It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Call of Duty didn’t rule the FPS roost. Before the first game of the aforementioned FPS franchise was released in 2003, it was the Medal of Honor series that was most gamers’ experience of virtual World War II. MoH kicked off with its first game, released in 1999 on the PS1 by DreamWorks Interactive (now known as DICE) and is notable for having legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s involvement in the game’s design. If that wasn’t enough, the game also boasted music from popular Hollywood film composer, Michael Giacchino. What resulted was a then-immersive war FPS that was released to critical acclaim and set the standard for WWII video games at the time. It also meant the beginning of a video game franchise, with several sequels and spin-offs to follow in the following years. Yet, we will focus on one of those follow-ups here – Medal of Honor: Frontline.
Released for the then-current-gen consoles, the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube, the game featured a similar quality in its action setpieces as previous games in the series. Only this time, it was powered by greater technology than the primitive PS1, bringing such historical moments as D-Day and the Battle of Arnhem gloriously to life in ways that had never been done before. I can already hear those who grew up with the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault PC game argue that it was that title that did the cinematic experience better, but Frontline was many players’ introduction to the series as a whole. The opening D-Day level, while not as graphically compelling as today’s games, is still playable, with excellent sound design and voice acting creating an intense atmosphere. The battle reeks of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opening in terms of tone, but since the series’ origins lie with the aforementioned director, it shouldn’t be that surprising.
But, as veterans of the game are no doubt aware, the majority of Frontline doesn’t have you fighting huge battles alongside fellow comrades-in-arms but has you as an agent infiltrating Nazi Germany. Frontline pits you in the shoes of soldier-turned-OSS (nowadays known as the CIA) agent, Jimmy Patterson who must go through nineteen deadly missions, from investigating secret German weapons facilities to sabotaging U-boats to obtaining classified Nazi documents. Patterson can safely be described as a mute, WWII-era Rambo, as an overwhelming percentage of these missions involve him having to eradicate entire facilities-worth of Nazi soldiers alone as he goes about his business. The good thing though, is that it is damn well fun, thanks to the combination of an impressive presentation and enjoyable gameplay with a whole host of different weapons at your disposal. From the M1 Garand to the Thompson to the German MP40, gunning down hordes of relentless Nazis is as fun today as it was back in 2002 when the game was released. Yeah, sure, the AI isn’t as up to scratch as that of more modern games, but going through corridors, single-handedly mowing down Nazis with a machine gun or picking them off with a sniper rifle from afar is still as deliciously fun as ever.
Perhaps a glowing difference to the CoDs of today is the game’s lack of a rest-and-recover health system. Instead, the more Jimmy gets shot, the more his health will deteriorate. Medical packs dotted around the levels will refill it. If that weren’t humorous enough a walk down memory lane, then the fact that the game allows you to have multiple weapons in your possession at one time will. Apparently, Jimmy – like many of other of his contemporary World War II FPS protagonists – has superhuman strength and can hold a multitude of heavy weaponry at once, including a machine gun, rifle and bazooka!
Questionable weapon-carrying aside though, what makes Frontline arguably better in the presentation department than many WWII games that have come before and after it is the music. Like with the first game in the series, Frontline employs the masterwork of composer genius, Michael Giacchino (whose recent film credits include Spider-Man: Homecoming and War of the Planet of the Apes). The brilliance of the music is that it captures the villainy and tyranny of Nazi Germany as well as the humanity and loss in war. In the levels ‘Rough Landing’ and ‘Arnhem Knights’, for example, Giacchino employs a child’s voice which sings sombrely throughout these levels as a dramatic accompaniment to the horrors of war. Then there are the urgent, momentous violins of the manor house mission, which perfectly captures the feeling of being discovered by Nazi soldiers. It was here you had to fight your way through the manor house to rescue your informant. The music is such a character of the game, one wonders whether Frontline would be the same game without it. Regardless, it helps give the game a more heightened sense of cinematic emotion that many more modern WWII games intrinsically lack.
But whatever more recent WWII games may lack, they have much to thank Medal of Honor: Frontline for since it paved the way for their existence. The game scored $95 million in the United States alone and gaming publication Next Generation ranked it as the eighth-highest selling game launched for the GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2 between January 2000 and 2006. The game also found great success in the United Kingdom, selling at least 600,000 copies and attaining Platinum status on PlayStation 2.
A year after the game’s release, the first Call of Duty would be released and war-based FPS’s would continue to flourish in the game industry. They continue to do so – and with the big CoD’s return to a World War II-era setting next month (November 2017), it sits as a pleasant reminder of what led to games of its kind. And with the game having a remaster available for the PlayStation Network, there is simply no excuse not to check this one out.