Above and Beyond reignites the flame of Medal Of Honor’s glory days, recapturing the charming tone and sensibilities that make the franchise unique from its counterparts, while also updating itself for a new generation, much more effectively than its previous reboot. Whereas the 2010 resurrection reinterpreted the franchise as a gritty, contemporary set shooter for the mainstream console audience, Titanfall developers Respawn revitalize Medal Of Honor’s slightly cheesy, Steve McQueen-esque approach to World War II heroism for VR platforms - though it’s a shame the title isn’t available for the much more accessible Oculus Quest or Quest 2.
Impeccable production quality in most regards cement Above and Beyond as a great return to form for Medal of Honor, though the developers first shot at a virtual reality title is a little rough around its virtual edges, and the result is much closer to a VR reimagining of the franchises PS2 days than it is to an impressive modern-day VR shooter.
While it’s multiplayer is relatively competent, and the Gallery documentaries are touching, it’s the bombastic, Spielbergian, globe-trotting campaign that really impresses. Though for a price tag that matches the platform defining Half Life-Alyx, I would have expected a little more consistency in its quality and polish for its VR sensibilities.
The Great Escape To VR
The early missions of Above and Beyond kick off the campaign to an explosively captivating start, quickly introducing the player to a core cast of incredibly charming characters who are surprisingly personable for an FPS. The underage and recklessly bold Ollie is brilliantly endearing, and while Sarge certainly ticks most of the boxes for a hardened Marine stereotype, his dry humor is a welcome change from his thousand duplicates that have commanded me in countless other shooters. The fiery Batiste sisters lead the hearteningly rebellious French Resistance gang, which includes the constantly bickering Vino twins, whose facetious squabbles made me chuckle even in high-stake scenarios. It’s these affable characters, light-hearted quips, and a wry sense of humor that really makes Above and Beyond stand out in an increasingly oversaturated genre that’s tired of overly gritty stories always populated by generic faceless squadrons of gruff men.
These characters propel the story through a globe-trotting narrative that sees the player fighting across Europe, engaging in all sorts of ridiculously over-the-top escapades that would be right at home in a 70’s Bond movie. Escaping an avalanche on a toboggan in the Norweigan Alps while also mowing down Nazis was a particular highlight, as was shooting down pursuing vehicles from a motorcycle's sidecar.
Though, this bombastic storytelling isn’t particularly consistent. The Storming of Omaha beach doesn’t feel nearly as chaotic or as grand in scale, as it should, instead seeming like it’s been tacked on just to tick boxes of the WW2 game expectations. Other missions aren’t paced particularly well, and drag on just a little bit longer than they should, while others fade to black just as it feels like they’re starting to get going.
In fact, fading to black is a particularly big problem for Above and Beyond’s storytelling. Each of the game's six chapters is split into 9 smaller missions, set in their own environmental spaces and with only one or 2 objectives, before fading to black to quickly shuffle you into the next space. While this technique does mean the developers can quickly jump you between locations with little downtime, it’s the most obvious sign of Respawn’s unfamiliarity with the VR space, and it’s really the key detractor that stops Above and Beyond from being a truly immersive experience, and really holds the title back from feeling like a proper big-budget VR title.
Punching Nazis Never Felt So Good
Where Respawn does excel in regards to VR however is its absolute mastery of combat. Everything from punching a Nazi in the face with your bare fist, to artfully throwing a knife in their back, even catching a grenade in mid-air and lobbing it back to its sender is a perfect reminder of the magic of VR, as is tossing a knife between your hand or biting the pin out of a grenade with your teeth, before tossing through a gap in a broken window.
Every single one of its guns is an absolute blast to use - no pun intended. Reloading a lever-action rifle with a one-handed flick of the wrist, or pumping a new shell into a combat shotgun is just as satisfying the first time as the 500th, and Respawn’s implementation of sniper scopes in VR is one of the best I’ve used. Above and Beyond’s combat potential is fantastic at making you feel like a badass lone wolf, posing a serious threat to the Third Reich.
A few moments within the campaign will task you with freely assigning the placement of your squad members before an attack, as well as choosing the tactical approach of your forces. This mechanic has innovative potential and is great at offering a subtle level of control over the confrontations with enemy forces, but it isn’t implemented nearly as often as it could be. Several large scale battles could have benefitted from allowing me to feel as though I had some control over how it played out.
Instead, Above and Beyond spends much more time focusing on Spielbergian action sequences than on careful military tactics - which is fitting, given that Spielberg actually contributed the stories of the early Medal of Honor titles. Several moments of the campaign feel straight out of a blockbuster movie, such as rushing between the various gunner seats of a bomber plane while German fighters tear holes through the hull around you. Despite the potential of these scenarios, the actual gameplay is usually watered down to simply gunning down as many enemy units as possible, and they’re usually a bit hit or miss. Operating a tank in one mission for example is ultimately a relatively flat on-rails sequence, rather than an exercise in immersive vehicle combat.
