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Without Stephen Spielberg, I sometimes wonder how the media in the late nineties and early two thousands would have been different. After all, the man’s interest in World War II led him to directing the film Saving Private Ryan, producing the famous miniseries Band of Brothers, and creating the first Medal of Honor video game. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers were a huge influence on the video game industry resulting in a lot of World War II themed games and Medal of Honor became quite a successful franchise. Developed and published by EA, Medal of Honor: Airborne was released for PC and Xbox 360 in September, 2007 and PlayStation 3 in November of that same year. For this review, I played the PC version. Airborne is most certainly not a perfect game but it is a World War II shooter, released at a time when World War II shooters were starting to decline. And I think that was imminent. I mean up to that point we had so many. Think about it. All the previous games in the series, the Call of Duty games, the Brothers in Arms games, Day of Defeat, Wolfenstein, Battlefield 1942, and these are just some of the popular ones. Furthermore, Airborne was the second Medal of Honor game released in 2007. There were three total that year. Vanguard released in March and Heroes 2 released for PSP that November. And for what it’s worth, Airborne and Vanguard share many of the same elements. Call of Duty 4 released that November and the rest is history so I think it was very easy for a game like Airborne to be overshadowed and/or forgotten.
The story focuses on U.S. paratrooper Boyd Travers and his efforts across six campaigns or missions – Operation Husky, Operation Avalanche, Operation Neptune, Operation Market Garden, Operation Varsity, and the destruction of a German flak tower. That’s really all there is to the story. If you’ve played Vanguard, you would have participated in most of these campaigns already, albeit in different locations. You’re provided a briefing before each mission and the voice acting is serviceable. This is yet another extremely short Medal of Honor title that can be beaten in under five hours.
You play as Boyd Travers and can walk, run, sprint, crouch, jump, perform a melee attack, aim down sights, and lean left and right while aiming. You have health bars that drain when you take damage and when a bar is fully depleted, the next bar will start to drain. If a bar is only partially depleted, it will regenerate if you manage to stay out of harm’s way long enough. If you die, you’ll restart from the last checkpoint. You can replenish your health bars by acquiring health packs which can be found throughout environments along with weapons and ammo and these items will also be dropped by fallen enemies. You can carry two primary weapons, a sidearm, and grenades and you can swap out your weapons with others found throughout the missions. At the start of each mission, you’ll get to parachute onto the battlefield and safe landing zones are identified by green smoke. You can discover Skill Drop locations in each mission by landing in specific spots. They do add some replay value to the game and there’s five per mission. You can find them on-foot in which case you would just need to remember where they are on subsequent playthroughs. While parachuting, you can flare the chute to slow your descent, good for surveying the area while in the air and landing safely. How you land will determine how fast you pull out your weapon and get into the action. The environments are open so you can land pretty much anywhere you want and parachuting feels less stiff than what was experienced in Vanguard.
After a mission’s briefing, you’re brought to the weapon loadout screen where you can choose what weapons you want to bring with you and pistols do have infinite ammo. As expected, most of the typical World War II weaponry we’ve seen in the other games in this series are present. No surprise there. You start out with a small selection but you can find more during the missions and most of the weapons you find will be added to your loadout so by the time you get to the final mission, you should have many more to choose from. Sometimes an objective can be easier to accomplish if you use a certain weapon which is usually always provided to you nearby. For example, if you have to destroy a tank, there’s probably Gammon grenades, a Panzerschreck, or parts to build the recoilless rifle somewhere in the vicinity. Some weapons aren’t used by friendlies or enemies and require some exploration to find like the C96 for example. Like Vanguard, there is a weapon upgrade system in place. However, the upgrade system here is implemented much better. All weapons rank up by simply using them. As you kill enemies with a weapon, that weapon gains experience if you will and eventually ranks up. Every time a weapon ranks up, it’s upgraded. The upgrades include things like improved accuracy, larger ammo capacity, reduced recoil, faster reloading, scopes and variable zoom, grenade launcher attachments, and a bayonet for the shotgun. It doesn’t take very long to upgrade most weapons. In fact, you can unlock all the upgrades for a single weapon in just one mission. You can replay any already completed missions and you can use that to your advantage by upgrading multiple weapons in a single mission before proceeding to the next one. The upgrades do make the weapons more efficient and it’s the game’s way of encouraging you to try each one.
The AI is pretty bad. You’ll primarily be fighting Germans but you will engage Italian soldiers in the first mission. Now from what I’ve read, the developers built a new AI system to handle how the AI reacts to situations. In my experience, yeah, they react, but they don’t “think”. I often see friendlies and enemies run out into the open when under fire. Friendlies will get in your way a lot which can prove to be extremely annoying especially if they end up blocking grenade throws. Enemies will come charging into rooms and areas or directly towards you one at time or single file, making it easy drop them. Outside of anything scripted, the NPC’s aren’t smart enough to flank or do anything sophisticated. Enemies will either rush you or run around and at shoot at you from a distance. They’re also very grenade-happy at times, observe. I’d like to point out that Halo released in 2001 and F.E.A.R. released in 2005. Two games that I would argue have better AI than what’s on display here.
