Medal of Honor: European Assault

The Medal of Honor franchise helped to spur WW2 into the gaming mainstream just as Id’s Castle Wolfenstein 3D helped to put FPS gaming on the map. Once the exclusive purview of strategy grognards, FPS twitch gamers on consoles and PCs have been allowed to now see the war from the viewpoint of the soldiers that they had once only commanded from the safety of an interface and a map overview. With Allied Assault, some would feel that the franchise had reached the nadir of its popularity with its representation of “Omaha Beach” and excellent FPS gameplay. Although heavily scripted with linear levels, the challenges it provided amidst the history of its namesake along with the multiplayer components were among some of its best features.

However, subsequent releases, including those focusing on the Pacific Campaign such as Rising Sun and Pacific Assault, have been met with harsh criticism in the press and by longtime players. Other titles, such as Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty franchise and Gearbox’s Brother in Arms have brought new perspectives to the WW2 FPS genre with a great deal of success, quickly supplanting Medal of Honor as the only WW2 themed title that can fill the mold.

Medal of Honor: European Assault was released in 2005 and while it attempted to do different things in order to inject some life back into the franchise, it may have tried to do too many things at once.

European Assault was shot out from behind a crate on an Xbox.

Welcome to the OSS

I was interested to hear that Medal of Honor would be picking up on the exploits of the OSS, one of the predecessors to today’s CIA. Historically, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) worked to dig up intelligence on the Third Reich and the rest of the Axis through subterfuge, its network of spies, technical genius, and more than just a little luck. Some of that is hinted in the game, but you won’t be skulking in shadows stalking the agents of the Abwehr or meeting operatives in the bowels of Gestapo headquarters in Berlin to find what you need.

You play a soldier by the name of Lt. Holt, a member of the OSS, who gets sent out into the field to do a lot more than just gather intelligence. You’ll come up against some of the secret weapons of the Third Reich and do your fair share of sabotage, but you might as well just keep the OSS out of the whole thing entirely since your actions are about as subtle as an 88mm shell going into the side of a barn. Nevertheless, you will take part in some of the major theaters of war, working in the backdrop as it were, to fulfill objectives sent to you by the OSS to gather the occasional bit of intelligence or to destroy it.

Okay, so it doesn’t do a good job in showing off what the OSS was really good at. Unfortunately, European Assault’s gameplay has its own issues as well, not all of them so easily dismissed.

Campaign

John Milius of Apocalypse Now fame is the scribe responsible for the story underlying European Assault which plays out from a series of recollections that an older Holt reminisces against the backdrop of WW2 footage. Despite this, the overall story feels a bit thin and disjointed, feeling more as an excuse to put you where you need to be. As his voice becomes younger during these cut scenes, it segues into the action and the mission that you are sent into. The first mission gets you acquainted with the controls and soon you’ll be dealing with the best that the Wehrmacht has to offer. Everything is easily within reach without forcing you to keep reaching for the manual to figure out what does what.

At the start of each mission, you’re given a series of key objectives with some ‘hidden’ ones that you might have the opportunity to find along the way and complete. If you manage to complete all of these objectives, you get a nice gold medal for the battle plus any bonuses (such as health packs) that you might be able to earn for the next one. Earning gold medals in all of the battles for a given theater will get you another medal for when you make it out.

Depending on what difficulty level you choose, you may start out with a health pack and a ‘revive’. Holt can pick up first aid packages on the field if he can find them and use them later and foes can drop health ‘canteens’ that help keep you in the battle. As you accomplish certain objectives, you also get a chance to find additional ‘revives’. The difference between the two is that health packs can be used to heal a chunk of your health during battle while the ‘revives’ work to resurrect you in a long, drawn out sequence in case you forget to hit that health button before you go down.

Instead of checkpoints, the revives take their place, but it’s a poor substitute for the system. Some of the levels are short enough to get through without missing them, but some of the more difficult levels certainly could have benefited from one or two of these. while some may say that this adds to the challenge, it only added to the feeling of repetition that you may feel. Resurrecting yourself in the middle of battle was just strange especially when you can hear an enemy soldier continue to batter you with the butt of their weapon as you stand back up from your sudden recovery.

