A crash landing.
Congratulations, soldier! You have volunteered for one of the most thrilling, certifiably dangerous experiments in military history: you are going to get on a plane, fly over Nazi strongholds in the dead of night, then jump out of the plane with your gun blazing. Don’t look so pale, soldier, that’s your target coming up. Just hold on tight to your ‘chute and don’t land in front of the tanks!
And while you’re at it, don’t play Medal of Honor: Vanguard. This short, mediocre WWII shooter might make you want to jump out of a plane, but for all the wrong reasons.
Your hero, Col. Frank Keegan, drops into Italy and France to disable artillery, clear out German bunkers and overtake a dozen occupied villages. Along the way you’ll demolish bridges, blow up a few tanks and recover people and papers; your few moments of rest often turn into shooting galleries as you repel Nazi ambushes. It’s a straightforward series of corridors and the occasional large room, with no big surprises.
Spastic AI allies and enemies really test your patience. You want to take cover behind a wall and open fire, but NPC allies usually take every safe spot and muscle you out of the way, so you crawl behind them and wait until their ass gets out of your sights...now the Nazi down the street can’t decide whether to stick his gun over his cover or to the side, so you wait two minutes for his head to pop back out. Frailty, thy name is whack-a-mole!
Despite having only a dozen missions, Vanguard has longish levels and lots of checkpoints. Each of the four short campaigns ends with a half-complete set of ‘medals’ you can earn for making headshots or not dying during a level. How about some medals for grenades or melee? I know I could use a lot of purple hearts for being wounded. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention some of the secret rifle scope power-ups, because they are so hidden and minor that I never came across one. Back in my day, we learned how to snipe a guy if he was twenty pixels tall and we liked it! So no love lost there.
The level pacing throws the whole game off-target: you start the game with your first jump, then spend half of it crawling across a visual wasteland of overcast skies and dull landscapes. The game picks up a bit at the midpoint, when you’re making more jumps and knocking out tanks, but the excitement doesn't last. This is one game that should have battalions of character, what with the young soldiers who like to jump out of planes, but it’s mostly a drab and dreary business.
The PS2 Dualshock is a jumble of buttons: a button to run, a button to kneel down, a button to stand up, a button to put a grenade in your hand and a button to throw it; it’s an extremely clunky layout by today’s standards, as if they were trying to squeeze gameplay from pushing extra buttons. The Wiimote uses a much more natural layout: the vertically-stacked C and Z buttons, for example, make sense for kneeling and standing, or you can simply shake the Nunchuk to do both.
The Wii control scheme is highly adjustable, you can turn off the gesture control if it’s getting in your way or change the motion range and sensitivity. These creature comforts are nice but some of the default keys are tough to reach or broken. I spent ten minutes shaking and pressing the controller and I couldn’t reload the standard BAR rifle. Broken reloading in an FPS? Really?
Weak graphics and a vague heads-up display also make the game much harder to play. I respect that the uniforms are supposed to blend in with cover, but the washed-out palette is the real camouflage. Cool visuals like tall grass look like they should help you, but they only get in the way of your camera - the AI will psychically spot your location and shoot you right down. As you blindly crawl through the brush, you realize that you can’t even use the onscreen radar to figure out where a Nazi is within ten feet of you, and by then you’re getting shot. Though the whole screen turns red, you can rarely tell if death is one bullet away or ten. Somehow the graphics seem a little better on PS2 than on Wii, though even at 480i, I had trouble spotting Nazis.
Explosions and airplane motors roar over the soundtrack, but the final mix is a little bland. With every sound competing for the most decibels, even huge events like a plane crash are lost in the cacophony of shouting and gunfire. Subtitles are available to help you keep up with the constantly barking officers.
Like the single-player mode, multiplayer is a limited and bare experience. How cool would it be to pick your spawn point by skydiving? You won’t find out in Vanguard. Instead, you play deathmatch, capture the flag, capture the flag (yes twice) or king of the hill on six maps with four people total. The maps are small enough to keep you spawning in the same place, and the screen is split but everybody still points at the whole screen to aim... it’s a little strange and it only makes the graphics tinier.
I was all riled up for some paratrooping, but after a few hours in the French marshes I’d forgotten what I signed up for. I want to see the recruitment contract again - no wait - I think I’d like to jump out of a plane. Medal of Honor: Vanguard is ultimately a bland, thankless and unconvincing entry in the annals of WWII games. Retreat!