At first it's familiar territory. The clumsy clang of your M1 Garand rifle, sombre trumpet music wafting gently over low-key menus and men in tin hats bellowing at each other over the sound of cracking gunfire. But then you play it and realise that, finally, Medal Of Honor has evolved and is now better than Call Of Duty. Duty's problem is that it's too stiff. You feel yourself shuttling through a defined, predictable path, which is the complete opposite of what war actually is - an incalculable, ruthlessly unforgiving mess where nothing ever goes to plan.
And that's what defines MoH: Airborne - unpredictability. The game is completely non-linear. You don't just appear in the level at the edge of the map. You have to leap from a plane into it, choosing where to land, guiding you and your parachute down to the raging battle below. Safe landing zones are marked by a plume of green smoke, but these are merely suggestions because you can land wherever you like, depending on which tactics you want to use. So if you want to land on the rooftops and surprise the enemy below with a few well-placed grenades, you can. Or if you want to play it safe, land next to your squad and work with them to take enemy positions strategically. You even get a rating for your landing (extra points for landing between buildings) and have to cut your parachute off when you land before you can equip your rifle.
Unlike previous MoH games, the focus isn't entirely on you. When the rest of your team land they'll go about their own business. Looking down on the level from a high vantage point we saw skirmishes breaking out across the level, pockets of fighting which really highlighted just how intelligent the AI is.
They're calling it 'affordance AI', which is a jumped-up way of describing how the enemy, rather than just hide behind a crate until you shoot them in the ears, will genuinely fend for themselves. They'll retreat, they'll bark desperate orders at each other, they'll take formation and try to flush you out... it's like fighting a real war. Sort of.
But what we really love about Airborne is how brutal the combat is. Fighting feels like a real blood-and-guts battle to the death. The weapons are big and loud and there's chaos everywhere. We played it with a fairly hefty surround sound system and it was terrifying, like plugging your brain into an actual conflict. Going back to Call Of Duty; while the combat in that was accomplished, it felt slightly limp, lacking the visceral intensity of the films that inspired it, like Saving Private Ryan. Airborne captures this perfectly, and it's so violent it might give you nightmares. Hold down o and you can sprint, which is good for dangerous rushes past gun emplacements and barging through to cover, again capturing that desperate sense of survival that's made many a war film a classic.
Looks to kill
As for 'next-gen-ness', the game looks incredible. Sunlight glints off metal surfaces, bloom lighting seeps between buildings, character animations are dazzlingly realistic and the world is rich and saturated with detail. There's something strangely beautiful about the opening level. The streets of Sicily are bathed in atmospheric orange light and searchlights glitter in the darkness above you.
By being more creative with things like lightning, Airborne doesn't look like its rivals or predecessors - it has its own unique visual style, which complements the new approach to level design and combat.
So then. Medal Of Honor is back to its best after a lacklustre string of PS2 sequels. The open battlefields and non-linear mission structure set it apart from main rival Call Of Duty and the balls-out, action-packed shooting is more reminiscent of something like Half-Life than previous games in the series. The best WW2 shooter yet? We're still deciding, but it is the best MoH yet and we're itching to review it. And we will, soon. Watch this space.