It's unfortunate that "Medal of Honor," the reboot of the 11-year-old military shooter franchise set in present-day Afghanistan, was banned from being sold on U.S. military bases because the video game's single-player campaign is more an interactive tribute to troops fighting in the Middle East than any other shoot-'em-up.
Military officials decided not to stock "Medal of Honor" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) after protests over the multiplayer mode, which allowed gamers to play as combatants representing the Taliban. Last week, Electronic Arts announced those characters would instead be dubbed as the more ambiguous Opposing Force.
However, the turbans and improvised explosive devices remain in the multiplayer mode by "Battlefield: Bad Company" developer DICE, making the name change a needless concession, especially considering how integral Afghanistan and the Taliban are to developer Danger Close's solo campaign, told from the perspective of four U.S. soldiers.
For most of the story-driven portion, players flip-flop between playing as "Rabbit" and "Deuce," a pair of never-seen-or-heard operatives who take orders directly from the top and operate stealthily behind enemy lines. Other missions find players portraying Spc. Dante Adams, a U.S Army Ranger, and Capt. Brad "Hawk" Hawkins, an Apache helicopter gunner.
The solo gameplay is at its best with sustained firefight scenarios that are realistic enough for a Ken Burns war documentary yet exhilarating enough for a Michael Bay blockbuster.
One of the most tense moments involves fending off approaching Taliban forces while Adams and his fellow Rangers are trapped inside a building that's being pummeled with rocket-propelled grenades. Right when you think the battle is over, a truck loaded with a bomb slams into the rickety structure.
There are similarities to developer Infinity Ward's "Modern Warfare" series, which contemporized publisher Activision's "Call of Duty" franchise. For example, instead of driving as "Roach" on a snowmobile down Kazakhstan slopes, players must guide "Deuce" on an all-terrain vehicle through an Afghanistan valley.
But this new "Medal of Honor" isn't a "Modern Warfare" clone. Where both "Modern Warfare" games excelled at balancing ripped-from-the-headlines realism with over-the-top action, "Medal of Honor" doesn't have enough story and action sequences to be a real competitor for "Call of Duty."
Graphically, it doesn't help that "Medal of Honor" isn't as smooth looking as "Modern Warfare," or what's been glimpsed of "Black Ops," the Cold War era "Call of Duty" entry developed by Treyarch. Several target-painting pursuits and one explosive air mission aren't enough to break up the monotonous ground battles scattered across the Afghan terrain.
The gun-toting action is more frantic in the multiplayer mode, an experience completely disconnected from the single-player campaign. Some gamers might appreciate the more minimalist approach to multiplayer, but it feels like a mishmash of what's been seen in "Modern Warfare" and "Battlefield" — and isn't as slick or addictive as either.
And there's something slightly unsettling, though not totally monstrous, about playing as the Opposing Force.
"Medal of Honor" doesn't quite reinvigorate the series the way "Modern Warfare" did for "Call of Duty." Die-hard military shooter fans will no doubt need a taste of the solo campaign's unapologetic authenticity and the multiplayer mode's breakneck skirmishes, but everyone else should wait until "Black Ops" is served. Two out of four stars.