In June EA will declare war on the European Front. Medal of Honor European Assault is shaping up for a June 10 release on PS2, with the Xbox and GameCube versions following a week later.
Strangely enough, European Assault is also declaring war on the staid conventions of the Medal of Honor series. When we talked to the game's executive producer Dan Winters last month he told us about the new free-roaming Open Battlefield, the new Combat Squad Control system, and the power-up Adrenalin Mode.
In this interview we took the opportunity to discuss your reactions to these new features with Dan. He also tells us about the future of the series and how the next-gen consoles will revolutionise the videogame depiction of war. Enjoy!
What new features and tweaks have you added to the game since we saw it last?
Dan Winters: We've found that the Open Battlefield in particular is our best way to improve the genre and move it forward, but that comes with challenges. Through a great deal of research we found that navigating the space was getting a little difficult, and so we've incorporated some new visual cues. We've now got icons inside the world that offer easier visibility. When we were a linear game you could see things easily, but with the Open Battlefield [it] means you have to be aware of your surroundings in 360 degrees. So we needed the player to be able to spot things, say, fifty feet off, so they are equipped with the information they need to make the right choice.
We want to keep the accuracy, but we're also mindful that this is a game and players need good information to have fun. We've also improved the communication of objectives. Now when you approach an objective some info comes up on screen and feeds directly into your compass.
Something else we've worked on is preventing the player from getting lost in the gameworld while he's trying to find his objectives, so we've added an OSS radio handler to instruct you. He relays information about things that are going to happen in the battle and offers some recon info too.
Something else I think we've done much better in the last couple of weeks is touching into that emotional resonance of the Medal of Honor series. One of the foundations of our series is the emotional authenticity, the ability to get inside the head of that WW2 soldier and really feel like you're part of that world. We felt the best way to do that was to get inside the head of a veteran reminiscing about his time in the war. We've embedded that in the game as narrative, and it moves between the veteran as an old man and as a young man as he does these extraordinary things in the war as William Holt, our hero in the game.
How difficult was it to go from the more linear playing areas of past Medal of Honour games to the open battlefield in European Assault?
Dan Winters: It was beyond difficult, and it was a challenge that we weren't sure how to tackle when we started. But it was a challenge we knew we had to face up to, and it's opened up whole new perspectives both for our designers and for players. Our designers used to build encounters in a very linear fashion, but when we hooked up the Open Battlefield our designer Chris Cross, who's been with the series since day one, told me that this was the game he'd always envisaged. He always wanted to have the world live and breath, whether you were there or not, he always wanted the player to be able to backtrack and still have to deal with enemies, and he always wanted players to have the ability to back out of encounters if they wanted to. So for Chris it was a dream come true.
But with that comes challenges. How do we make it feel real? How do we make the NPCs behave believably? How do we keep the world alive and keep the framerate up? Well, I'm pleased to say that we've dealt with all those challenges. For us the Open Battlefield is the lynchpin that's going to hold together what we've done with Medal of Honor in the past, and what we plan do to with Medal of Honor in the future.
There was a lot of criticism from fans about Rising Sun's linearity. Was it a crucial step for the series to move towards more open-ended game experiences?
Dan Winters: Yes, and you've hit the nail on the head why. We spoke to the fans, and the number one thing on the list that we needed to do in European Assault was provide the Open Battlefield. We hit walls as we tried to do it, but every time we found a way to break through, climb over, or go around that wall. Whatever happened, we had to do it. It really required a great deal of creativity from everyone involved with the development of the game but everyone had that common goal of making the Open Battlefield work. It would have been very easy just to churn out another linear game, and we could have made a great game that was linear. But it's time for the series to move on.
Having the Open Battlefield is great but what other things will the player be able to do within it other than just completing the mission?
Dan Winters: Secondary Objectives are a big part of this. The player doesn't know about these going into the mission. They're found inside the battlefield, and your OSS handler feeds you information about what to do when you come across them. But you don't have to do anything if you don't want to.
