War Games

Guadalcanal diary: Storming the islands of the Pacific in 'Medal of Honor: Rising Sun'
Images courtesy of Electronic Arts
Medal of Honor: Rising Sun
Electronic Arts

I've been shooting people all morning, and quite frankly it's starting to get old. I've survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Guadalcanal. I've been a secret agent in Singapore and blown up a bridge on the River Kwai. I've even ridden a machine-gun-mounted elephant through the jungles of Burma. What began as a quick jaunt across the Pacific Rim has, by now, become a grindingly boring slog. This, I gather, is war.

Or at least a war video game, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, the latest entry in Steven Spielberg's terrifically popular World War II-based franchise. Since it debuted in 1999 as an interactive spin-off to Saving Private Ryan, Medal of Honor has gathered a devoted following for its mixture of historical subjects and near-cinematic rendering. (In this, Medal of Honor is a far better example of the slow, steady convergence of Hollywood and the interactive world than dross like the Tomb Raider films.) The previous installment, for instance, began with a scene right out of the movies: Unsuspecting players were dumped on Omaha Beach and forced to make their way through a deafening hailstorm of bullets. Even among jaded video gamers, the sequence became instantly famous.

Rising Sun likewise begins with a blockbuster. You wake up below decks on the USS California, an anonymous grunt roused from sleep. Before you can even get your bearings, an explosion rocks the ship. Surrounded by panicked crewmen, you make your way up to the deck. Time seems to slur as you watch vast swarms of Japanese fighter planes strafe the burning ships around you. Later on, you see the USS Arizona cut in two by a torpedo.

You may--with good reason--question whether it's in poor taste to make a video game based on Pearl Harbor (though that certainly didn't stop Michael Bay). In its limited defense, the Medal of Honor franchise has always tried to leaven its carnage with context--distinctly Spielbergian genuflection to the valor of the Greatest Generation, mostly. The chapters in Rising Sun are spliced with the kind of documentary war footage that plays in a continuous loop on the History Channel. Medal of Honor also includes interviews with myriad veterans and POWs--although one might wonder if this earnest attempt at historical fidelity isn't lost on the game's target teenage demographic. (Despite near-continuous violence, the PG-rated Medal of Honor is downright tame compared to other popular game franchises like Grand Theft Auto.)

Here, by way of example, is a snippet from Amazon.com's user-review section, always a reliable barometer of dyslexic 12-year-old opinion: "You'll find that people are shooting at eachother, but nobody is dying! What fun is that!? So I ended up walking around somewhere in Japan for about five minutes, fighting off japs like Rambo, no one could kill me. This game sucks uranus!!!"

Despite the Spielberg imprimatur and the Hollywood gloss, Rising Sun turns out to be a pretty substandard action game, with your average Rambo-like supersoldier running around various exotic locales blasting squiggly bad guys. Occasionally one of your Japanese foes will toss a grenade your way or bark an order--which, given the silliness of their strategy, must translate as, "Hey all, let's stand here in front of this American's machine gun." For the most part, though, the enemy soldiers you mow down throughout could just as easily be space aliens or zombie mutants from Uranus. And yet, uninspired as it is, there's also something sort of off-putting about Medal of Honor's solemnity: Any video game that aspires to such moral seriousness is bound to end up seeming ridiculous, or worse, faintly obscene.

Then again, if Medal of Honor doesn't tickle your fancy, there's another title that's sure to land beneath the trees of well-behaved American boys this season--one that, in keeping with the times, will presumably educate its players in the vagaries of authoritarian Islam and petroleum fires. It's called Conflict: Desert Storm II--Back to Baghdad.

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