A decent game, but Medal of Honor is hardly worth the controversy
For some weeks the Internet has been abuzz with news of Medal of Honor’s feature that allowed gamers to play as the Taliban. We reported on this controversy, noting the curiosity that Call of Duty: Black Ops and its inclusion of the North Vietnamese Army in multiplayer has generated virtually no controversy. First, the British Secretary of Defense was so outraged that he called for the outright ban of the game’s sale in the U.K. Then the U.S. military banned its sale on military bases worldwide. EA eventually ‘caved’ to the P.R. pressure and simply changed the name of the multi-player faction from “Taliban” to “Opposing Force”.
At the same time, throughout development and marketing for the game, EA has stressed that the game has worked hand-in-hand with actual military units, included the game’s featured Tier 1 special operators. This is a game that was supposedly highly accurate, yet removing the name ‘Taliban’ from the game was described by EA as a decision that would have no significant impact on gameplay. Before official reviews, this led many gamers to be confused: either the game was revolutionary in its accuracy (and thus removing the Taliban would have a great impact on the game, or the game was just another modern military shooter that used controversy as a marketing move). Some even took a middle path, noting that the controversy has only ever been about Taliban in the multiplayer; maybe EA removed it there, but secretly there were elements in the game’s single player that really would push the boundaries of games.
Sadly for gamers expecting something revolutionary, official reviews are all highlighting the essentially non-controversial nature of the game. G4's review notes that “While Medal of Honor has garnered a fair amount of pre-release controversy in the mainstream press, it would be a stretch to label the game controversial.” EA’s work with the military has paid off with accurate jargon and military-sounding dialogue, notably in the Apache gunship mission, but they have also gone out of their way to remove politics from the game.
By keeping away from politics, EA is trying to emphasize the soldiers themselves. A laudable goal, to be sure, and one that occasionally results in some interesting moments. For instance, Ars Technica notes: “The characters seem detached, but how else could you live this horrific life? People die at the hands of other people who merely feel like they're going to work. Sure, the game sometimes feels like an action movie, but the "heroes" of the story rarely celebrate. The whole game feels oddly somber and professional. . . .” In trying to show how soldiers deal with actual war, the game does set a different mood for itself compared to other shooters—but it’s hardly the controversy gamers have been expecting to see.
In fact, Eurogamer concludes its review by describing Medal of Honor as “a game about the Afghanistan war that does its absolute utmost to avoid being about the Afghanistan war.” For myself, I can understand EA’s decision to eliminate politics as much as possible in order to focus on the soldiers, but then why set the game in a real war?
By choosing an actual historical setting but then stripping it of all the interesting elements, one could argue that EA actually does the featured soldiers a disservice. Yes, we get to see how they cope with the demands of modern warfare, but without any political backdrop this is not terribly effective. The lack of real controversy is good news for games holding out on buying the game out of fear they might be offended, but core gamers will likely be disappointed by a solid, but unremarkable military shooter that fails to distinguish itself from the crowd.