Sept 4, 2007
The main innovation in Airborne, and the one most obvious from the title, is that you play Boyd Travers, a paratrooper in the US Airborne Division. The tactic of dropping soldiers into enemy territory from planes was a new one for the ’40s, and it’s one of those ideas that - once heard - you’re surprised nobody has converted into a game before (well, not for a few years anyway).
With this first innovation came a necessary second. Because you can drop in anywhere on the map, the AI required the capacity to deal with a foe that wasn’t guaranteed to approach from one end of a corridor. So NPCs - both allies and enemies - respond purely to their surroundings, as affected by your presence.
The routes the enemies take is sometimes cool - they can leap out of windows as well as over upturned desks - but the important point seems to be that this intelligence is map-wide. Once you’ve cleared an area of objectives, you’ll find the enemies you were fighting disappear pretty quickly. It seems like they were only there to fight you off, and once you’ve done your job, the remaining enemy run off to defend the next objective. It gives you a welcome moment of respite, and feels, if not realistic, then at least somehow justified.
New to Airborne is the weapons upgrade system. Each of the 13 weapons has three upgrades, and just using a weapon increases its experience meter. Puncturing three or five bad guys in quick succession boosts it even faster. When this XP gauge fills up, you’ll be rewarded with five seconds of slo-mo while you get told what’s happened to your gun. Upgrades include the obvious - less recoil, higher ammo capacity, higher damage and accuracy - to more unexpected bonuses. The German G43 rifle undergoes perhaps the most radical transformation. Its second upgrade is a variable zoom scope, allowing a touch of sniping, while its final upgrade allows you to fire grenades. This is particularly cool in multiplayer mode where the grenades aren’t so underpowered - although upgrades aren’t earned in MP, they’re either on or off.
The true heroes among us - the brave, the reckless and those who are aware that this is a game, and you don’t actually die in real life - will want to drop into the thick of the action. Your options are only limited by the landing range of your parachute, and your ability to land well - if you aim for the town hall roof and botch the landing, you’ll be shot down before you even get your gun out.
If you’ve got the Springfield sniper rifle, of course, you might like to land on a rooftop and pick off a few of the fascists before you work out how to get down and pistol-whip the rest. Alternatively, you might like to sail through a window, just to see who’s in there and if they’re surprised to see you. Or you could go for completion and seek out the five difficult skill drops dotted around each operation.
The six campaigns take you through a decent variety of locations, each with a different feel. Operation Avalanche takes you to some ruins, and what feels like an excavation site. The third operation is spread across some farmland, trenches and coastal pill-boxes more evocative of other WWII games. In Operation Market Garden you’ll be running from one broken house to another, in a ring of pretty demolition.
The openness of your options and the freedom of the AI to retaliate as it sees fit both work well, but if you’re thinking that every game you play will be miraculously different from start to finish, you’ll be disappointed. Cover points and machine gun encampments are obvious, and the AI will take advantage of them in predictable ways. For example, once you learn that the AI really likes manning those MG outposts, you can sit and snipe his head out, knowing that another one will be there to take his place soon enough. It’s a case of making the game boring for yourself on purpose, and you kinda wish that “large pile of your friends” corpses’ would act as a more powerfully negative affordance for your Nazi foes.
Each level has an initial group of missions, which can be completed in any order. If you die at this time, you’ll be given the chance to drop in again, and guide yourself to another more appropriate place. However, in what feels like a strong compromise of the game’s freeform approach, once you’ve completed these missions, your spawn point becomes fixed, and you’re off down another corridor-like shaft. You’ll often still have a number of paths available, but it suddenly becomes linear again. The split is about 50/50, and it’s most noticeable in the Market Garden level (once you get to the bridge).
The six campaigns will take under ten hours to complete. Some replay value is gained from playing the levels in different ways - that’s the main point of it, after all - and the multiplayer is reassuringly strong. The weapons are more balanced than previous MOH outings, and there’s a reprise of the Destroyed Village map for the fans of Allied Assault. The multiplayer also gives you the option of letting the Allies ’chute in - only this time, the Nazis are able to gun you down in mid-air if you try to land too close. The multiplayer is a lot of fun, especially with weapons upgrades turned on. It has to be said, without the multiplayer, Airborne might have felt a lot less substantial.
Once you die - and die you will - you’re thrown into an agonisingly lengthy load screen and then forced to parachute back into the map. Fine if you’ve recently completed an objective and hit a checkpoint, but not so dandy if the game’s autosave hasn’t kicked in for ages and you’re forced to repeat the last 20 minutes of your mission. Similarly, if you’re at the end of a stage in one of the game’s boss areas, you’ll find yourself dying very quickly and being thrust back to the load screen in seconds. Not the end of the world, but it does get irritating during later levels. We wonder how much of this frustration might have been avoided if EA had been allowed to stick two fingers up at the Core owner and build a game that dumped some of its major level data on the 360’s hard drive.
With all this talk of innovation, it’s easy to lose sight of what MOH: Airborne still, fundamentally, is: a (mostly) traditional first-person shooter. It’s an FPS with aspirations of unscripted freeform play, but these things are a twist on, rather than a fundamental revision of the genre - and the nature of the AI means that a lot of similar situations will recur no matter where you land. In a sense, Airborne gives you back what you put into it - it rewards a determination to enjoy what it has to offer. But equally, the game’s finer moments could easily pass people by.