When Medal of Honor premiered, there was something inherently different about its approach to the first-person-shooter. There'd been war games before it, but nothing quite as compelling. Coming from Steven Spielberg's own Dreamworks videogame studio, it dumped players into the chaotic thick of war -- even if the game was limited by PlayStation's then-aging hardware. Since the first game, World War II shooters have become commonplace, and ironically, it's the once groundbreaking Medal of Honor series that's struggling to keep pace with competitors. Unfortunately for fans, European Assault does little to bring the series up to speed.
Part of what made the original games such an exhilarating experience was the immersion of being a fictional but emotionally real character in a believable war scenario. EA Los Angeles has tried grasping that pull once again with Hollywood writer/director John Milius of Apocalypse Now fame, but either Milius has lost his touch or the development team dropped the ball on implementation. European Assault's underlying storyline is a cut above the rest, but missing the hooks to make you part of the character. There's barely any reference to your persona in-game, instead limiting the narrative to short dialogue sequences by characters in-between mission cut-scenes. The pre-mission cinematic introductions, however, are excellent. Each was created with actual war footage, and features great commentary from the game's narrator, properly setting the stage for the battles ahead.
European Assault starts innocent enough. Loud, skull-rattling explosions happen in every direction, loads of Nazis are asking for pot shots and your brave brothers in arms are watching your back as you push forward. There's much to like about the game at this early stage, and even though the graphics engine is buckling under all the visual detail, the overall atmosphere is tense with spectacular effects (i.e. bombers dropping a massive payload right in front of you). This intensity and these moments of awe actually keep momentum throughout the entirety of the game. Plus, European Assault's emphasis on optional secondary objectives creates a sense of non-linearity not usually present in war shooters. In order to discover everything an area has to offer, players are encouraged to search around and discover hidden, secondary objectives that lead to medals and other unlockables within the game.
There's nothing wrong with a hard game. Look at Ninja Gaiden. An incredibly tough action game designed for the hardcore crowd that doesn't pretend to be anything but. European Assault, on the other hand, is a first-person-shooter aimed squarely at the mainstream gamer. When players move to the North Africa campaign, the second area of the game, the gameplay takes a radical turn. Previous levels were just balanced enough to keep players on their toes, but careful not to cross the line of frustration. With little warning, the game gets impossibly hard during the African campaign. The problem stems primarily from level design; you're presented with this wide-open, desert-like area to do battle, but are poorly equipped for the occasion, given the amount of opposition you'll face off against. Sure, you're outfitted with a sniper rifle, but what good is that when your ammunition's limited, and your other default option is a shotgun (an extremely close range weapon in a long range combat zone)? To make matters worse, enemies respawn endlessly, especially at crucial choke-points. Players are forced to recklessly charge forward and hope for the best as they get right up to the enemy with a buck shot. Have fun reloading that sequence a few dozen times.
And after the abysmal Rising Sun, it seems no amount of feedback has penetrated EA's development teams -- the A.I. in European Assault is shamefully bad. Everything's hunky-dory at the start of battle; the opposition fire from their pre-determined area of cover, and you pick 'em off as you move forward. Whenever the action becomes confrontational, however, the enemies suddenly become overrun with fear and start freaking out. Instead of standing their ground or finding another spot for cover, they have a tendency to run around spastically, making them more difficult targets, yes -- but also extremely silly. Throughout the game, most firefights explode like predictable Mexican standoffs and usually end with your enemies running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Although Medal of Honor has never been big on the multiplayer experience, European Assault shows more focus in that department. Strangely enough, the game lacks any sort of online support for its multiplayer modes. You're left with eight game types, several different class selections and 15 maps of varying sizes limited to regimented split-screen action. The pace of European Assault is much slower than something like Halo, meaning split-screen multiplayer suffers from player's inability to use surprise tactics. There's not even an option for system link. In the end, what could have been a great highlight to an otherwise straightforward single-player campaign ends as a wasted opportunity. Despite European Assault's range of multiplayer options, the glaring omission of online play and inability to enable any AI-controlled bots limits the possibilities. For fans, there's plenty here to dive into, but most gamers will end up passing.
Though it's a far cry from the game's origins, European Assault is by no means a terrible game, nor even the worst installment in the series. If you can stomach the somewhat random difficulty during the single-player campaign, you'll be treated to a mostly exhilarating trip through the different battles of Europe, including a virtual take on the Battle of the Bulge. It's not online, it's more of the same, and the game doesn't do much new, but for what it is, you could do worse than European Assault.