Despite the lackluster AI, the game can be challenging, especially if you’re playing on the Veteran or Elite difficulty modes. That’s not because the enemies are very smart, it’s because their aim can be accurate and they can gun you down quickly if you’re out in the open for too long. Taking cover is very important. You’re always going to be accompanied by friendly soldiers throughout the missions and they will shoot at and kill enemies. A lot of them will die but more will come parachuting in. If you don’t leave them behind, they can keep enemies at bay and draw enemy fire away from you otherwise you can get outnumbered and overwhelmed easily. In some ways, the gameplay is similar to the gameplay in Medal of Honor: Heroes. You run around the maps with friendlies shooting at enemies and completing objectives. It’s a simple description but accurate. Enemies will man MG42’s, they’ll snipe you, some carry Panzerschreck’s, and you will have to deal with some tanks. If you die, enemies can respawn, at least in certain areas, and you will realize very early on that the friendly AI will never push forward. They follow you and gravitate around you but they’ll never make progress on their own. You can stay behind cover, picking off enemies up ahead near an objective but the friendlies will never make progress towards that objective until you do. When they do run ahead of you, they seem to die frequently. I don’t expect them to complete objectives, obviously, but once you understand the AI behavior, all of the friendlies will seem like cannon fodder and nothing more. It’s basically you against the entire German army and the friendlies only serve as distractions for the enemies so all sights aren’t aimed at you which can happen if you don’t keep the friendlies close by or if they all die. This may be the case in a lot of games but I just find it very noticeable here.
There are multiple objectives to complete in each mission and you can complete many of them in any order you want thanks to the open-ended design of the environments. You’ll be planting explosives, securing locations, killing specific enemies, and completing other typical objectives. New objectives do become available as you progress through a mission and the compass on your HUD will show you exactly where you need to go and the locations of nearby friendlies and enemies. You’ll traverse through buildings, bunkers, you’ll fight your way across a bridge, and blow through a tank factory. The maps are pretty large with a lot of objects, buildings, and structures to use as cover. Some areas are wide open, requiring you to be careful and aware of your surroundings so you don’t get picked off by snipers, blown away by panzerschrecks or tanks, or gunned down by MG42’s. You can go anywhere you want. You can complete one objective and then run across the map to complete another or you can focus on one nearby. You have options. Some enemies will be placed in specific spots but most of the time you can run into an area and activate the enemies so they come pouring in from somewhere or multiple locations. Because of the compass on your HUD, it’s not hard to figure out where to go and you can bring up a list of your objectives at any time. The game does include stat tracking and you’ll earn a star rating in each mission based on your performance. Furthermore, you can earn medals by completing specific tasks like equipping and using all weapons, complete a mission without dying, and earn a specific star rating on a specific difficulty mode.
Airborne’s visual presentation isn’t bad. You can tell it’s dated and it’s hard not to notice the pop-in at times but the environments are well designed and well detailed, I really like the lighting, and the reload animations look great. Bodies will ragdoll when killed which can be appear a little wonky sometimes but most of the time, they look good. If you look up into the sky, you can see planes flying overhead and paratroopers descending. The environments do a good job at portraying a war-torn Europe and you always feel like you’re in the middle of a war zone. Evidently, Airborne featured the return of Michael Giacchino as its composer and the music is excellent. There’s a lot of orchestral cinematic-sounding scores and I would say the soundtrack is largely responsible for the game’s tone. Most of the sound effects are pretty good. Some of the weapons could sound a bit louder in my opinion but there’s a nice cracking sound to many of the shots, you’ll often hear shots echo, and the weapons do sound satisfying to shoot. But I do think the weapons in Vanguard sounded better. You will hear bullets zipping past your head during firefights, explosions are booming, and you’ll hear a lot of shouting during gameplay which helps to make everything feel hectic and chaotic. On the technical side, I experienced several issues. The frame rate was never a problem but I did witness muzzle flashes just stop appearing for a brief time. I would often see objects, bodies, and smoke trails from bullets get stuck in mid-air. Sometimes dead bodies were just oddly deformed or parts of their bodies would stretch out. And my favorite, dead bodies just flying across the environment for no reason.
Medal of Honor: Airborne is a major step up from Vanguard. You might even say it’s what Vanguard should have been. Despite some of the game’s issues, I had fun with Airborne. It has its moments and it can be a pretty intense game. The open maps, difficulty modes, weapon upgrades, medals, and skill drops give the game replay value which is a good thing because the campaign is just too short. The gunplay is great and the upgrades made me want to swap out weapons often which in turn let me approach encounters differently and try new things. I really think the developers were onto something with the ideas established in both Vanguard and Airborne. Airborne being the better game in my opinion, it really shows the potential turn for the better the series could have taken but instead… Well let’s just say it took the wrong turn.
I would recommend Medal of Honor: Airborne to fans of the series and first-person shooters. Ultimately, I think Airborne is the culmination of the best ideas since European Assault. It’s got the open environments which is perfect for the whole parachuting thing, which by itself doesn’t really make or break anything as Vanguard exhibited, and the weapon upgrades should keep you coming back even if it is only for a short while. I think more missions and better AI could have really done the game wonders but the gameplay on offer here is fun. If you think this looks interesting, I would say give it a shot.