In the late nineties, Steven Spielberg and his company Dreamworks created the first Medal of Honor game. After shooting his impressive WW II movie Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and his associates wanted their game to portray the terrors of WWII just as vividly as the movie did. As you might remember, both pieces of work contained a nerve-wrecking depiction of the battle at "Omaha Beach" where thousands of soldiers lost their lives while landing on an occupied part of the French coast. Medal of Honor became a massive hit so it's no surprise that the franchise came up with 15 more games throughout the years. Medal of Honor: Warfighter, however, turned out as a huge flop in 2012, and seemed to mark the premature end of the series.
Well, Medal of Honor is back, and Respawn Entertainment are on a mission of taking the IP to a new era. When Dreamworks produced the first Medal of Honor, it was an experiment for the company, and Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond isn't taking the easiest road either, as it's entirely designed as a VR experience. Fortunately, you can tell that the developers have spent a lot of time to figure out an accessible approach that isn't just aiming at hardcore fans of virtual reality. The game offers five superordinate missions, and a total of 56 sub-missions. Particularly in the beginning, some of these chapters can be very short, and might not contain more than another character talking to you, or a short action-sequence in a narrow space. To avoid the potential danger of motion-sickness, Respawn Entertainment are taking their time to carefully introduce players to the mechanics and the peculiarities of VR.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond demonstrates the strengths of VR from the get-go, starting with the "main menu", which is implemented as a detailed room in the head quarter of the military intelligence service OSS. We can pick up several items, and look at them while they're in our hands or we can try out an old-fashioned typewriter. As soon as the action starts, we get introduced to the realistic and intuitive handling of our weapons, which need us to take several things into consideration: If we want to reload, for example, we have to drop our empty ammo before we grab new ammo from our belt, and place it in our gun. In fact, most weapons even require us to remove the firing pin before we can move on to the next step. There's no doubt that this manual type of reloading is going to give you plenty of adrenaline rushes while you're in battle! The aspect of immersion is also benefitting from the intuitive way in which we're moving through the three-dimensional locations, having to move our own head while we're changing our point of view. The best thing about this: We can lean to the side to carefully peek around corners or crouch down to protect ourselves. The game can be quite exhausting if you're playing it standing up, but during home-office times we can all use a little extra work-out, right?
Speaking of realistic and intuitive elements: Above and Beyond has a lot more of them. For example, when we're pushing a syringe into our chest or removing a hand grenade's ring with our teeth by moving the grenade into the direction of our mouth. There are also special objectives that make use of VR's benefits: For instance, when we're using a metal-detector to search for mines or utilizing binoculars to find the position of the enemy's flaks. There are also rail-shooting passages included that require us to shoot Nazis from the side car of a motorcycle or command the gun turret of a tank. These sequences aren't realistic, but they're a load of fun, and suit the tonality of the Medal of Honor franchise which has always had a strong kinship with pulp novels, comic books, and adventure movies that were common in the 50s and 60s, overlaying war traumata in a rather naïve way.
As much fun as the sequences are, they're underlining one problem that the game has. Virtual reality seems like the perfect vehicle to transport the barbarism of war, but instead of fully using this potential, Above and Beyond was placed into a cartoonish corset. Perhaps the characters don't look too real on purpose, but still: Having played Half-Life: Alyx and Star Wars Squadrons, this is quite a bummer. The timing of dialogues isn't too impressive either, and the character animations are just as choppy. Actually, the way that opponents drop their weapons made me think of the very first Medal of Honor game at times, which isn't exactly a compliment in 2020. One might think that it's not a big deal when a dropping gun suddenly turns into a horizontal position and "floats" to the ground, but in VR, such flaws attract even more attention as they damage the immersion, and diminish the impact of the spectacularly crafted locations.
These unrealistic elements are particularly a pity as the game features documentary film elements which paint an entirely different picture. Seeing veterans talk about their real-life experiences is a very touching experience, especially, as you can easily tell what emotional impact these events still have on the interviewed people. It's a shame that the actual game doesn't stay true to that tonality, but let's face it: This is also a game for the old fans who are into spectacular action, and just want to have fun with shooting Nazis while a military band plays. Well, actually you don't necessarily need to shoot Nazis to kill them as you can also use your battle-knife or items that you find in the surroundings, for instance a pitchfork or a kitchen knife. While you'll get to see a lot of blood throughout the game, it gets nowhere as brutal as Saving Private Ryan so don't expect an orgy of splattered guts.
As an interactive shooting-range, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is a very entertaining experience. While missions tend to end in a rather sudden way, and the game doesn't quite reach the cinematic presentation of the Call of Duty franchise, VR is adding something special to the mix which keeps on surprising you. Official statements say that around 1200 people have worked on the game, and you can tell by how detailed the game world is. Above and Beyond could be quite an eye-opener for players with little VR experience while hardcore players might feel like some control elements have been handled better by previous VR titles. Putting two weapons on your two shoulders can be quite confusing, for example. Handling your inventory und picking up objects are other actions that tend to cause problems at times. In general, more polish would have been nice in most departments of the game. One exception is the excellent map-design with all of its (static) content.
Above and Beyond's multiplayer mode is a routined piece of work, which is fun, but in terms of long-time motivation, it has the problem that it doesn't allow the complex kind of up-leveling that other modern shooters (have to) offer. A witty online-mode of the game is called Mad Bomber where all players have to hide bombs that the others need to find before they detonate. If they succeed, they'll get rewarded with lots of points. We'll have to wait and see if Respawn Entertainment is going to do much fine-tuning on the multiplayer-aspects in the future, and if they're going to add additional modes. The single-player campaign contains several collectives and allows you to unlock new multiplayer characters. When you feel like you know the singleplayer campaign too well, you might also want to check out the game's survival mode.
In the end, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is a worthy addition to the franchise. It is surely going to offer VR newbies highly impressive moments while the pros might complain about the drastic hardware-requirements, and control elements that worked better in previous VR games. The cartoonish tonality of the game is not for everyone, but the documentary film elements shouldn't be missed no matter what. This is the aspect where Above and Beyond creates a real value by shining a light on the historical context. It's also the aspect where the ambition that Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks had for the very first Medal of Honor comes true in an impressive way.