The 4th of July. It is easily the most American holiday in the history of this diverse nation. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s the day our forefathers came together, signed our country’s most important document, and officially declared our independence from British rule. By putting pen to paper, these powerful figures gave birth to a country that more than 300 million citizens call home today. Of course, while our Declaration of Independence is what formed the United States, it wouldn’t have meant jack if we didn’t win the American Revolution. It really was the brave soldiers in the Continental Army that ensured our country’s survival.
To celebrate America’s birthday last year, I wrote about the 2003 hit game Freedom Fighters. While the events of that game were entirely fictional, it was all about normal American citizens coming together to regain their independence from Soviet rule. It was literally a 21st century American Revolution with plenty of connections to our actual revolution in the 1700s. For Independence Day 2014, I’ve decided to go the more historical route and focus on the first-person shooter franchise Medal of Honor. Even though the series itself doesn’t explicitly follow America’s birth, it has been a celebration of US Armed forces since day one. What better way to commemorate the most patriotic holiday than to talk about a series that practically bleeds red, white, and blue?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, first-person shooters predating 1999 never focused exclusively on the US Army. Gaming as a whole was growing on a global scale and only people in the US would really care about playing games focused on our military forces. Medal of Honor aimed to change this. Created by none other than Steven Spielberg in conjunction with Electronic Arts (EA), Medal of Honor followed a fictional US Army Lieutenant named Jimmy Patterson on his efforts to beat the Nazi regime. In order to give the game some extra authenticity, Spielberg and EA brought with them highly decorated Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye as a military advisor. It all culminated in an incredibly successful PlayStation title that many considered was one of the best games on Sony’s inaugural console.
It’s honestly not difficult to see why Medal of Honor was such an early success. For starters, the game looked fantastic and boasted some incredible gameplay for that time. Most FPS games back then featured completely fictional conflicts so bringing in something legitimately rooted in history was a great idea. It also helped that an acclaimed Hollywood director with a documented passion for WWII and a former Marine Captain were involved as well. But of course, you absolutely cannot count out the game’s main selling point: being in the US Army. The soldiers that came back from Germany and Japan were hailed as heroes of the highest caliber. Beating back the Third Reich gave a country fresh out of a major depression something to celebrate. By putting players into the shoes of these very heroes, Medal of Honor gave people a reason to swell with American pride.
If you really want to see how well a game based on WWII can do, take a look at the following eleven Medal of Honor entries. Every single title is based on specific points during the very same war, and you’re always an American soldier (save for Underground where play as a woman in the French resistance before the US got involved). 2002’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault opens with you storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, a scene both taken from Saving Private Ryan and re-created for Medal of Honor: Frontline which was released shortly after. To focus on the Pacific Theater, 2003’s Medal of Honor: Rising Sun started with your character in the Pearl Harbor bombings. You then spend the rest of the game fighting Japanese forces, a contrast to the previous European only foes. As these games continued and the conflicts were expanded on in Pacific Assault and European Assault, you participated in real conflicts like the Battle of the Bulge, the Makin Island Raid, and the St. Nazaire Raid. Sure, each conflict was stretched with some fiction, but the history was still there.
Unfortunately time hasn’t been kind to the Medal of Honor series. As it continued focusing more and more on WWII, its major competitors began to move on, like Call of Duty. Now Call of Duty is infinitely better received while Medal of Honor has been relegated to the bottom. The series tried to move to modern times with a 2010 Medal of Honor and, even though that game did well, its more recent sequel Warfighter was a critical and commercial bomb. It failed to accomplish what Call of Duty is able to do on a now annual basis. It’s a darn shame too because Call of Duty only became popular on material first pushed by the Medal of Honor series. In fact, without Medal of Honor, who’s to say where we’d be concerning games based on actual historical conflicts.
Like many gamers, Medal of Honor on the PlayStation was my first experience playing a WWII shooter. It left a huge impression on me and I found myself actively grabbing new entries when they became available at my local video store. My favorite game of the entire series is easily European Assault in 2005. Not only was that game ridiculously intense, it featured this cool Adrenaline Mode which allowed you to become invincible and have unlimited ammo. Was that realistic at all? No, absolutely not. Didn’t take away from the experience however. The two moments that still stick out to me though are the introductions to both Frontline and Rising Sun. Omaha Beach on D-Day and the Pearl Harbor bombings are well-known historical events and experiencing them both in a virtual form was both breathtaking and terrifying.
If you were ever in the mood to play an historical shooter, you really cannot go wrong with a Medal of Honor entry. Most of the games are truly great and there’s clearly a reason why WWII games came out in droves following the first 1999 title. I can see why the trend stopped though. Video games are a business and, when a topic is becoming less profitable, you drop it immediately. Focusing on modern conflicts is where the money is now so any military based shooters will be focused on them. Hell, the next Call of Duty is even taking place in the future. However, there is something that can be said about partaking in the virtual representation of actual historical battles. The people might not be real but they are stand-ins for actual soldiers who lost their lives fighting for what they believed in. It’s because of them that we’re able to celebrate days like July 4th and enjoy our freedom.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.