EA’s classic first-person shooter franchise Medal of Honor is coming back as a virtual reality game for Oculus Rift. Called Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, it’s due out in 2020. The game is being developed by Respawn, the Electronic Arts-owned maker of highly regarded shooters like the Titanfall series and Apex Legends.
I got some hands-on time with the game last week. It’s certainly the most advanced and most enjoyable VR shooter I’ve yet played, testament to the investment being made by Oculus Rift’s owner, Facebook. One Respawn exec pointed out that the textures on a single uniform in this game take up more memory than the original Medal of Honor for PlayStation (about 300 MB). A spokesperson for Oculus said it was “likely” the most expensive production yet for Oculus Rift, but declined to reveal the size of the budget.
Like the original Medal of Honor, which came out in 1999 and began a boom in World War II shooters, Above and Beyond is set in the Western European theater. Players take on the role of an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative who is given specific missions to undermine Nazi Germany’s defensive capabilities. Multiplayer is planned but no announcements have been made.
The missions I saw took place in a French town, prior to the D-Day landings, as well as in the mountains of Norway, as I sought to blow up a heavy water installation. There will also be a Normandy beach landing mission, though that was not shown at the demo. The final game will also include sequences that take place on a motorcycle and a submarine, and players will be tasked with a variety of physical activities including climbing, swimming, skiing, and even piano-playing.
If the locations and missions seem familiar enough, the experience is rendered fresh by being in full VR. This is a pretty world filled with authentic detail, while retaining the general feel of a WWII shooter.
MOVEMENT AND GUNFIRE
I move using the thumbstick on Rift’s Touch controllers (the developers rejected teleportation techniques as being too disorientating). I can physically duck behind cover, or lean out from windows and the corners of buildings. I can even blind-fire around cover.
To shoot, I use both hands when wielding the majority of weapons, which include machine guns, rifles, and sniper rifles. Effectively, I play the game in the way of generations of postwar kids, running around wielding an invisible two-handed gun.
I can fire the weapons using a single hand, although this has a negative effect on stability and aim. The developers are still mulling the idea of dual-wielding weapons, but it’s not currently part of the game.
I also use a single-handed pistol, and I can throw projectiles such as grenades, which I store on my chest. These can be unpinned using my teeth.
If I’m in a real fix, I can bash my enemies with melee moves, though I found this to be a tactic of last resort. Health syringes are attached to my wrist. I use them frequently, by unsheathing them, and plunging myself in the chest.
VARIETY OF WWII GUNS
I found the shooting itself to be comfortable enough, with tracer rounds helping me to fix on enemies. Two guns are stored over each shoulder, and I can replace them with weapons dropped by dead enemies.
I reload the weapons by clicking-out the old magazine using the A button, and then using physical actions to reach for a new cartridge (vaguely situated under my midriff) and slamming it into its slot, before pulling back the bolt.
This series of actions takes a little practice and time, forcing me to retreat behind cover whenever ammo runs low. This is generally a good idea, since health levels deplete very quickly. Above and Beyond looks like a game that favors caution and strategy, rather than pell-mell run-and-gun.
Different guns call for appropriate usage. I raise the sniper rifle to shoulder height to look through the sights, but I can shoot rifles from chest-height, or lower, if I prefer. The shotgun feels great. Blowing away an enemy at close range is especially satisfying in VR.
Enemies seem to vary in terms of their intelligence. In one level, I shot a bunch of Germans while they tried to fire back, standing in the middle of a street and apparently declining nearby cover. But in a later level, I came up against enemies who sought the best hiding places.
Emulating the real soldiers of World War II, the AI Germans also recognize the sound of an M1 Garand rifle clicking as it runs out of ammo, and may then try to rush the player. The enemies yell to one another (in German) about my position, working together to corner me.
STORY AND CHARACTERS
In between missions, I meet allies and resistance fighters, and engage in eye-to-eye conversations, which move the narrative forward, while avoiding cut-scenes.
I enjoyed creeping around the game’s locations, particularly the house of a French freedom fighter. This being VR, the game encourages me to interact with items, like putting a record on a record player, or fiddling with the dials of a radio.
The one problem I found in the demo was an occasional difficulty in picking out enemies emerging from dark places, like a Norwegian tree line. Perhaps this makes the game more realistic.
Certainly, I found myself suffering from vertigo as a climbed a tower, while looking down at deep ravines below. I did not experience any sense of VR nausea though.
Above and Beyond also comes with a selection of “gallery” content including interviews with WWII veterans, and one particularly moving scene in which a vet uses a VR headset at home to “revisit” a rendering of a Normandy crossroads where he held off a tank attack, back in 1944.
But it’s the shooting that really matters. Oculus has wisely teamed up with one of the most experienced shooting game developers in the world in order to crack the problem of action games in VR. I’m confident that Above and Beyond — which is said to run about 10-12 hours — will be a fun, workable experience. Whether it can propel VR into the realm of hardcore gaming platform is a much more difficult question.
The issue of whether Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond will come to other, non-VR platforms such as PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One, is unknown outside of Respawn and its owner Electronic Arts. I asked a Respawn representative about other platforms, but they ducked the question, saying that the company is only focused on Rift for now. But the representative did not rule out the game, or some version of it, appearing on other platforms. Here’s a trailer for Above and Beyond, released today.
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