Although much of it is the standard FPS fare that the previous Medal of Honor titles are known for, the rest of the gameplay mechanics in the game may come as a surprise to those that are familiar with the series, especially those who appreciate the attempts that it makes to bring a few realistic expectations to the table. On the whole, European Assault feels a lot more arcade-like instead providing a reasonable facsimile of the kind of experience found in a few of its predecessors such as Allied Assault or Frontline. When you take out Wehrmacht soldiers on the field of battle, for example, they’ll leave behind items in the form of giant, floating icons that spin in the air above where they died. These range from ammo to the health ‘canteens’ that look like giant, spinning, red crosses.

Aside from the fact that this looks somewhat strange to see on a battlefield, European Assault adds further insult to injury by having that precious ammo or those health canteens disappear. Sniping away at foes with your rifle will force them to drop ammo, but you’ll be SOL when you realize that the ammo they drop is lying across a field of deadly fire that you may not be able to cross in time before they fade.

Watching these precious items fade away from dropped soldiers is not the only strangeness that you’ll experience with European Assault. Even when they don’t disappear, you won’t necessarily be able to grab and use what you think you see. Forget about taking that MP-40 and any extra clips that the soldier might have for it if you don’t get there in time, that is if you even get the to swap out what you have. There are times when you can pick up extra weapons in the field, but this is little consolation for the fact that while you might see guns fly out of the hands of your foes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can go pick them up and empty them of precious ammo or even use them as you think you could because they’ll just evaporate or simply not be ‘available’.

This creates a sort of split personality with European Assault because the other half of itself is dedicated to the ‘duck and gun’ strategy that it wants the player to adopt. Some titles, such as Brothers in Arms, also use this strategy to keep would-be WW2 Rambos sequestered behind protection in order to work with their team and lend some realism to the action. European Assault attempts to do this and it succeeds to some extent. Death comes fast to those that carelessly run about the battlefield without using the cover that might be there, but you may have no choice if you are quickly running out of ammo and the only way to get more is to run out like a madman and grab those floating clips.

But while this may lend a deeper sense of challenge to the title and satisfy those that feel that Medal of Honor hasn’t done enough to demonstrate the consequences of being a one man war machine, it suffers from several issues that make it unnecessarily more frustrating than it really should be such as the aforementioned disappearing ammo. Brothers in Arms and Call of Duty have also managed to balance this out with smart gameplay tricks that leave it to the player to figure out and overcome. In comparison, the tricks that European Assault uses to simulate the same thing come off a lot less polished.

The title also brings in another arcade concept, that of bosses, to the Medal of Honor franchise. These baddies don’t have a lot of personality other than in what you are told about them when a mission starts, how they look, or what they scream at you when you’re filling them with lead. For the most part, they’ll just try and shoot at you as any other soldier will, so don’t expect anything as different as what you may have seen in a title such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I would have liked to have seen more done with these officers as they added a somewhat personal touch to the game as you pit yourself against them given the fictional nature of the story being told here, but instead they’re simply more powerful versions of the cannon fodder that you’ve been blowing through.

There’s also the adrenaline feature that turns you into an invincible killing machine. With every kill that you make on the field of battle, the adrenaline bar that you have slowly starts to fill up. Once its full, you can trigger an adrenaline rush that makes your shots more powerful and you nearly invincible as everything begins to slow down around you for a time. This is a useful tactic to have, especially when you confront some of the officers in the game, but it’s something that I would have expected to see in a title such as UberSoldier or The Matrix and only serves to make European Assault even more of an arcade-like experience.

Covert Operation

As mentioned before, European Assault’s gameplay emphasizes the art of duck and cover. EA Los Angeles strove to provide this kind of hard hitting gameplay to emulate the risk that would face the foolish on the field of valor, but the mechanics supporting this work more against it than to make it the kind of welcome change that it could have been. On some levels, it even starts before you have a chance to make your own lethal mistakes, equipping you with weapons that don’t make much sense.

