Each year we seem to get the same lineup: a new Tony Hawk, a new Madden, a new Mario Party and of course, a new Medal of Honor. Various game developers have all but burned out the Medal of Brothers with Honor who are also a Band in Europe genre, also known as the WWII shooter. Call of Duty was refreshing a few years back, but after two sequels it has become almost as generic as everything else on the market. Penny Arcade said it best when they called Normandy the new Hoth, but lo and behold, the monotony has finally been broken. EA has genuinely surprised me with their latest installment in the MOH series, and they’ve restored just a tiny bit of my faith in shooters on the Wii.
Medal of Honor Vanguard crept in under the radar as the first legitimate Wii FPS in a while. It follows Frank Keegan, part of the 82nd Airborne division, during his campaigns in Europe. The story isn’t all that important—it feels like most other MOH background setups—but the cutscenes between campaigns are a nice historical touch.
I have not played Call of Duty 3 on the Wii so I cannot make a comparison there, but I can tell you that Vanguard is far and away more enjoyable than Red Steel, and considerably more comfortable. From what I’ve heard from other gamers Vanguard’s controls aren’t as tight as COD 3, but compared to Red Steel, Vanguard feels like a dream come true. Aiming and shooting do not have that aggravating “floaty” feeling—your gun doesn’t pivot as you twist the remote, and you can even adjust the threshold of the now-common bounding box.
There is a deceptive option to “lock” the crosshairs to the center of the screen, but this option does only that; your gun will still stray into the dead zone, and then your view will begin to turn. This little lie hacked me off a bit, but otherwise the aiming was very serviceable.
Hurling grenades is also much more comfortable. You can’t roll them along the floor like in Red Steel, but it really isn’t necessary in Vanguard. Instead, you switch to grenades by pressing right on the D-pad, hold down the B-trigger, cast with the remote and let go of the trigger at the end of the throw. Holding B locks the view so you put the grenade exactly where you want it to go. The whole process is natural and very intuitive, and I hope other games adopt Vanguard’s grenade mechanics.
One thing Red Steel did not allow was close-combat melee attacks—the best we got in that game were some awkward Tanto slashes that were hard to pull off with the nunchuk. Vanguard lets you thrust the remote forward to smack any intruding Nazis, which feels quite satisfying when it works; the rumble gives a sharp jolt as you knock the enemy’s helmet off and ring his bell with the butt of your rifle. The motion has a tendency to throw off aim, however, so hand-to-hand comes off more as a novelty than a useful feature.
The other gesture-based actions are more frustrating to execute and might even get you killed in the head of battle. Jerking the nunchuk up and down will make you jump and crouch, snapping it left will make you do a 180 turn, and jerking right will reload your gun. These movements are easily confused; I often found myself ducking and spinning in continuous circles when I simply wanted to slap home a fresh clip. Luckily, the options menu allows any of these movements to be disabled. Ducking and jumping were much easier handled by the nunchuk’s C and Z buttons, but reloading is mapped to the remote’s small 2 button, and hitting in during a firefight is uncomfortable to say the least. Ultimately I kept the 180 and reload gestures activated, but reloading with a movement just isn’t very responsive anyway—if Red Steel has Vanguard beat in any respect, it’s gesture reloading.
Vanguard has the signature feel and flavor of the older MOH games, but with a healthy dose of modern shooter conventions. MOH Frontline was the last one that I played to any great extent, and the series’ mechanics have improved significantly. There is much less of a focus on out-and-out shooting; the gameplay has shifted from a Quake or Half-Life perspective to more of a COD one. That means you’ll be taking cover, a lot, much like Gears of War. Battlefields are littered with debris, rock and other places to take short refuge, and considering the hail of bullets it’s usually a good idea.
To take full advantage of this style of play, Vanguard has a tight and very intuitive cover system. Holding the A button will pull up the iron sights of the current gun, and tilting the control stick lets you peek out from cover with complete analog flexibility. The frequent need for shots from cover makes this feature more than just a gimmick, and it’s used much more than annoying “lean” moves that are practically untouched in other shooters. Unfortunately, with the cover system comes a regrettable trend in recent shooters: recharging health.
