Some people may have been expecting visual pyrotechnics and a deafening racket, but Medal Of Honor’s opening is as subdued and reticent as any game set in contemporary Afghanistan possibly could be. The beginning calls to mind not Modern Warfare or its sequel, nor Battlefield: Bad Company 2; but 2008’s groundbreaking, Africa-set masterpiece Far Cry 2. The thoroughly absorbing device that Ubisoft Montreal’s game used – to throw you into a meandering first-person entree that comprehensively familiarises you with your environment – is utilised to similar effect here.

It would stand as an example of desperate, asinine poaching if Medal Of Honor wasn’t as strongly written as it is, and as such the game’s entire opening cutscene is a prolonged sequence of actual, palpable tension, and is cinematic in a refreshingly underhanded way; and these techniques are expertly carried over into the gameplay too. Making sure that you are kept ‘in the zone’ is done in a variety of ways, the simplest (though most effective) probably being the complete discarding of intrusive waypoints and HUD menus, both of which can be summoned immediately by pressing Up on the D-pad if you get stuck.

The whole thing flows beautifully too, with cutscenes gliding effortlessly into the gameplay and into each other, the illusion of absolute coherence never spoiled by needless menu screens or arbitrary, post-level stat pages. Once again though, if you crave all of that stuff, it’s all available to you at the touch of a button. Medal Of Honor can be a mindless, score-attack style shooting gallery if that’s all you want from it. But its makers usher you gently away from this style of play, and heeding their instructions will enable you to get the very best out of it.

And it should be stressed again that any resemblance to Modern Warfare 1 or 2 only exists on the surface. There is none of the cold, hard-edged nihilism of the first game, and none of the bombastic, hyperactive stupidity of the sequel. Although always forthright and plausibly regimented, Medal Of Honor’s characters frequently act entirely on instinct, and you genuinely get a sense of the danger that they are perpetually forced to operate under – which is one commendable thing that, for all of their many successes, neither Modern Warfare title ever came close to achieving.

An early rumour that the campaign was too easy or short was something of a red herring too. The story mode (even on the hardest difficulty setting) doesn’t offer gruelling levels of challenge in which endless restarts are a necessity, and most FPS fans will play through it without too much grief. But this is as shrewd as almost everything else about it; yet another tool to keep you immersed in the coherence of the plot. If you want to give yourself a stress headache (a favourite pastime of many FPS fans, it seems) Tier One mode ramps up the difficulty, and asks you to play through each story mission under some pretty oppressive time restrictions.

As expected (and hoped for) the multiplayer is a heady and addictive cocktail that purports to be the middle-ground between Battlefield and Modern Warfare, and it’s pretty much exactly that. It has the absurdly breakneck pace of the latter, but demands the same amount of tactical restraint as the former. Although the multiplayer wears those influences loudly and proudly, the way that developer DICE have made such disparate and (under the surface) very different games blend together is extremely impressive, and as with the campaign, the results display far more personality than you may have been expecting.

The emphasis here is entirely on teamwork. There is a standard Team Deathmatch-style game type available, but that’s about as mindless as things ever get. Every other mode is concerned with objective-based play, and once you tune into it you’re in for an unorthodox treat. One of the deal-breaking fundamentals is that sniper rifles are absurdly easy to rack up kills with, particularly in comparison to other games of this ilk. Thus the decision in most cases involves choosing whether to sit back and snipe, or to use cover and sprint – which is in unlimited supply – behind enemy lines. It’s basically stripped the gameplay down to accentuate two of the most exciting and rewarding things you can ever do in any online FPS, and it genuinely works; once you’re acclimatised.

Given the amount of iffy press that it has received over the past few weeks and months, the fundamental and inarguable quality of every aspect of Medal Of Honor comes as a bit of a surprise – and the bafflingly apathetic critical reception in some quarters should definitely be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt. It hasn’t re-written the rulebook and it doesn’t stand out in ways that a game of this kind perhaps should do, but it’s intelligently written and designed, never grandiose or moronic, and is acutely aware of how to please its audience. It’s a gem; an unexpected one, but a gem nonetheless.

Watch the Medal Of Honor trailer here:

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