On one level, I was equipped with a shotgun and a sniper rifle…both of which were on opposite ends of the shooting spectrum. Yet, I was expected to clear out enemy resistance with both. The shotgun was a virtual invitation to come in and get a bullet in your brainpan, forcing you to burn more of those precious health packs unless you decided to snipe at your enemies. But are you willing to run out there to grab the ammo that they drop, hoping the game doesn’t decide to spawn in another platoon of soldiers to kill you? You can’t choose what you want to bring with you onto the battlefield, unfortunately.

Also as mentioned before, you can also pick up weapons on the field of battle to replace those that you are carrying and for the most part, it’s usually a good idea…if you are expecting the enemy to replenish your ammo because of what they drop. This has been made more difficult when it disappears, but some of what they drop also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In a strange twist, the Wehrmacht seem to drop as much ammo as they can for whatever weapon you happen to have (aside from rockets). For example, if you’re using an American BAR, you can expect quite a few Wehrmacht soldiers to drop BAR ammo. While this may make the game more accessible for players, not only did it continue to shred whatever historical decency that European Assault had started out with, it simply didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Most firefights against the Wehrmacht boil down to who pokes their heads out first and in this, the game does a good job in creating much of the tension of waiting for the other side to make the first mistake. This can be exciting in some battles, especially the trench warfare that you get sucked into in Russia and during the Battle of the Bulge and is something that I enjoyed. However, there are also quite a few moments when it just felt like a tedious shooting gallery as the title spawned soldier after soldier to step in where their comrades fell, rinse and repeating what you were doing to simply get through with your quickly dwindling ammo. It wasn’t unusual for me to run out of scarce rifle ammo and start sniping people with my PPSh or pistol.

Band of Trouble

The game also tends to spawn soldiers using triggered sequences depending on where you are. Just because you cleared out an area behind you of Wehrmacht soldiers doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be more to suddenly ‘appear’ there when the game wants them to. In one battle, I overran a position with my allies and watched as enemy soldiers spawned from midair behind a crate, getting shot to pieces by the British that were all clustered there.

This happens more often than I would have liked in European Assault. Even in the beginning levels of the game, after you clear the docks of soldiers, somehow more just spawn from the thin air when the script changes. I’ve even seen a tank just drop from the air into the spot where it would begin its scripted roll towards my position. Some titles are subtle in doing this such as Call of Duty and can help suspend your disbelief, but European Assault was just too obvious with it.

You also get your own ‘squad’ of soldiers that follow you around. You can give them orders and send them ahead of you with a click of the left analog stick or ask them to fall back to you with the D-pad. This reminded me a lot of IO Interactive’s Freedom Fighters which did an excellent job with the kind of squad system that is demonstrated in European Assault. However, getting your squad to do what you want them to do and depending on the somewhat dodgy AI to pull it off had its own share of challenges to contend with.

For example, some of your squad will take cover when you try and order them to go behind a wall or other barricade, but it’s also not unusual to see one of them just kneel and pretend to take cover out in the open and continue to get pegged by a machine gun only a few feet away. Even when you try to command them to go somewhere else, they might not do what you ask and continue to act as a lead sponge. The enemy can also be a little challenged, tending to stay behind the same cover until you finally get that one shot that takes them out, watching them pop up and back down as if they were mounted on springs.

Your squad mates also tend to run around a lot and try to look useful by shooting at your enemies, sometimes running into your field of view as you try to line up someone in your iron sights. This gave me the impression that my soldiers were either suicidal or high on speed, given how many times they loved to just run out into the open, back behind cover, and then run back out again and kneel in the open to take a few more shots just because. While you can heal them, you might want to save up your health packs for yourself as they can tend to be as scarce as the ammo.

