Rating: 6/10 - A tolerable performance.
Platform: Sony PlayStation 2
There are reports that Medal of Honor: Rising Sun is getting rave reviews in Japan. The travesty isn't that reviewers are ignoring the moral issues of playing a game that focuses on killing your own historic countrymen, but that the game just isn't that good.
I'm a big fan of the Medal of Honor series. I own all of the games released to this point. When I purchased a PS2 the second game I purchased for it was the classic Medal of Honor. The graphics may have been dated at that point, but the play was still fun. The sequel, Medal of Honor: Underground, was also lots of fun. The first outing on the PC, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was brilliant and remains on of my favorite first person shooters ever. The first PS2 game in the series, Medal of Honor: Frontline, didn't advance the state of the art much, but it is still solid fun.
Now, that I've enjoyed three console based first person shooters is noteworthy. Consoles are the wrong place for a first person shooter. Console game pads are completely wrong for a first person shooter. You need to be able to turn quickly, yet be able to make very precise adjustments. Mouse and keyboard is far and away the best combination. So that I've been able to enjoy three PlayStation based Medal of Honor games is a tribute to their quality. I was able to enjoy the game despite fighting my controller the entire way.
So, with great faith in the franchise I purchased Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, sight unseen.
Now, it's not a bad game. It's just not a particularly good game. EA makes many errors that just aren't acceptable these days. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the brilliant (if brief) Call of Duty, but this just isn't up the standards I expect.
You'll see the first problem the second time you put the disk in. The first time you'll enjoy the fifty seconds of introductory logos. The second time you'll mash the buttons to skip it. But you won't. EA has decided that you will watch a loading screens, a memory scan loading screen, THX logo, the EA Games logo, and the game's logo. After the first dozen times you'll be sick of it. You want to get into the game, but you're waiting through "EA Games: Challenge everything." How about you challenge your overinflated opinion of the value of your corporate brands?
So, into the game. Sure enough multi-menu load and save screens. Lots of waiting. Ah well, it's typical on the PS2.
Great, a place to save!
Sure enough, I'll pick a save slot to save my game into.
Yes, I really mean it. Okay, back to the action!
I guess by back to the action, I meant back to the save game action. Yes, of course I'd like to save onto the only memory card currently plugged in. Well, finally...
Aaaaah! Another confirmation dialog. I just agreed two screens ago! Please, can I finally save my game?
Finally, my game is being saved. Although as a final insult the "X to Confirm" option is still listed at the bottom. At this point X doesn't do anything, you'll be returned to the game as soon as your game finishes. Sloppy.
The game distinguishes between saved games and finished missions. If you finished a mission and want to start the next mission next time you play, you'll go to the missions menu. If you are still mid-mission, you'll need to go the load game option. There are never save points right at the beginning of mission, so you can't just always use the load mission option. If you've been busy for a week you may not remember which option will get you back to your game.
On to the important part, the game play! For good game play I'm willing to suffer through completely broken software.
Unfortunately the game play isn't all that. There are a number of minor, but recurrent mis-features that hamper game-play, dispel any suspension of disbelief, and generally tick you off.
When an enemy spots you they're able to react darn near instantly. This wouldn't be so bad, but I'm using a console controller. I might as well be moving through molasses. Reacting to sudden changes in environment is slow, and while you're reacting you're sucking lead. To add to the fun, they sometimes decide to move around a lot. Want to shoot something using a console controller? Quickly move the joystick over the target. Oops, not close enough. Oops, overshoot. Grrr, I can't get an accurate shot, time to zoom in. Now I'm more accurate, but even slower. Finally, a good shot. Damn, he moved, time to repeat the process! Sure, rapid response by enemies who dodge and move around a lot might be realistic, but in a console shooter you're just insulting the poor player with his crappy controller.
Finally got your enemy? Go for the head shot, even with the sniper rifle. Apparently your enemies in Rising Sun are all super men, able to shrug off multiple high powered rifle rounds to the chest. I suppose I'm a super man in the game, but I'm the player, I get special rules. The enemies, well, they're supposed to die.
