Medal of Honor: Warfighter might be the most depressing game I've played since the expectation-defying Amy for Xbox Live Arcade, and that's saying something given that it's not half bad.
If the Xbox Live beta (currently available to all Xbox Live Gold subscribers) is anything to go by, Danger Close has bolted together a workmanlike military shooter with a more than usually fervent taste for unlocks and support actions. The handling is pleasantly hefty, the guns are enormous and drowning in customisable widgets, and the one map on display is complex enough to reward experimentation within a soldier class, but simple enough that you can generally follow your nose. I'm enjoying it, for the most part.
So why is it depressing? Because what we've played so far feels less like a game as an exercise in treading muddy water, and that utterly contrasts the ingenuity on show among rivals. The first-person action extravaganza is undergoing something of a renaissance right now, as more prescient publishers build up new brands and rejuvenate existing ones ahead of the costly next gen shift. Dishonored shows that there's room to breathe between the extremes of "cataclysmically huge open world" and "six-hour QTE corridor". While not much of a leap beyond the first game, Borderlands 2 is a reminder that ludicrous narrative setups and bold colours can sell the big bucks.
Coming up we've got Far Cry 3, madder than a sack of mating adders and twice as deadly, and the searing immensity of Halo 4. Even the lumbering Call of Duty has come to see the point of left-field design - Black Ops 2's Zombies Mode is an extravagantly messy road trip around North America, equal parts Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead. Medal of Honor is definitely the odd one out, a franchise seemingly content to spiral downward into hair-splitting iteration. The goal, one suspects, isn't so much to compete with Call of Duty as to keep the seat warm for Battlefield 4.
EA's attempts to claim otherwise aren't very convincing. Often-quoted executive Frank Gibeau discussed the importance of differentiation earlier this year, pointing to Medal of Honor's "realism" as a viable alternative to Battlefield's... I'm not sure, exactly. They both look pretty "realistic" to me, inasmuch as there's a lot of dust and scope wobble, and the fine details may not count for much when players are asked to choose between yet another gritty blaster and Battlefield 3's prosperous array of DLC packs.
The publisher has also presented Warfighter as a sort of extra-bolshy United Nations, a multicultural free-for-all featuring 10 Special Forces units from all across the globe. Right now, the ramifications of this boil down to (a) different classes and skins, all of whom wear silly hats, and (b) yet another reminder of that unfortunate back-tracking episode concerning multiplayer incarnations of the Taliban (latterly the "Opposing Force") in 2010. Danger Close wants us to think that Warfighter is a tale of common soldiers, united by their craft and insulated against regional politics - but evidently, such tales are only possible once you cut out the combatants that aren't on George W. Bush's Christmas card list.
The more down-to-earth take on Warfighter is that it's a quieter spin on Battlefield 3 which is geared towards infantry warfare. A multiplayer buddy system fosters a certain amount of casual cooperation - you can spawn on your buddy, providing he's not getting shot to pieces, and you can see each other through walls. Idiot-proof context-specific support actions like rearming or healing other players make teamwork less fussy than in Battlefield, but the trade-off is that teamwork seems less meaningful - you end up automatically thumbing a button whenever a prompt alerts you to the possibility of being helpful.