We also have other Secondary Objectives that come up in the flow of the mission. You may be pushing to destroy a fuel tank, but then a shore gun will be taking out your reinforcements so you have to destroy that first. By completing these missions we reward the player with a Revive, which are essentially save points. We've done away with checkpoints because we felt they shortened the game far too much and they really destroy the tension of battle. What do you have to lose in an intense shootout if you'll just respawn 30 seconds earlier? So the more secondary objectives you complete, the more Revives you get, and the more you can safely navigate the Open Battlefield as you choose.
The Combat Squad Control feature is quite a bold departure for the series. How much of a challenge was it to implement that?
Dan Winters: The only real challenge was finding a way to implement it that didn't break the player's suspension of disbelief. MoH is all about moving and shooting in a 3D space. We found that players didn't want to fumble with complex squad controls, because that breaks the sense of immersion. So we had to find a balance between complexity and accessibility - and I love the way we've achieved it. It's very simple - you use the shoulder buttons to deploy your squad and you can still move and fire as you do it.
We've also added new AI routines that really make your squad members become part of the world. They'll recognise cover points, they'll know when to lay down suppressing fire, they'll defend themselves if attacked and resort to melee combat if they're up close and personal with the enemy, if they're hurt they'll go down and yell for help. Not only that, they can relay information about the world to the player. They'll see something happening and warn you - for instance, in one level one of your squad spots a sniper in the window and calls the threat. If you don't have that guy there, then you don't get that information. That makes life more difficult for you, so keeping your squad alive is a definite benefit.
There have been some very cynical reactions to the addition of squad control in Medal of Honor, apparently because people don't see it as a Full Spectrum Warrior or Brothers in Arms style of game. How would you convince people that Combat Squad Control is a worthwhile feature for European Assault?
Your squad is a weapon. It's another tool that you have in your inventory. Importantly you also have an emotional connection to them. Your squad isn't there as fodder, or to soak up bullets with your name on them. Your squad is there for you to lead effectively. If you do that well, they're a huge benefit. For instance, when I was playing the game this morning I assaulted a German emplacement on a hill outside Stalingrad. On my own I would've got torn apart, but I used my squad to take cover and lay down suppressing fire while I flanked the postion. We worked as a team. One man can make a difference, but that difference can be much bigger when he gets some support.
Those other games you mentioned are also very different, because they are not about moving and shooting. Full Spectrum Warrior in particular is very tactical, and we only wanted to get a taste of that while still keeping the moving and shooting element as strong as ever. The 'other' game you talked about whose name I can't remember right now [wry smile] is about staying still, slowly advancing, flanking, and picking off enemies. It uses the strategy as the full feature set, while we use it as a complement to the core action of the Medal of Honor series.
We noticed you've changed the name of Rally Mode to Adrenaline Mode. Why?
Dan Winters: We felt Rally Mode didn't really get the right message across. Adrenaline Mode captures it better. In fact, when we talked to our military advisor Dale Dye, who's a Vietnam veteran and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, he told us that in the forces it's referred to as 'gutcheck'. It's overcoming the fear in your gut in order to do what you need to do. That's gutcheck - what do you have inside your belly. That's great, but we weren't sure it was easy enough to understand. So we thought, 'hey, adrenaline is the thing that lets you overcome your fears'. It gets the message over more clearly. The feature itself lets the player get even farther inside the head of the soldier. If there's a moment when he can rise above his fear and do something extraordinary - and become a Medal of Honor recipient - then the player can activate Adrenaline Mode and become that hero. Besides that sense of being inside the soldier's head, it's also an absolute blast. There's no greater feeling than having your ass handed to you by hordes of enemies for a whole level, then maxing out your Adrenaline Meter with one last skilful shot. Then it's payback time. It's a great sense of redemption and I think players will love driving towards that.
Of all the new features in European Assault Adrenaline Mode has attracted the most negative criticism. People have said that it's unrealistic, and questioned why the player is suddenly being granted superhuman abilities. How do you react to that?
Dan Winters: When we sat down to design European Assault the mantra we developed was 'Heroic choices in an open battlefield'. So the first thing we had to do was ask a real hero and Medal of Honor recipient - Dale Dye, our military advisor - what it was like to be a hero. As far as he is concerned it's very simple. It's only about taking action.
