Pacific Assault returns Medal of Honor fans and first-person shooter enthusiasts to the Great War, for a tour of duty in the Pacific Theatre. Players take the role of a Marine named Conlin, who survives the attack on Pearl Harbor and embarks on a series of increasingly difficult missions that lead him through the jungles of Guadalcanal, and ultimately, to a final stand in at the battle at Tarawa. Artificial Intelligence has been revamped from earlier releases in the series, and squad tactics are designed to be more powerful and prevalent. Online multiplayer features are also supported, with new game modes and "Punkbuster" anti-cheating technology. Like earlier Medal of Honor games, Pacific Assault is designed to present a historically accurate re-creation of the experiences of a young World War II soldier, using elements of sight, sound, and story.
I was a huge fan of both Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Call of Duty. The former opened the floodgates for WWII games, mixing lots of scripted sequences with huge set pieces and excellent combat; the latter perfected that formula to a large degree. Some might argue that those games were too scripted compared to other shooters, but I thought they were both exciting and perfectly paced from beginning to end. Once you got started playing, you didn't want to stop.
I don't feel that way about Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. In fact, there were many times when I wanted to just quit and never play it again. Don't get me wrong, it's not a horrible game; it's just nowhere near as polished as the games I've mentioned above, suffering from a number of basic problems that can make it extremely frustrating at times. I realize some Medal of Honor fans may be on the verge of exploding as they read this; if you can muster the patience to read the rest of this review, I'll do my best to explain.
Pacific Assault starts off promising enough. As the title suggests, the game ditches the European theater covered in most WWII games for the relatively virgin territory of the Pacific. You play a Marine named Tommy Conlin, and the game starts out in 1943 on a boat headed towards the Tarawa Atoll. You're knocked out during a fight on the beachhead, and you flash back to the beginning of your tour of duty, starting with boot camp. These opening segments aren't filled with much in the way of challenging gameplay, but they're loaded with atmosphere and nice cutscenes, setting the stage for what you'd expect to be some thrilling action.
The opening mission, set at Pearl Harbor, delivers to a large degree. After the infamous attack begins, you make a mad dash down to the pier, and then shoot down Japanese fighters from an attack boat. You race through the interior through one of these battleships in a string of scripted events: you flood part of the ship to balance it before it tilts and sinks; you bash down doors with an axe as fires erupt throughout the ship; you carry injured crewmen to get medical attention. Atop the ship, you're in control of an AA gun shooting down more Zeros, trying your best to protect the ship. It's a set piece worthy of being compared to the best in Allied Assault or Call of Duty.
And then, inexplicably, things start to fall apart. The game shifts to hours and hours of jungle-based combat at Makin Atoll and Guadalcanal, and the formula is simple: you enter an area with your squad, Japanese soldiers jump out, you fight, and repeat. The fights are tough, death comes often, and you'll probably spend a lot of time staring at reloading screens. The layout of the jungle changes from skirmish to skirmish, with occasional camps and villages to break things up, but it doesn't take long before things start to feel repetitive, and it'll be a long haul before things improve at the final beach missions at Tarawa.
This wouldn't be so bad if the combat was solid and you could push through at a good pace, but everything in the game collaborates to slow you down. Your weapons are relatively weak, and reloading them is frustratingly slow to the point that you'll be in constant danger of being bayoneted by onrushing enemies (which often means a quick death). It's extremely hard to spot enemies against the background of the jungle, and if you're using the dynamic crosshair, the spread on automatic weapons is still so wide that it's pointless to fire off more than a shot or two at a range of more than a few meters. (Do yourself a favor and set your crosshair to "Static.") So instead of a fast-paced game like Allied Assault or Call of Duty with lots of interesting environments, you get a slow-paced game where you're creeping through similar-looking jungles for hours and hours. I realize some people argue this might qualify as "realism," but I didn't find it fun.
The game's combat issues and lack of polish and are illustrated by the way enemies spawn in. As an example, look at the two pictures below. It's a scene in Guadalcanal, following a huge firefight. The coast appears clear, and things have been quiet for a minute or so. As you can see in the picture on the left, there are no enemies around. If there was anyone in that shack, they should have come running out long ago. But then, I take three steps forward, and -- as you can see in the picture on the right - a half-dozen enemies simply blink into view. What?
This kind of thing happens often enough in Pacific Assault to destroy any illusion that you're in a fair fight. In many shooters, it's a legitimate tactic to scout ahead with a sniper scope to try to pick off enemies before they spot you. But Pacific Assault rarely allows this, because the enemies simply don't exist yet. You'll spot an empty watchtower, pass some invisible barrier, and -- poof! -- enemies magically appear and start shooting at you.
