Monday, January 27, 2020

Double Feature Review: Medal of Honor & Medal of Honor Underground (PS1)

I've always had an interest in history, whether it be the history of arts, entertainment, or the world.  Learning about the past has fascinated for as long as I can remember, especially war historical periods.  Media and war history go together since books, movies, and video games tend to re-enact those pivotal moments in time, albeit from the perspective of a fictional character.  In the late 90's and into the mid-2000's, first-person shooters set during World War II were all the rage, and leading the charge was Medal of Honor.  Ironically, the idea for the original game stemmed from director Steven Spielberg, who at the time had just finished directing Saving Private Ryan, and one can say Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground are the video game answer to his movie.

Set during World War II, Medal of Honor follows Lieutenant Jimmy Patterson.  Patterson finds himself signing up for the OSS after his heroic actions during D-Day.  Through the OSS, he completes a number of missions intended to halt the Nazi's different schemes, including ones related to the development of a V-2 rocket.  Medal of Honor: Underground is centered on Manon Batiste, a soldier for the French resistance, who, like Patterson, finds herself taking part in numerous undercover missions for the OSS.  Her espionage adventures take her to North Africa, France, and Germany.  In a bonus mission, Patterson infiltrates a castle where strange activity has been reported; along the way, he finds parts for a secret weapon known as the Panzerknacker.

Neither of the two games have extensive, deep plots, but the lack of narrative depth is made up for by its respect for the setting.  Playing any of the original Medal of Honor games is like getting a history lesson.  All of the missions are based off actual events, and the cut-scenes which play before and after a level contain tons of archival footage mixed with narration.  The characters may not be real, but the situations they're put into are not.

I'm on the road crew!
Medal of Honor: Underground has the more interesting premise since you're playing as a member of the French resistance, so there's a stronger emphasis on stealth and sabotage, more so than its predecessor.  Also, the bonus mission "Panzerknacker Unleashed" contains some of the weirdest stuff ever put into a video game.  It's not every day you get to fight dancing dogs armed with machine guns, followed by exploding Nazi zombies and mechanized nutcracker soldiers.

Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground's action spans across eight missions that are split into three or four smaller sections.  Over the course of both games, you'll infiltrate Nazi bases, occupied cities, traverse sandy deserts and other locales to stop whatever it is the Third Reich has planned.  This is an old-school shooter through and through.  There is no regenerating health and the main characters can stock up on as many weapons as possible.  What's most surprising about these two titles is the controls.  Although dual-analog controls didn't become the norm until the sixth generation of consoles, both PS1 Medal of Honor titles contain such a control scheme tucked away in the options menu.  It's best to switch to this layout as the default controls are archaic.

Each stage features different objectives Jimmy Patterson or Manon Batiste must complete.  Miss an objective and get to the end of a level, then it's an instant mission failure and you have to start over.  Levels are complex, but not to the point players will get lost.  Objectives involve doing things like collecting intel, killing enemy officers, or sabotaging equipment.  A handful of levels see Patterson or Manon going undercover as part of the mission protocol.

During these sections, soldiers will question and request for identification if they get close to them, in which case him or her needs to present their papers.  Patterson needs to track down the right papers so he can progress to the next part of the area.  On the other hand, Manon will rely on her ID and camera to get past guards.  Alternatively, you can shoot enemies with a silenced pistol when they aren't looking, and if the alarm does get raised, it doesn't mean the mission is over; instead, you'll deal with reinforcements until the alarm is shut off or destroyed.

Why yes, yes I did find him!
Medal of Honor's combat isn't exactly run-and-gun, more like run and then stop-and-pop.  The reason being is because holding L2 brings up a crosshair, which allows the player to better line up their shots; however, it also locks them in place.  A generous auto-aim makes it easy to put a bullet into the back of a retreating Nazi.  As far as enemies go, Patterson will only have to deal with soldiers and occasionally dogs, while Manon has to take on not just troops but also tanks, APCs, motorcycle-riding Nazis and in one level, knights.  Knights charge at Manon and when they get close, they'll try to swipe at her with their sword, plus their armor allows them to soak up a lot of damage.

In addition to new enemy types, Medal of Honor: Underground mixes in some additional mission styles besides shooting and stealth.  Every now and then, Manon needs to escort and protect a person of interest as they head towards a safe spot.  These sections can be a bit annoying due to the poor ally AI, but these moments never last too long to the point of tedium.  With that said, neither of the games feature checkpoints, so if you die, you have to start at the beginning of the mission.  The first Medal of Honor is a bit easy.  You'll blast through Nazis like nobody's business, and only in the last couple of missions does the game get remotely difficult since Germans start wielding insta-kill Panzerschrecks.

Meanwhile, Medal of Honor: Underground lets gamers switch between three difficulty options, and not only does this effect enemy aggression, but also how much health you start with in the next stage.  On Normal or higher, the game gets challenging.  It isn't before long that Nazis start wielding automatic weapons like STG-44's and MP-40's, which are capable of whittling down health in seconds.  Fortunately, there are weapons to use to de-escalate the possibility of death.  The weapons in Medal of Honor feature WWII mainstays like the Thompson sub-machine gun, M1 Garand, shotgun, Springfield sniper rifle, and a bazooka for good measure.  Medal of Honor: Underground adds in firearms like the Sten sub-machine gun, the STG-44, and a Panzerschreck.

At the end of each mission, you're rewarded a rank based on combat efficiency.  If you get two or three stars per level, then you're given a medal for your efforts, plus a cheat code to activate in the extras.  This is a great system since it encourages you to replay earlier missions in search of a higher rank and in turn, to unlock cheat codes, and who doesn't want to earn cheat codes for being a proficient soldier?  Both games are on the short side, taking about three-to-four hours to beat, but a split-screen mode is available in addition to the campaigns.

Even the main menu is packed with all sorts of activity to add to
the wartime proceedings.
Both games might look dated, but the graphics are quite impressive for the PS1.  The environments and character models look basic, but the excellent sound design brings life to the locations you traverse, whether its crickets chirping in the forests or German officers shouting off various warnings as you make your way through a research lab.  The death animations are also fun to watch as Nazis react differently depending on where you shoot them.  Seeing a Nazi keel over while he's still firing off his gun never gets old.  The framerate will dip tremendously whenever there's too much going on, to the point gunfights look like a slideshow.  Sound is solid, and although the voice acting is limited, what's there is competent.  The highlight is the epic soundtrack.  Michael Giacchino's music is dramatic, keeps you on your toes, and really heightens the intensity of the situation.

Though they might be over 20 years old, Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground are still solid games and are also the best shooters on the PlayStation 1.  It may not have much in terms of plot, but there's a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings.  You can tell the developers wanted to be respectful to the era while still creating a fun experience.  The shooting is good, and the objectives are mixed up enough so as to avoid repetition.  While Medal of Honor lacks challenge, the sequel makes up for it by offering three selectable difficulties.  Though they're both enjoyable, Underground edges out its brethren with its focus on being in the French resistance, diverse locales, and improved gameplay, but they're still both must-plays.


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