Like everyone else picking up a Wii Remote for the first time in 2006, my first instinct was to swing as hard as I could at the digital ball in Wii Sports. Sooner or later everyone gave up and half-heartedly waved the controller from the couch, but the magic of motion controls in those early days was to act it all out; to pretend that you were actually rolling a ball down a bowling lane, or putting on a green.
Respawn aims to conjure those ghosts of motion control past with Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, a new VR shooter being developed in partnership with Oculus. Only in Medal of Honor, you're not waving a golf club, but a Thompson Machine Gun; instead of throwing a baseball, you're throwing a grenade, and instead of carrying around a bowling ball, you're carrying... a stuffed goose. A goose that can be used to whack Nazis.
In effect you're acting out the role of World War II soldier-emphasis on acting. There are no shortcuts or button presses in Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. If you want to climb a ladder, you need to pull yourself up hand over hand. If you want to reload your gun, you need to pop out the spent clip, grab a new one from your side, and chamber a bullet with a quick click-click motion.
It sounds cumbersome, and compared to your average first-person shooter it kind of is, but the fun is in the play-acting as a soldier. Ducking around a corner or crouching behind cover feels natural, as does ejecting a spent clip and slamming in a new one (you'll quickly come to appreciate the guns that offer quick and easy reloading, like the reliable and powerful Garand). Ridiculous as it might all seem, and it's admittedly pretty ridiculous, Respawn has put a great deal of effort into making it feel reasonably smooth and intuitive to, say, grab a syringe from your arm and jam it into your chest to restore health.
It's all part of an effort to create what Respawn and Oculus are hoping will be seen as a true "triple-A VR shooter." Plenty of studios have tried to create VR shooters, but they've been hampered by nausea troubles, imprecise controls, and other issues. Movement has been a particular big problem for VR shooters, as teleporting is disorienting, and actually walking tends to induce projectile vomiting. Medal of Honor grapples with all of these issues, even going so far as to have an in-game nurse who walks you through various comfort options.
It's being developed by a veteran team at Respawn, some of whom worked on the original PlayStation game back in 1999. Director Peter Hirschman is one of those developers. "This has been a labor of love for a lot of us," Hirschman says. "I was involved with the original set of games 20 years ago. I was there when Steven Spielberg came back from making Saving Private Ryan and said he wanted to make a World War II game."
The early Medal of Honor games were considered pioneers in the military FPS genre, being some of the first shooters to capture what it was like to fight on Omaha Beach during D-Day. Respawn itself can trace its lineage back to Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Medal of Honor was rebooted as a modern military shooter in 2010, but vanished again after its sequel proved disappointing. Now back in Respawn's hands, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond brings the series back to the European theatre of World War II. And yes, you will once again be storming the beaches during the invasion of Europe, among other familiar activities.
Backed by the marketing muscle of Oculus, this new Medal of Honor is being accorded what appears to be a strong budget, with the scale to match. It will feature some 50 levels, Hirschman says, and will include multiplayer. To pay tribute to the remaining veterans of World War II, it will include original video clips from an award-winning documentary team featuring old soldiers returning to the sites where they fought. One shows a veteran donning a VR headset and pointing to the perfectly recreated bushes where he once ambushed a line of tanks. These clips accord Medal of Honor a cinematic touch that makes it feel like a throwback to the days of the PlayStation.
Because Medal of Honor is basically being made for a new platform, Respawn is largely sticking with well-worn material for this game. Levels will include a raid on a Nazi heavy water plant; a mission to sabotage a radio tower in the mountains, and a rescue operation in the Black Forest. All should be familiar locales to anyone who has played a World War II shooter in the last... oh... 20 years.
The charm is mostly in the actual VR gameplay and the new layer of interactivity it accords its environments. Pointing and shooting has always worked rather well in a VR environment, and Medal of Honor does an excellent job of capturing that element. Because there are no QTEs, and shortcuts are non-existent, you have a stronger sense of physical presence in the virtual world, especially when pulling pins from grenades or grabbing at ammo.
Fun as all of this was though, what I enjoyed most was picking up items and braining Nazis with them. At a certain point I found a stuffed goose, and it quickly became a kind of mascot as I carried it with me from setpiece to setpiece. I finally lost it when I tried to throw it to the top of a ladder, but accidentally sent it flying over the cliff and down to the mountain floor below. I know it went to a better place.
Moments like these are meant to represent the nebulous next step for VR, which remains very promising, but has yet to break out of the hobbyist set and into the mainstream. Putting aside the sheer cost of a good VR headet, and a PC to support it, the games still feel limited. Even Medal of Honor is noticeably less attractive than other modern shooters; moves at a plodding pace, and has some nausea issues (I was definitely feeling under the weather after about 30 minutes of play). These are problems that remain endemic to the genre.
I suppose I should also mention that the Wii's motion controls never really evolved past Wii Sports. Once everyone tired of pretending to be a baseball player, most of the charm wore off. Happily, VR is a much more robust-if still very early-platform, and the fun of the acting is baked directly into Medal of Honor's gameplay.
Medal of Honor will necessarily have a very small player base. Nice as it is to have the series back, the heavy involved by Oculus means that it has next to no chance of making it to console. "We're all in on Oculus. I can't tell you what a dream it is to develop for the platform," Hirschman says.
It all has the feel of a pet project by Respawn; an opportunity to kill two Nazis with one stone (or goose) by reviving an old franchise and getting a lot of money from Oculus. By virtue of being so heavily tied to one specific VR platform, it's apt to pass mostly unnoticed. Still, it's probably the most credible example of an FPS on the platform to date, ultimately pushing the genre forward and laying the groundwork for better technology to come.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond will be out in 2020.