Your enemies will occasionally snipe at you through dense foliage. When you try to return the favor you'll a face full of green. To enemies light brush is simply transparent. You, on the other hand, will be concerned about the exact shape of leaves that might be in your way.
The only weapon more powerful than the sniper rifle? The welrod. While it's nice to have a silenced pistol, it seems odd that a pistol firing sub-sonic rounds is more dangerous than the sniper rifle. One shot to the chest will kill just about anyone. Even better, despite being a silenced pistol with slow bullets, it's nearly perfectly accurate, unlike the normal pistol. You'll learn to snipe with it.
On the up side, the enemies only notice you at medium range. At long range they'll never see you. Even if they're kneeling down, sighting down their rifle, obviously aiming right at you. They'll never see you. So park yourself down and take you time to snipe them. Has he got two buddies by his side? They'll probably never notice that you've killed them, they'll just wait, pointing their rifles in your direction, waiting for you to come closer. Snipe. Snipe. All bad guys dead. It's entertaining for a while, but it gets tiresome and certainly breaks any suspension of disbelief.
Worse, sometimes enemies will fail to notice a firefight fifteen feet away from them. In this screenshot I've just had a very loud gunfight right next to him. Apparently his meditation is very deep.
Well, at least you frequently have partners to support you, right? Well, sometimes they're useful. They'll draw fire, occasionally kill a guy. They're really good at drawing fire (although the enemies prefer to shoot at me), so it's a good thing that they're nearly invincible. My partners regularly take enough rounds to kill my character, why are they so resilient? Well, at least it keeps the game from turning into a constant escort mission with particularly stupid targets. To add to the insult occasionally your buddies will decide to stop in the middle of a narrow pass or doorway. They don't seem interested in moving if you push them, so you'll have to lead them away, then circle around them.
The worst offense is that my partners have a strange sense of "covering you." You'll back into a corner to snipe some targets and your buddy will park himself in your line of fire. Worse, he's not facing the bad guys, no, he's facing the corner. Way to cover my back, idiot.
I suppose it's only fair that my partner will occasionally guard corners from themselves. More than once I've found an enemy parked in a dead end, facing the wall, waiting for me to shoot him in the back of the head. I almost feel bad for them.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. (Fair warning: I purchased the PS2 version.) The city levels look pretty good. The outdoor levels look like green tunnels. The textures are often surprisingly low resolution. When I move up to a wall I expect to see more than four pixels. Many parts of the PS1 Medal of Honor are higher resolution.
One positive is that the levels are relatively large. You get a sense of having accomplished a great deal when you complete a level. That is a nice touch.
Apparently a three foot wide gap is sometimes too narrow for our hero to fit through. Time to go on a diet. You will similarly be blocked by two foot high crates. Apparently the protagonist didn't spend enough time practicing on the climbing wall. In the worst example you'll encounter a small classroom. The shin high benches are completely impassible. To add to the absurdity of the situation, a thick pipe between two rows of benches can be walked through like mist. Most of the time these impassible areas just jar your sense of disbelief. Occasionally you'll find an opportunity to brilliantly flank an enemy, only to be foiled by sloppy level designers.
These impassible areas are ultimately symptoms of a deeper problem: sloppy clipping. Clipping restricts where you can go. Typically your motions are clipped so you can't move through a wall. If a wall has a number of small panels you might be clipped at the edge of the panels to keep you from getting caught on the panels. Unfortunately Medal of Honor screws up clipping your motion repeatedly. You'll occasionally move through a hallway whose width varies because of pipes and machinery and jut out. However, you're clipped at a constant width. For parts of the hallway you'll be unable to get closer that two feet from the wall. For parts of the hallway with machinery jutting you, you might occasionally find yourself partially inside the machine. And the problems aren't just with you, the enemies aren't well clipped either. Occasionally you'll be warned of an enemy as you see his rifle barrel stick through a solid door.
