurgent position or defending it from an onslaught of U.S. forces. But the core gameplay feels more tedious than anything. Players can choose to respawn right on the front lines, so again, taking out folks from the opposing team doesn't get you very far. The best you can hope for is to get enough players to survive near a control point to capture it, then move up to the next one. Maybe that's all the rage with kids these days, like skinny jeans and scarves, but I just don't get much enjoyment out of it. Where's the strategy? Where are the defining moments, like in Counter-Strike when you're the sole survivor on your team and manage to take out the rest of the enemy players?

And, more importantly, is this the best PC multiplayer games can do in 2010?

Yes, I realize the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta is just that: a beta. But I'm not talking about little bugs and balance tweaks. I didn't even complain about getting stuck on geometry all too often when running for cover! No, I'm getting the impression that the whole premise for Medal of Honor's multiplayer component is flawed. And it's not the only game to do this sort of thing—I gave up trying to play Modern Warfare online for similar reasons. That game is just too fast-paced, and getting a kill isn't satisfying enough to make up for the frustration of getting downed instantly by an unseen opponent. Is it really so hard to design a multiplayer first-person shooter that's neither mindlessly dull nor punishingly frustrating? I just want to spend my evening playing something engaging and fun.

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