There is little to help their aim, however, and I’ve been killed more times than I would care to count by an Wehrmacht stooge that simply runs past them to shoot at me while I’m trying to take aim at targets across the street. They’re mostly useful for simply providing a distraction while you go in and do the dirty work as long as they don’t get in your way. And although each one of them have their own names, you really don’t get the sense of knowing any of them on any kind of level other than what they can do for you.

Aside from from the scripted spawns, disappearing ammunition, and less than helpful team mates, there are times when you’ll have to deal with tanks. Unfortunately, you are usually not given everything that you need to kill these, although sometimes the title will hide something out in the battlefield somewhere to give you a small chance with just the right amount of ammo. Is there a panzerschreck nearby that you can use or a bazooka that you can bring with you? There might not be.

And don’t expect to be able to run up to a tank to plant an explosive on it, either, although you seem to carry enough for all of the other objectives that need to be blown up. Most of the time, you’ll have to rely on your grenades to destroy these things which is bad since they can take quite a few to kill. And many times, there are more than one of these waiting for you. I usually tried to avoid these tanks when I could, but sometimes the game makes them objectives that you must complete. Woe to you if you run out of grenades and rockets and are expected to kill tanks to complete a level.

Gun Parts

The graphics of the game aren’t all that great to look at, either, even for an Xbox title. There are some areas that look pretty good, such as the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge or the dock area where you start your European Assault but there are still a lot of places where the textures seem drab and plain. Some of the areas also look badly lit and there are also invisible walls everywhere. Even if you drop to your stomach and start crawling, you might find that you still can’t get through that hole you see in the wall because of an invisible hand. But European Assault does provide wide and expansive levels for many of the missions, leaving it to the player to approach some of their objectives from more than one direction which was fun to explore.

The character models aren’t bad to look at, but they also suffer from the same lack of detail that some of the levels can also display. There are some ragdoll physics in place here and you’ll see soldiers launched into the air, slump against walls, or slide down slopes when they are taken down. But I’ve also seen soldiers get stuck in walls or simply clip through floors.

The gunfire and ambient environmental effects fill in where the graphics haven’t been able to. The music is your typical WW2 melodrama, complete with rising and falling heroic moments that make getting across that courtyard under a hail of bullets as rewarding as it should be. The cuts in between your theaters of war, done as they are with WW2 footage and some decent voice acting, do a good job in adding flavor to the title. The battlefields are filled with the screams of Wehrmacht infantry yelling to their comrades, Russians yelling at each other to get moving, and the static filled transmissions that your contact (played by Dale Dye) at the OSS sends you on occasion as you find new objectives.

Once it is all over, though, there’s not much of a reason to go back through the relatively short campaign. The entire game can be finished in a weekend, if even that, making it more suitable for a rental than an outright purchase. Despite being on the Xbox, you can’t go Live! with it and have to content yourself with the split screen multiplayer mode that it provides instead. For some gamers, this will kill whatever shelf life that the game will have once the main campaign is finished and were hoping to dish out the same damage to others across the world.

End of the Campaign

While it feels that European Assault made concessions to appeal more to casual players and for those that need some hand holding through the action by providing giant icons to show where weapons and ammo might be, the brutal difficulty that the title can occasionally dish out might end up frustrating the audience that it was trying to approach. It can be challenging and for some FPS players, it’s more than able to hold its own in that department by making many of the firefights desperate affairs as your ammunition runs low and the Third Reich continues to send waves of soldiers against them. In this, it does have its moments of exhilarating gameplay.

But many of the gameplay changes simply feel as if they have made this latest Medal of Honor more of an arcade knockoff, further distancing itself from the kind of FPS formula established by its predecessors. In an attempt to figure out a new direction for the franchise, especially when many of those originally responsible for the seminal Allied Assault left to create Call of Duty, EA has been in a kind of rut in trying to reinvigorate their flagship WW2 franchise. European Assault was one of their last attempts to do this by bringing in concepts from other genres to create something new and the end result is something less than the sum of its parts.

- World 1-1

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