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Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault review

Great

December 7, 1941. Hawaii. There's a war going on, but you don't expect the devil to make an appearance. Not in Paradise. Not on a Sunday. But sure enough... planes. Hundreds of them. They fill the sky, spew lead like hail and tear the American Navy a new one. They're the common thread running through all the best bits of EA's assault on the Pacific and with every set-piece you're reminded just what your newest recruit could have been.

Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault is the tale of rookie Tom Conlin whose tour of duty begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and ends with the reclamation of the island of Tarawa. In between these two behemoth missions, Tom and his squad fight through the Japanese-occupied Pacific Islands. It's like a package holiday with ambushes. It's also a huge change of setting for the series, previously confined to the crumbled cities of WWII Europe. Gone are the solid walls, obvious hiding places and straight roads, and in their place you'll find trees, wooden shacks and more hidey holes than a Victorian cabinet.

Intriguingly, the game begins at the end with a brief glimpse of the final level. Tommy's breathless run for cover after a disastrous boat landing at Tarawa. You're given a short burst of action - and one that you can't win - before being flash-backed two years to the real opening level - Pearl Harbour. Another breathless run: this time along wooden decking as Japanese planes scream low enough for you to make out the meatballs on the wings. Bullets ping, engines "grrrrr" and you're left with a gun and a whole lot of running to do. Timing is everything here. The relative safety of the cover buildings and crates provide must be weighed against the knowledge that an accurate shot from your rifle can pick planes out of the sky if you stand and fight. If you can resist the temptation, you're a better man than I. I spent a good ten minutes following planes with my crosshairs, hitting the sweetspot and laughing as they tumbled out of control. It's a glorious opening.

The whole of Pearl Harbour, aside from a brief interlude inside a battleship, follows the same theme: firing from a boat as the planes bomb and torpedo the fleet and taking up the fitted guns bolted to the battleships while planes drop chunks of shrapnel from the sky.

It's a sequence that wears its scripting on its sleeve and funnels you through a minutely planned sequence of events, but it's so damned cool it doesn't matter.

During the run in the PT boat, one plane gets picked out of the sky and comes barrelling into your boat leaving nothing but flaming vapour. Restart and it'll happen again. And again.

The Japanese fighters drop torpedoes into the water that slam into a battleship forcing it to slowly tip over as your boat runs alongside - no matter how many times you replay it, the pure cinematic joy of watching the deck slip under the water and the hull flip over is genuinely stirring. It's a rousing opening sequence and, frankly, as with Allied Assault, it's the best part of the game.

If by now you're thinking this doesn't sound much like a FPS, then you're right. The best bits of the game are when you're not following MoH's patented run-them-down-a-linear-level-style of action. That's not to say it's a bad FPS: this is the best jungle-based shooter out there. It's just that doesn't put it in the Half-Life 2 league. The drama of the FPS sections never quite recaptures the joy of the opening. It's a testament to the developers that they managed to make the notoriously difficult jungle setting work at all. Games where gunshots rip through leaves have fallen flat many times; the balance is always tipped in favour of the enemy. Neatly, Pacific Assault's use of sound and muzzle-flash gives you enough clues to get a bead on the hidden foe, and if you can't locate them, just follow your comrades' lead.

The yomp through the sweatbox jungles of the Pacific makes up most of the experience. It's a different prospect from the previous games. Twitchier. There are no one-on-one encounters, just mobs of enemies, some in wooden camps, others in the naked jungle, waiting for your arrival and ready to swarm. These fights usually kick off with a massive charge. The Japanese soldiers are brave, handy with a bayonet and have unerring accuracy with pineapples. They're not perfect, though, with more than a touch of the kamikaze about their tactics if you get close enough. They also know how to move to flank you; and the first you'll know is when they've speared your kidneys or when you hear a warning from your squad.

Oh, yes - your squad. This time you've got constant companions: a group of fighters who patrol with you through the jungle. All you can ask of team AI is that they're dependable, and in this respect your band of brothers are worth their weight in hot lead. The group of soldiers lay down covering fire, toss grenades and call out accurate warnings. They also lead you to the next section when you get lost. There are no heroics in this theatre of war because the team precludes any need for them. Hell, even in the scripted scenes they take their place, mounting .50 cals and defending positions.

That's not to say they're to be relied upon to do your job - you're still the main strike force, and should kill more than they do. But when you're ambushed you'll thank Thor the squad's there to take up the strain. Particularly the Corpsman. He's the man you call when you're riddled full of bullets. There are no health pick-ups, instead you have to bandage yourself when injured enough to bleed. Then call in the medic to boost your strength. If one of your squaddies ends up like Swiss cheese then you must try to collect the body and cover the medic as he works.

One of the developments Pacific Assault brings to the series is group command. At certain points in the fighting, decisions need to be made, using a simple system of orders. Do you drag the squad forward into battle, tell them to fall back, order covering fire or rally on your position? The system can be tricky to learn, because it's not consistently available, and when there's a Japanese soldier happily bayoneting your belly, you may have other things to focus on. It's usually the case that you'll use the team to support your own actions, before you head off into the woods like a bimbo in a horror movie.

And so, deeper into the jungle we head. There's an obvious pattern to the fighting. You're forced down slim pathways that widen into clumps of enemies. You fight them en masse, then move on to the next clump. There are few alternative routes to pick out and when you do find them, they're little more than shortcuts. There's no strategic planning necessary - the Japanese soldiers are just up ahead and you have to kill them. And they know instinctively where you are. No matter if you're sneaking through thick trees, or behind walls, unless your fanatical foe is forced to deal with one of your squad, they'll always turn to you.

It's solid action, but lacks imagination when compared to the bigger set-pieces. Cleaning out an unremarkable village of prescient soldiers just can't compare to the night of Bloody Ridge, where you take up a mounted gun. The night starts humming with voices. Beginning quietly but building into a crescendo as the enemy charges headfirst into your encampment, screaming bloody murder. All the while your trenchmate shouts directions as you focus hot death into the deadly mass. Sweet.

Perhaps the on-foot sections would click together better if they were bigger. Loading scenes pop-up with alarming regularity, making it feel like a series of vignettes rather than a coherent experience. You'd also think, that since Allied Assault, the developers would have figured out a way to stop guns poking through walls, or prevent AI soldiers running into solid objects. They haven't. The much whooped-up physics also add little beyond windows that swing on hinges and some shaky barrels.

But the grumbles with Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault are focused on the minutiae. This new instalment addresses some of the problems of the previous titles but there are still some gameplay kinks to be worked out.

The bigger picture is rather more entertaining. A summer blockbuster with outrageous set-pieces. It could have been glorious but it's merely good. It won't win any awards for originality, but there's plenty of fun to be had.

Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault is released for PC on 19 November

Not a step forward in design, nor will it win any awards for originality. It is, however, a big, fun and stylish FPS with outrageous and brilliant set-pieces

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Available Platforms: PC

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