We have no idea why World War II has been such a hot genre over the past few years, but since cool games like Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms were part of the deluge, we never cared to complain.
Now, we care. The Medal of Honor series, once the king of the console WWII fraggers, has seen better days. We hoped the rickety Rising Sun was just a strange anomaly, but the equally marginal Medal of Honor: European Assault proves otherwise and has somehow made us sick of every single other WWII game. Hach der bargain bin!
European Assault features a short campaign through the European theatre as its sole single-player option. Here you assume the identity of U.S. Army Lieutenant William Holt, who is represented in the game as both an old man narrating a war story and a young, strapping hero living in the midst of one. But instead of dealing with any personal drama, the old man just makes generalizations ("There's nothing good about wars, but there is good in why you fight wars") over stock footage of battleships, while the young version never says much of anything. Even though the presentation suggests the telling of a story, none is ever told.
So the plot is AWOL, but the action is ever-present. European Assault throws wave after wave of Nazi scum against you and your squad-mates, and like a pro surfer, you ride 'em into the ground.
But unlike surfing, European Assault is really easy. You just enter a combat zone, press a button to duck behind something, peek out and kill every bad guy you see. If you stand out in the open, every bullet fired will hit you, but from behind a crate or around a corner you're virtually invincible.
While peeking out, this is what you'll see: several crates with Nazis sitting behind them. Each will duck behind his crate for a couple seconds, then stand up and shoot randomly. They'll never tire of this, and they'll repeat the exact same routine until you've killed them all. When this is done, you move forward to the next set of crates, triggering more Nazis to run out and assume positions behind yet more crates.
Sometimes, more come to replace their fallen comrades, endlessly. To stem the tide, you need to charge their primary waypoint (the place they head to each time they spawn). This is where Adrenaline comes in handy, which is accrued every time you kill an enemy. When the meter is full, you can enter Adrenaline Mode, pulling a Neo by slowing down time and becoming nigh invincible. So you use Adrenaine, run up, kill everyone, peek over whatever obstacle is there for you, and resume target practice.
Even though you're playing a first-person shooter, most of the game feels like Hogan's Alley...except in that game, the bad guys could actually shoot back. You just sit there lining up headshot after headshot, missing, reloading, and trying again without any real action. Danger is communicated by terrible things happening to the men around you via scripted events, making the game feel like sort of a lighthearted tour through World War II Europe, rather than a frenetic, deadly battle.
Just as it pretends to tell a story and pretends to place you in the midst of action, European Assault also pretends to put you in charge of a four-man squad. The squad controls are simple: one button issues an attack command, another issues a retreat command. If your men are wounded, you can heal them by getting close and pressing a button as long as you have a med-kit to spare. But your men move when you move, so whenever you approach them in an attempt to heal, they'll get up and move because you just moved. You wind up chasing your wounded men back and forth between the same two spots, trying to heal them, feeling like a moron for even caring.
Besides, no matter how much you persist in healing your men, tanks will be the end of them. Tanks bear 100% of the difficulty factor in European Assault because they're extremely tough to kill and can dish out a lot of damage. As you reach the later stages, you can expect to find one or two in nearly every skirmish. To destroy a tank, you either must hit it with three rockets or several perfectly placed hand grenades.
The difficulty lies in the fact that rockets are rare and grenades bounce off the damn things.
So you have to strafe around the tank, avoiding its turret while lobbing grenades. In the meantime, enemies are able to hit you since you're out in the open. Eventually, you'll either get shot to death by the enemies, run out of grenades and get shot to death by the tank, or blow up the tank and resume picking off enemies from behind crates. Frankly, we're torn between the first and second options.
Occasionally, there is a fourth option í¢â‚¬" avoiding the tanks altogether. Even though European Assault is a linear game with linear missions, you can sometimes choose between two different routes. While there's no way of knowing which of these will lead you to a tank your first time through a level, it's nice to have choices. There are also a handful of secondary objectives to be completed (or not), some of which are obvious while others must be found, just like your nemeses.
Nemeses are like mini-bosses í¢â‚¬" there's one in each level. Basically, you can identify them by the German cross above their heads and the way they move during combat. However, they still move in rigidly fixed patterns and are just as fond of poking their heads out as their weaker comrades. And no, they can't hit you if you're peeking over a crate.
Although European Assault isn't much of a game, it does benefit from some decent production values. Many levels are populated with scores of enemies and allied troops, who are constantly being blown up by random explosions. And while there's always a lot of on-screen activity, the framerate almost never bogs down. The models are a bit blocky and many of the textures are washed-out, but at least it runs well. The Gamecube, PS2 and Xbox versions all look identical, although that's not something you want to hear if you own a Gamecube or an Xbox.
Regardless of your system, the floating icons look ridiculous. Instead of grabbing realistic looking guns dropped by enemy soldiers, every acquirable weapon is represented by a blue, two-dimensional floating pistol í¢â‚¬" even the rocket launchers! I went through half the game thinking I was passing up hand guns. Presumably this decision makes the game easier to pick up and play, but it also ruins any sense of immersion. So much for authenticity.
European Assault's music and sound effects aren't nearly as chintzy. While the score is your typical, patriotic, sentimental World War II stuff, it's still pretty and sounds clear. The effects are equally excellent. Your boots crunch the gravel, explosions blast through the fog of war, and your ears ring whenever something large explodes right next to you.
Everything I've said goes for every version of European Assault. The graphics, controls, load times and multiplayer options are all the same, which means none of them are online. There's really no excuse anymore for releasing a first-person shooter on the Xbox or PS2 with no online features, but that's exactly the case here. Instead, up to four players can compete in any of several multiplayer games on one system. This wouldn't be so bad if the game featured bots like Conker: Live and Reloaded, but it doesn't. If you think Capture the Flag is boring, try it with only two players...or even four.
Or better yet, don't. Medal of Honor: European Assault gives World War II games a bad name by skimping on the essentials - story, A.I. and multiplayer - to focus on floating icons and the art of hiding behind crates. Instead, just hide your wallet.