Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is just like the movies.
Once, during a shootout at a downed locomotive train, I ran into a car and grabbed an oversized German beer tankard to smash a Nazi in the face. Later, beneath a French sunset — a painter’s swirl of orange and blue — I reloaded a submachine gun from the bushes of a winery. When I hear the signal, I stand and open fire.
Very few instances of gaming in 2020 match up to the immersion in Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. A groundbreaking virtual reality shooter from Respawn Entertainment, it may someday be regarded as the game that changed VR forever. It also made me really, really sick after a few straight hours of play.
The key difference between Above and Beyond and any other World War II shooter is that I’m physically moving in virtual reality, rather than mashing buttons on a controller. Though I still run around using the left thumbstick like a typical shooter, I physically duck and squat behind cars and barrels for cover, and lean around to take aim. It’s a simple concept with mind-blowing results. In Above and Beyond, I feel I’m not just playing a mute American soldier aiding the French resistance against the Third Reich — I am that soldier.
Though Above and Beyond’s mechanics are familiar, Respawn have achieved the impossible in the realm of virtual reality. There’s just one steep cost holding it back from greatness: My own body.
Running on VR legs
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond reboots a franchise dating back to 1999 and brings it to the Oculus Rift. The game boasts nearly the same technical sophistication and emotional depth as any console title, with a single-player narrative and honest-to-goodness multiplayer. There’s also a standout bonus feature: an unlockable documentary series called “The Gallery.” (More on that later.)
How does Above and Beyond do in VR? Maybe too well. I’m no VR newbie, I can do hours of Beat Saber and Superhot, and I’ve just adopted Supernatural for quarantine fitness. Yet the game’s dizzying ambition — to bring the console FPS experience to VR — has a tendency to leave me literally dizzy. In the days I spent with Above and Beyond, I found it necessary to have 10-15 minutes of shut eye (I can’t even watch TV) after each hour-long session just to reorient myself.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond creative director Peter Hirschman assures me that “VR legs” are not unexpected.
“Everyone’s comfort is different,” Hirschman tells Inverse. “It’s like sea legs. Physiological things, your inner ear, your perception — we learned this in development. I don’t expect players to play for months at a time, but as VR becomes more prevalent, people will spend more time and get to it quicker.”
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond bends over backwards to ensure the experience can be painless; a comically thorough “medical check” at the start of the game precedes even the shooting tutorial. (A full 45 minutes could pass before you’re on the first mission.) But if the end result is fewer headaches, it’s time well spent. Additionally, there are no penalties for skipping certain segments of the game that are, to put it simply, too much.
This is also why the game’s single-player “chapters” are shorter than a typical console shooter like Call of Duty. “We wanted to make sure the player had natural breaks,” Hirschmnann says. “Pausing VR is a weird thing. You’re pausing reality to step out and back in. That is why we broke down what would be a traditional FPS campaign into chunks. VR legs are a real thing. The game’s structure from the get-go was building these natural breaks.”
Above and Beyond’s natural pauses are appreciated, and the game’s pulpy World War II narrative, with a tone reminiscent of movies like Captain America: The First Avenger, is a genuine hoot for the stretches of gameplay where I didn’t want to hurl. (I want it on record: I never threw up.)
But the reason I was even willing to suffer was to unlock the game’s true beating heart and soul: The Gallery, an unlockable documentary series in which real World War II veterans recall memories from the frontlines and revisit the places where their lives changed forever. Through the magic of VR, Respawn brings you with them, where your ugly tears may smudge your Oculus lenses.
A sort of interactive monument, The Gallery is an exceptional piece of VR filmmaking with seismic potential as an educational tool. As much as World War II is overcooked in pop culture, Medal of Honor is hyper-aware of the disappearing Greatest Generation. “It is an opportunity to capture testimony,” Hirshcmann says. “No matter what you read in a book or see in a movie, hearing first-hand what people experience is critical. It’s an opportunity to share [stories] and to build a virtual monument, one that isn’t made out of stone but out of words.”
What The Gallery does so well is instill a sense of empathy for those who sacrificed so much — family, friends, even their own conscience. The Gallery drops audiences into mundane places where the most harrowing stories of the war unfolded. A stand out moment: An American vet recalls when his company was forced to leave behind an escaped Jewish boy in the German woods. As the vet recalls the “forlorn look” on the boy’s face that haunts him even now, The Gallery brings players to that exact road in those exact woods, to look in 360 degrees.
Over poignant voice-over where you can hear a 90-year-old war veteran emotionally crack, you can almost picture the boy in front of you. There are many moments like this in The Gallery.
While Respawn programmed a great FPS in VR, what they really have is an otherworldly empathy machine that film critic Roger Ebert thought only belonged to cinema.
“That’s the power of the VR platform,” says Hirschmann. “Your brain processes it in a different way. You always know you’re wearing a headset, no one is tricked. But your brain can’t help but process at an emotional level, and that naturally leads to empathy. That was the vision when we kicked off a few years ago. The whole goal is empathy."
"The echoes are louder than they've ever been."
I’m conflicted over Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. I can’t praise the game’s technical merits enough. Its existence is science-fiction made real. But my nausea after every session makes it difficult to recommend, even if it’s a more attainable and worthwhile option than hunting for a PlayStation 5 this holiday.
Tonally, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond has two faces, neither of which are ever in conflict. There’s a fun World War II adventure that feels like an interactive Hollywood war movie. On the flip side, there’s a gripping educational tool that brings a gut-check to video games, which has a nasty tendency to glorify war as a life-changing challenge than a life-ending one.
“War is awful. The cost of war is terrible,” Hirschmann says. I’ve never served, but I have family who have and I don’t disagree. “World War II was a seminal event that affects the world we live in today, and the echoes are louder than they’ve ever been. Knowing history is crucial.” 8/10
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is available now for Oculus Rift.
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