The unceasing parade of new military first-person shooter (FPS) games has presented publishers with a tricky paradox – how do you keep convincing gamers the latest one is something exciting and fresh while at the same time keeping everything more or less the same so as not to make anyone uncomfortable? The answer lies in the marketing grad’s mantra du jour; build the brand.
For EA’s well enough liked Medal of Honour this meant a series reboot in 2010, as the company readied to make it’s thirteenth excursion under the banner. With the wave of a wand and a reset of the numerals at the end of the title everything was new again – and still more or less exactly the same. The stunt paid off, the release proved a financial hit for the company and didn’t do too badly with the critics either. But that’s the thing about such a grand trickery; you can only do it the once. And as this lamentable follow up illustrates, things can wilt pretty quickly once you’ve exhausted your bag of tricks.
For those that haven’t been following along at home, Medal of Honour’s single-player portion follows a special unit of the US armed forces comprising “tier-one” operators. They do all the macho stuff you’d expect an overly excited adolescent reimaging of a counter-terrorist team to do – assassinations, interrogations, demolition, car chases, explosions, all that jazz. The squad gets to meet and kill interesting people all over the globe; Bosnia, Pakistan, Philippines, Yemen – any place you could imagine a gun-totting ethnic stereotype to hangout, in charge these white knights.
At this point it’s not really fair to ping a military FPS too severely for having a laughably bad story and telling it with the grace of Ritalin-addled five-year-old, but at points Warfighter is just flat-out dismaying. It’s most grievous narrative sin is a ham-fisted attempt to imbue one of a handful of cardboard cut-out characters with some manner of sympathy by treating us to maudlin scenes of his family turmoil. This well-oiled death machine is shaken to his core when it looks like his wife might up and leave with their daughter, apparently not happy about his frequent mysterious deployments to various hellholes about the world.
Nobody’s asking for Henry V or Heart of Darkness, but on display here is some of the most poorly implemented, manipulative “character development” and ruminations of the affects of war I’ve had to experience in a long time. Not only is it trite, broadly drawn and plain unnecessary but it commits the ultimate action game sin of killing the momentum – the game grinds to a halt and, frankly, the player just gets bored and angry.
Add to that the overly-confusing plot that jumps around in time and space with little regard for cohesion – compounded by the fact that every character is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same person – and your only real way of knowing what’s going on at any given time is a few sentences on the heads-up display.
Credit where it’s due, though – when the game does pour on the action it can get rather thrilling. Unfortunately any sense of thrust is continuously tripped up by a completely inexcusable amount of bugs (even after a good 30 minutes installing the game’s various updates straight out of the box). Players will often find themselves in intriguing situations, say pinned down in a bombed out hotel by enemy snipers or pursuing a target on foot through a bustling marketplace, but the set piece build-up is always so much more than the eventual pay-off.
Your basic running and gunning handles as slick as a mechanic that’s been through this many permutations ought to, but any time you stray from simply taking cover and returning fire things get dicey. The context sensitive jump/climb action is, well, completely insensitive to context, often having the player clambering fruitlessly up the side of an object only to fall right back down. Quite an annoyance when the very important mark is tearing off into the distance while you are stuck rubbing your body inappropriately against the furniture.
The bugs continue to pop up in many of the game’s overly scripted scenes, where you’re presented with a problem that multiple strategies could be appropriate for, but the game has one particular angle in mind. Don’t take out the bazooka-toting baddies on the adjoining rooftop in the right order and you may find your sniper unable to progress or mysteriously killed by unseen enemies for the transgression. There’s nothing wrong with developers subtly guiding a player in the intended direction, but if you’re going to give them the illusion of choice at least make sure picking the wrong option doesn’t break the game.
Then there’s the “dynamic breach” system, in which your team of commandos will continually brush up against the scourge of locked doors. As a basic approach you can kick the door down, toss a flash grenade into the room then barge in to experience a brief period of slowed time, allowing you to cap multiple enemies with ease. A nice enough flourish, but then there’s the weirdly tacked on reward system in which you can earn a number of different ways to knock a door down – tomahawk, shotgun, explosive, etc. None of these “rewards” change anything about the basic action, you still toss the grenade and go slow-mo, but you do have to sit around and wait for a slightly extended animation to run through before getting in there. So that’s nice.
Where the game’s campaign does shine is in its vehicle chase scenes. These are either on-rails shooting segments or races through a clearly defined track, so any chance of glitches has been reined in due to the very basic gameplay. As such the simple segments whiz by in a blur of bullets and vehicular carnage, providing a nice, smooth bit of adrenaline amidst a series the sadly lacking vignettes that make up the majority of the campaign.
If that all sounds a bit disappointing then you’re getting the picture. As a single-player game Warfighter is a deeply flawed, unimaginative and, a startling amount of time, completely frustrating. Considering the genre I suppose it does pay to bear in mind the level of detail with which all the military minutiae has been reproduced. If you’re the kind of person who gets excited to find you can customise the handgrip of your TAC50 sniper rifle in a particularly ostentatious shade of puce, then Warfighter’s exhaustive attention to weaponry detail has you covered. If only as much attention had been paid to core elements of the game.
Confused, broken, dull and bereft of anything resembling strategy, the single-player campaign is at least over in a relatively short period of time. And let us never speak of it again. However if you came solely for multiplayer then your experience may be a slightly more positive one (it’s rather telling that the multiplayer portion of the game lives of disc one, with the campaign buried beneath).
Unlike with the previous Medal of Honour, developer Danger Close Games has handled both single- and multiplayer duties on Warfighter. Where they stumbled mightily in the solo realm, the multiplayer elements have a little more heft. Players pledge their allegiance to one of ten selectable nations and then go to battle as one of 12 different tier-one units. All the routine game modes are present and the maps or on the cramped and unimaginative side. However, the game does bring one nice innovation in its Fireteam system, in which two players buddy up for the battle, helping each other out and earning teamwork-based bonuses for working together. You can even choose to respond alongside your fallen comrade so long as you’re not under fire at the time.
It’s not going to blow minds but Fireteam does add a nice chunk of strategy into the otherwise depressingly barren playing field. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see similar systems begin to pop in other, hopefully much better, FPS games in future.
For the longest time there has been a contingent of dissatisfied gamers howling against the endless recycling of military trappings as a way of avoiding doing anything even remotely interesting with a game. With the release of Warfighter it now seems the majority of critics and a good deal of the public are now singing the same chorus – war isn’t just hell, it’s become bloody boring now.
Is there any particular reason Warfighter was the straw to break the camel’s back? Aside from being overly buggy, it was no more dim, lazy, unsubstantial or uninteresting as many of the other military shooters that have been trotted out in recent times, to much greater praise. But there’s also no reason it shouldn’t be – if we keep eating the same old slop they feed us then the menu isn’t likely to change. Though I’m sure it’ll still be financially sound, hopefully EA will take the thorough ear-bashing Warfighter has received as proof that the majority of gamers would appreciate a little more thought, creativity and craft in their horrific simulations of terror, hate and war. 
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Danger Close
Players: Single, multi online
Classification: R16 – Contains Violence