One of the biggest embarrassments is a brief reprise of Allied Assault's horrific "Snipertown" mission: this time, snipers pick you off from the trees as you wade down a swamp corridor. Don't bother scanning the trees for snipers your first time through; they won't appear until you venture in deep enough to give them an easy kill. In several of the final Tarawa missions, it's possible to clear out a building and then have a second group spawn right in front of you, which goes beyond any semblance of realism and into the realm of fighting ghosts. Which, in a sense, you are: you're not just fighting the enemies on the screen; you're also fighting the developers and their willingness to cheat and spawn enemies when and wherever they want.
As a point of comparison, I've seen a lot of complaining about DOOM 3 in recent months, often centering on demons springing out of hidden "monster closets." It's a valid criticism, but at least in that game, the developers took the trouble to hide the monsters, and made it clear that power-ups often acted as triggers. Pacific Assault is worse. You never know where the triggers are, and half the time enemies pop up in places that don't make sense, whether it's right in front of you or an area that you've already cleared. It's enemy spawning at its laziest, and you'd expect better from the company that helped produce Allied Assault.
That bit of ranting aside, Pacific Assault deserves credit for trying to do some interesting things. During most of the game's missions, you fight alongside a squad to whom you can issue basic orders. They generally leave most of the killing to you (assumedly to prevent you from letting them do all the work), and even when you order them forward in the hopes of flushing out enemies, they're reluctant to do so. Still, it's nice to have the company, and the character development for your squadmates (who stick with you for most of the game) is handled nicely.
By far, the most important member of this group is the corpsman, who performs the role that health kits do in other games. You'll barely find a medkit anywhere in Pacific Assault; instead, your medic can fully heal you four times per level, requiring a few seconds of inactivity. As a result, you need to use these health "recharges" judiciously, and only when you're safely out of harm's way. This forces you to strategize a little differently; you never know how long a mission might be, and things can get hairy if you run out of health at the end of a level.
As in other WWII games, Pacific Assault presents a number of scripted sequences to try and break things up. Among others, there's a scene where you're using mounted artillery to knock planes out of the sky, and a long sequence where you're in full control of a plane and attempt to bomb a Japanese carrier, Battlefield 1942-style. These sequences are often more fun than the jungle combat, although -- like a lot of the game -- they often become an exercise in trial and error. This becomes exacerbated by the game's long load times: even "quick" loads can take 30 seconds or more, which quickly sucks the fun out of any scenario you might need to replay over and over. And trust us, you will get killed. Many, many times.
From an artistic perspective, Pacific Assault is a beautiful game. It's not just the fact that EA's brand-new engine can do technical things like impressive hi-res models, lighting effects and ragdoll physics; there's an aesthetic beauty to the world that makes everything attractive to look at, including an effective use of color. The jungles are a standout: they're modeled with amazing detail, and at times they go beyond photo-realistic and into the realm of looking like live video. There are other artistic touches, such as the color momentarily draining every time you're shot, and an endless supply of sepia-toned loading screens. Even the in-game menu is set inside a pseudo-level with surroundings and characters that change over the course of the game. It's a shame that so much of the game looks the same -- one jungle looks like the next, with the occasional village or camp or river to break things up. From both a visual and gameplay perspective, it would have been nice to see a little more variety in the jungle areas before you reach the final missions at Tarawa.
Aside from one questionable term used throughout the game, Pacific Assault generally takes a respectful tone towards war and American veterans. The orchestral score (which is excellent) goes from patriotic to somber, and there are bits of historical information to be found everywhere. Particularly cool are the "pop-up facts" that offer tidbits on the war as you play. The "Director's Edition" DVD also contains several nice extras, from several DVD-style featurettes on the war in the Pacific as well as "making of" segments.
It might be easy to overlook the fact that Pacific Assault also has multiplayer support, featuring three modes: free-for-all, team deathmatch and a new mode called Invader. The latter is clearly the centerpiece of the multiplayer, in many ways mirroring the gameplay of Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Enemy Territory. It's the familiar Axis-vs-Allies scenario, and each of the eight huge multiplayer maps has its own special set of objectives. One team plays offense and tries to achieve all the objectives, while the other plays defense. Players can choose from four classes such as engineer or corpsman, and there are a lot of little features built in to promote teamwork (although we'll have to see how that plays out over time).
I have high hopes for the multiplayer, since it solves a number of problems with the single-player game. You can generally stick to the more effective weapons and avoid the weaker ones, and since you're playing against live opponents, you don't have to deal with any of the silly AI gimmicks from the single-player game.
The Final Word
Pacific Assault is a tale of two games. It looks and sounds great, the production values are top-notch, there are some inspired set pieces that are genuinely fun to play through, and the multiplayer looks extremely promising. However, unlike its counterparts set in the European theater, I simply didn't enjoy the basic combat, and the high difficulty, combined with the long level reload times, rapidly turned the game into a frustrating experience.
More than anything, Pacific Assault feels like it's missing the balance, finesse and polish of games like Allied Assault and Call of Duty. Hardcore fans of those two games will probably find something to enjoy here.
People who downloaded Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault have also downloaded:
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942, Men of Valor, Halo: Combat Evolved, Battlefield Vietnam, Battlefield 2
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