Everything was fine with FPS’s, and then Halo had to show up and ruin everything. In a magical sci-fi universe with recharging shields that can take the brunt of a small nuke, regenerating shields make sense. On a 1944 battlefield, however, taking a quick rest won’t remedy that gaping gunshot wound that’s spilling blood. Granted, this glaring inaccuracy is most evident on the easy setting, where you can take a pound of lead to your guts before you need to worry about the red creeping into your screen. On harder difficulties, however, one or two shots will put you in the danger zone. Elite is particularly brutal; I couldn’t even make it past the first level.
The one feature that makes Vanguard stand out from the rest of the MOH games, and shooters in general, are the parachute sequences. Being a part of the 82nd Airborne, Corp. Keegan starts his campaigns with a daring (usually emergency) leap from an airplane. These sequences are the best parts of the game, and require you to hold the remote and nunchuk like the control straps of a parachute. Moving the controllers in different combinations dictates the movements of the chute, and navigating to flare-marked landing zones earns a medal and nets special weapons and upgrades. Sadly, there are only three of these sequences, and they’re all very short. As Vanguard’s defining addition to the MOH family, I would want almost every level to begin with a chute drop. Vanguard itself is a pretty brief game, spanning only a dozen levels or so.
The levels themselves are pretty long, though, and the action, while mostly scripted, rarely lets up. The computer controlled team members that fight along side you have impressive levels of intelligence; the things they say are usually context sensitive. For instance, they’ll tell you to keep down if you’re taking fire, or comment on a clean shot that you just made. Conversely, enemy AI is pretty weak—the Nazis will take cover and pop out for quick shots, but they mostly work individually and don’t do a good job with flanking or other complex strategies. Their uncanny accuracy and the aforementioned difficulty of elite mode make up for their relative stupidity.
The gameplay is the best the MOH series has offered in years, and if this were a simple last-gen title I’d be duly impressed, but elements of Vanguard’s PS2 port nature start to creep through in the Wii build. Despite doing a good job with the Wii controls, Vanguard still has dated graphics. They’re much better than COD 3’s, but that really isn’t saying much because that game looked terrible on the Wii. Textures are still very flat and bland, the levels are a bit too dark and gray, and poly counts could be better on the character models. About the only thing that really stands out is the lighting—the illumination effects are lively and atmospheric. If you don’t take a close look, Vanguard is an attractive game, but it hardly pushes the Wii’s modest graphical abilities.
The music and sound are also run of the mill, at least for MOH. The series is known for its iconic orchestral soundtrack, but after five games of the same epic melodies and chorus it starts to run together. Vanguard has its own signature pieces of music that try to distinguish it from its brethren, but only a trained ear will pick up much of a difference. I enjoyed the music, but it didn’t bring a patriotic tear to my eye. Voice acting is high quality as usual, with both English and German dialogue. I think I even heard John DiMaggio in there. Sound effects are generic WWII; after being used in so many games, they’re getting as tired as Star Wars blaster shots and lightsaber hums.
Vanguard also includes a small multiplayer component, which is fun for a few matches but wears thin rather quickly. Nintendo has currently dropped the ball in regard to online play, so that means that there’s no play over wifi. The Wii controls add some novelty to the multiplayer, but there is no option to deactivate the annoying nunchuk gesture controls that can make the single player mode confusing. The multiplayer is a small addition to an overall decent package that rounds things out, and nothing more.
It has its flaws, but MOH Vanguard is one of the better WWII shooters I’ve played recently. It does the Wii controls more than halfway right; they’re a little loose and the nunchuk gestures are kind of random, but on the whole EA has given us a good taste of the Wii’s FPS potential. Other than the novelty of the Wii controls, Vanguard does little to distance itself from the rest of the series. The parachute sections were never fully capitalized on, but the analog aiming felt great and I hope other developers adopt the idea. Vanguard is the PS2 port that tried and partially won—it disguises its last-gen nature rather well. Now let’s hope for some original Wii FPS’s that learn from the ports that came before them.