A Medal Of Honorable Production Value
However, Respawn is able to compensate for this thanks to their pedigree for telling blockbuster worthy stories through an incredibly impressive presentation. Above and Beyond sells its moments of awe and spectacle thanks to its fantastic production value, in particular, its effective sound design and extraordinary score. Every moment of jaw-dropping action is reinforced by startling sound design that genuinely made me jump with shock at several moments, and the ping of the M1 Garand will never get tiring. Nami Melumad and Pixar composer Michael Giacchino provide a wonderfully inspiring score that I can’t speak highly enough of. Moments that were already magnificent are made absolutely breathtaking by an incredibly cinematic and moving score.
While it’s visual style is far from photo-realistic, and a poorly limited view distance often disappoints, its surprisingly consistent use of vibrant colors makes for a delightfully pleasing aesthetic that’s rather easy on the eyes. Pairing this with some beautiful lighting makes the world a real pleasure to exist in - even if it is perhaps at an ironic contrast to the setting.
The aforementioned delightfully written characters are bolstered by some great character designs that float the line between cartoonish and realistic, with impressively authentic performances from their actors. Though there were times when those previously mentioned fade-to-blacks would take a bit too long to trigger, and I was left standing awkwardly with my completely rigid squadmates.
Though as impressive as those aspects of the presentation are - it’s clear that those are just the aspects carried over from Respawn’s experience with traditional flatscreen game design. Above and Beyond’s presentation in regards to its Virtual Reality aspects aren’t quite as impressive. For starters, interactivity is a bit lackluster for a triple A title - while a lot of items can be picked up, there’s nothing to be done with them outside of tossing them in the air, and the fact that these no-purpose items are placed so frequently throughout the environment makes them do more to break immersion than add to it, as your character will often mistakenly pick them up, instead of grabbing their weapon.
On top of that, the empty spaces with a single towering card that represent loading screens are frankly inexcusable in the current age of VR, as is the lack of the ability to vault over waist-high obstacles.
Enough Medals To Go Around
The 5 modes that comprise the multiplayer portion of Above and Beyond are all serviceable competitive options, though there’s nothing really of note to make investing for the multiplayer alone worthwhile, outside of just wanting a competent WWII shooter. The 10 maps based on levels from the campaign are inventively redesigned for competitive warfare, but aside from the objective-based Domination, all modes ultimately just require scoring the most kills, and there’s nothing particularly unique about the experience that players can’t find elsewhere. There’s no progression system, no meaningful create-a-class, it’s all a pretty standard affair - though I was impressed at how quickly I was able to fill my lobby through match-making thanks to the magic of crossplay between Oculus and Steam stores, and the fact that any empty slots are filled by bots ensures that the multiplayer portion can extend the games life for those who enjoy it.
Survival mode is a similarly standard affair - hold out for as long as you can against steady streams of oncoming enemies, using a limited arsenal. Weapons and supplies are equipped in exchange for score modifiers, but once you’ve chosen your loadout, that’s it. There’s no buying different weapons or anything else in exchange for points, such as in Call of Duty’s famous Zombies mode, which would have encouraged me to try and actually survive longer, instead of treating it like a glorified target range.
Gallery mode is probably the most unique aspect of Above and Beyond, and will certainly appeal to fans who love to binge on WWII documentaries. The gallery places you in a virtual theatre to watch a collection of interviews and mini-docs on real surviving veterans who took part in some of the events that inspired the campaign. There’s also a collection of 360 videos to experience, but they’re basically just static environments, and I didn’t really feel the need to stick around in any for more than a minute or two.
While I respect the sentiment behind including the gallery, it’s a shame that it’s not an optional component, or at least allows its content to be streamed rather than stored locally, as I feel like that’s where a pretty significant portion of the whopping 180gb install size comes from, and I imagine a majority of players won’t check it out for longer than 5 minutes.
Misses The Shot - But Still Lands A Hit
Medal Of Honor: Above And Beyond is close to being the next triple-A title for VR, but misses the mark on enough essential sensibilities to make it only a rather competent one. However, there’s still more than enough fantastic traditional design present to make it a more than enjoyable resurrection of the Medal of Honor franchise, particularly its lovingly written characters and satisfying gunplay. Were it not for its triple-A price tag, Above and Beyond would be an easy to recommend title, but it doesn’t quite earn its place next to titles that fit Virtual Reality like a glove.
Techraptor reviewed Medal Of Honor: Above and Beyond on Valve Index using a code provided by the publisher
- Lovable Characters And Impressive Set Pieces
- Fantastic Gunplay
- Beautiful Score and Fantastic Sound Design
- Inexcusably Lacks A Few Essential VR Sensibilities
- Fading To Black Doesn't Feel Big Budget