Dale told us a story about his time in Vietnam. There was a machine gun nest about 300 yards away and one of Dale's squad went down. Dale figured to himself, 'I've got to get that guy because no-one else will,' and he told us that he seemed to become unconscious. He got out there, threw a 200 pound guy over his shoulder, and carried him back to safety. There's no way he could have done that under normal circumstances, but the adrenaline was pumping and he knew it had to be done.
Thing is, people do extraordinary things all the time. People lift cars to save trapped children, or run through machine gun fire without getting a scratch, like Dale did. He overcame his fear and took action, and that's absolutely a part of becoming a hero. So just so we got it right we talked to several other Medal of Honor recipients and asked them what the sensation was like. They couldn't remember. There were no details other than they knew what had to be done and were so laser-beam focussed on it that everything else became empty. No peripheral vision, no hearing, just that objective. Athletes experience the same thing: 50,000 screaming fans disappear, and it's only that goal kick or corner of the net that matters. That's the sensation we've captured with Adrenaline Mode.
But in European Assault Adrenaline Mode makes you invulnerable to enemy fire and gives you unlimited ammo. Doesn't that undermine the sense of realism you're aiming for?
Dan Winters: Let's get this straight. You'll only use Adrenaline Mode maybe once a mission, twice if you're a really skilful player. It's not something that's happening all the time, and it doesn't last very long. I would say that 95 percent of the time you're experiencing the world of European Assault normally. But what Adrenaline Mode does is give the player something to drive for. With skilful play and heroic play you can achieve something tangible. In past Medal of Honor games and other games like Full Spectrum Warrior you have to wait for a stats screen to see what you achieved. We wanted to give the player something in real-time, to let him know he's doing well. And when you do trigger Adrenaline Mode it's not so over-the-top that you feel disengaged from the experience of being inside the gameworld. Rather, it makes it feel even more authentic.
We were particularly impressed with European Assault's sound effects and music. How important are these elements to the overall MoH experience?
Dan Winters: We have a very talented sound designer called Paul Lackey and he gets the whole essence of the immersive quality of sound. He's really nailed it so you feel like you're in amongst the cacophony of war. And music has always been a vital part of the experience. Some of the European Assault music almost makes me want to tear up - it's beautiful, haunting music that really adds an emotional texture to the world. We spend a lot of time on both these areas because we're committed to making sure the player is 100 percent immersed within the gameworld.
What's the next step for the Medal of Honor series and videogaming's representation of warfare in general?
Dan Winters: Wow, that's a big question. I think there are so many individual stories to tell that storylines will become much more rich and deep as the technology advances and lets us set our games within more realistic environments. I think the feeling of peril can also be enhanced. We're already doing it with great sound and graphics, but capturing that feeling of peril in a safe setting is so important for true immersion.
You're taking a big new step for the series with European Assault's new features, and the games industry is about to take a big new step with the arrival of the next-gen consoles. What are the plans for Medal of Honor on next-gen?
Dan Winters: We're actually working on some new ideas right now. I don't want to give them away because they're too great, but I can tell you that they'll definitely feed into the next generation of technology. We're working on some really great innovations for the franchise that will let you feel like you're really in that space, and we're building on the spontaneity of the Open Battlefield. We want you to feel that the choices you make have a positive or negative consequence on the battlefield.
Do you have any plans to get more people involved in the Medal of Honor experience simultaneously, perhaps with an online version?
Dan Winters: Possibly. We've had discussions about that, but it's really something for the future. At the moment we're just heads down to get European Assault to be as good as it can be, then we'll take some time off - maybe a day - and then we'll get started on some of our new ideas.
What about taking the Medal of Honor series to the DS and PSP?
Dan Winters: Again, we've discussed that idea but we have no plans set in concrete for a DS or PSP version at the moment. It's such an important franchise for EA and we're always looking at ways to strengthen it further. If there's a way to do a great Medal of Honor game on DS or PSP we'll definitely look at it.
Medal of Honor: European Assault will attack PS2 on June 10 and Xbox and GameCube on June 17. For a closer look at the action check out this brand new trailer:
Medal of Honor European Assault trailer