As you occasionally break open a crate looking for supplies, you will reveal the real reason Japan lost the war: bad supply management. Each crate holds a single item, no more, sometimes less. Worse, the majority of the time the item is ammunition for an American weapon.
Not that the American supply lines are so hot either. If I'm going behind enemy lines and am expected to kill dozens of enemy soldiers, I probably need lots of ammunition. Certainly more than you enter most missions with. Expecting me to scavenge ammo from the enemy seems like a bad idea (good thing the Japanese have been stocking up on ammunition for my guns in anticipation of my attack).
Of course, since you're planning on arming yourself my looting, it's particularly frustrating that an enemy will never drop the weapon they were using, even if it's a weapon you'll pick up from a planned location moments later. Apparently Japanese weapons are permanently bonded to their owner.
Another weakness in Japan's defenses is the "line up to get shot one at a time" strategy. Every once in a while you'll attack a heavily defended position. And occasionally while attacking you'll notice that your enemies will only send one or two men at a time to defend their position. It's awfully polite, but encourages a bit of disbelief. You can sit there, watching an enemy who hasn't noticed you for several minutes. Then when you snipe him, another guy shows up. Typically the new guy will park himself right on his partner's (fading away) corpse. After the third guy I'd expect them to wise up, but there are some battles in which this process will repeat for seven or eight soldiers.
Now, I purchased a first person shooter. In a first person shooter you can move slowly or quickly, as you feel makes sense. You can try to snipe, or charge in and hope for surprise. I enjoy this. This is as opposed to, say, rail shooters. In a rail shooter you're stuck with the speed the game gives you. I really dislike rail shooters. So why am I playing a rail shooter in the middle of my first person shooter? The occasional easy one might make an interesting change, but Rising Sun has too many, and those are too difficult.
Rising Sun has lots of doors. Lots and lots of doors. The vast majority of which you can never open. Wandering around trying doors at random isn't run. Worse, of those doors you can open, some will close and lock behind you, blocking access to some health you may have cleverly cached behind.
Many first person shooters make most of the world indestructible. It's understandable, creating broken versions for everything in a level is expensive. The only danger is that the player might overlook something important. In a "Destroy the Supercarrier" mission you run into exactly this problem. In most missions a goal will pop up a "Press activate to do this" message when you get close to the item. Most of the goals in the supercarrier mission do this, including goals which involve breaking things. There is one notable exception, you need to destroy a piece of machinery that looks just like bunches of invulnerable machinery throughout the ship. You'll end up taking pot shots at just about everything in the level looking for it.
The game tries to add something new by adding an intelligence gathering component. As you play you're encouraged to look for bits of intelligence: documents, photographs, microfiche. Finding the intelligence isn't required, it's just a bonus objective. Unfortunately looking for the intelligence turns the game into a big, boring scavenger hunt. It doesn't add to the game.
The excellent Medal of Honor: Allied Assault added an arrow to your compass that pointed to your next objective. It wasn't terribly realistic, but it really helped keep the game going. The objective arrow minimize the amount of time I spent lost and wondering where to go. Why hasn't this feature made it into the PlayStation Medal of Honor games?
To try and keep you on track Rising Sun adds tips. You can press select to get a tip. It's a good idea, but like much of the rest of Rising Sun, badly implemented. The tips clearly have no idea where you are, so when you first request them you'll have to skip past a few that suggest actions you've already taken. If you keep going they'll eventually loop back to the start. The tips themselves are just short text messages. They are highly uneven. Sometimes they are painfully specific, but often they fail to provide any useful information.
The first person shooter world continues to advance and improve. Call of Duty has shown that even after a glut of World War II games that it's possible to create something great. So that the Medal of Honor line not only failed to advance, but actually took several steps backward is inexcusable. Only die hard Medal of Honor fans should bother with Medal of Honor: Rising Sun.
(Update 2006-11-14: Fixed some typos.)