If you ask someone that grew up with the console what their favourite games on PS2 are, oftentimes Medal of Honor: Frontline will make their list. And that’s hardly surprising, after all, it’s considered by many to be one of the best first-person shooters on the console. But how much of that is rose tint? How well has it actually aged?
Medal of Honor: Frontline is one of the three 2002 entries into the series, and the only console entry of that year. Released on the Playstation 2 on May 29th, it was later released on the GameCube and Xbox. Developed by EA Los Angeles (formerly DreamWorks Interactive, currently DICE Los Angeles, briefly Danger Close Games) Frontline is the 4th entry in the Medal of Honor series as a whole, and the second for consoles. The franchise is now largely dormant due to the extremely poor performance of Medal of Honor: Warfighter, the second entry post 2010 reboot.
Frontline is one of those games released at an awkward point for its genre, from a time before the fairly radical shift that was Call of Duty’s explosion onto the market, for better or worse. There’s no magenta keys for magenta doors or anything like in other similarly timed games such as Warhammer 40k: Firewarrior with its partially regenerating health and primary/secondary guns alongside coloured door keys, but the gamefeel is very similar to games like Doom rather than later genre-definers.
The core gameplay isn’t unfun per se, it’s just awkward. Aiming is awkward, shooting is awkward, movement is awkward, the controls are awkward, almost as much as the animations but we’ll get back to that. Despite these issues, and there are many, shooting Nazis rarely gets old. Especially since you can shoot them right in their nazi dicks.
Let’s talk positives. The score is great. It complements the action wonderfully, making things feel cool and heroic. When the music swells as I mow some nazis down with a shotgun, it gives me the warm and fuzzies. The story is interesting in the same way that an old war movie playing midday on a Sunday is interesting. Which is to say it isn’t, but it’s enough to keep you engaged.
The game’s player character, Lt. Jimmy Patterson is just a blank slate and has no real character, much like the protagonists of the aforementioned war movies. Did I mention that shooting nazis is fun? Because it is. At the end of each level, you get a stats sheet which tells you how many times you shot a nazi in the dick, which is a good touch. It says groin though.
As fun as it is, shooting nazis in the dick can’t carry an entire game, so, unfortunately, this is where the positives end. The framerate is simply bad. Not always but I’d say the majority of the time it was affecting gameplay. If a game performed this badly on my computer, I’d stop playing it. I don’t know if it was always this bad, though maybe I’m just spoiled by 60fps now. Mild motion sickness resulted from the lower framerates for me, so if you have issues with motion sickness in games this probably isn’t the best choice for you. The framerate issues are made even more strange by the simple fact that this game does not look good at all. Even for the time, the textures are very low quality, reviews from its era pointed this out. So this isn’t just my modern eyes being spoiled by 4k textures. The graphical muddiness is made even worse by the constant screen-shake. Some levels are worse than others for scripted shakes caused by explosions, but the camera shaking from being shot is always there and never welcome.
The AI is also bad, or as I put it in my notes during my playthrough, “AI is a fuck”. There was one particularly amusing sequence on the pseudo-stealth bridge level where I came up some stairs next to a gun emplacement, and the nazi on the gun just stared at me shouting. So I shot him and his friend ran over and took his place, also staring at me while shouting. So naturally I shot him too. This repeated until all the nearby nazis were dead. While hilarious, it demonstrates just how bad the AI is. Most of the time — if they bother to shoot at all, they just stand in place shooting at you, sometimes they’ll take cover if it’s available (which is honestly just annoying more than anything as you have to watch their cover animations, which are not fantastic). They can also get stuck on objects, but their guns clip through them, meaning they can shoot you but you can’t shoot them. This did only happen less than ten times in total though, so it wasn’t super common.
While the death animations are unique, they’re bad on most levels but they’re almost charming. It reminds me of the old war movies that I don’t remember the names of that I’d watch as a kid, which makes sense as Spielberg’s inspiration for the series was Saving Private Ryan. It is, in many ways, a war movie game series. Shooting a nazi in the head and having him take one hand off his gun, put it to his head, look at his hand and only then have his brain realize it’s on the wall behind him is far from realistic but it’s just fun. It’s more of that war movie charm, enemies dropping over railings and giving Oscar-bait death performances.
Let’s talk guns! There are lots of them, but you’ll generally be using the same ones, which is unfortunate because a lot of them aren’t fun to use. The silenced pistol may as well be a water gun for all the good it’ll do you in a firefight. Not only does it do barely any damage, it’s also extremely inaccurate. Most of the guns feel inaccurate, even the sniper rifles. The shotgun is by far the most entertaining of the game’s selection.
It’s a sign of a good shooter if the shotgun is satisfying to use, and Frontline does pass that test — With caveats. While viscerally fun to use, it’s far too stingy with giving you ammo for it. It will, on occasion, give you some shells, point you to a room full of nazis with their abdomens intact and ask you to rectify that situation, but it does it far, far too infrequently. Often times it’ll take two shots to kill a target, largely due to inconsistent spread, and the game usually only gives you six at a time. The fun is always interrupted by a lack of ammo. Grenades should also pass the same test, but unfortunately the grenades available fail. They’re situational at best, and usually useless.
The difficulty is all over the place, I played on medium difficulty, and it ranged from boring to obnoxious. The lack of checkpoints made this vastly worse, dying near the end of a level because you can’t find health and having to start back at the beginning is extremely frustrating. One checkpoint per level would have improved things greatly, but I’m 16 years late on that advice. Being killed in one hit by a tank and having to start again is not what I would call particularly fun.
It’s unfortunate to revisit a game I played so much and loved so much and find it so lacking, but really I can’t think of many positives with this game. It’s simply aged badly. I still have fond memories, but they’re not for the game. Not really. They’re for the childhood that surrounded it. This game has aged about as well as bananas. Poorly.
I’m in the process of playing through all of the Playstation 2 entries in the series as part of a larger retrospective I’m working on, so if that interests you, consider following me on Twitter to get updates on it, or following this blog.