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in the past, if you wanted a heady mix of entertaining violence and clichéd, partisan representations of the geo-political struggles of the day, you watched James Bond films. in the last couple of decades, however, this role has been largely fulfilled by first-person shooter video games.
be it as a result of a desire for greater realism or for more narrative sophistication; and whether through direct representation, or alternatively in a more philosophical/symbolic way related to story; like all cultural artefacts, first-person shooters all reflect an interpretation of the context from which they emerge.
it's not too hard to work out what kind of perspective Medal Of Honor 2010 is going to offer its audience. it begins with an entirely black screen, lit only as the text of the fourth and most famous stanza of Binyon's For The Fallen fades up:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
in keeping with the endless repetition of these words without the sense that any historical context is necessary to their interpretation, Medal of Honor plunges us straight into a dramatic reimagining of Operation Anaconda, the second major US-led offensive in Afghanistan, which took place between 2nd and 16th of March 2002, in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains.
it begins, like all good movies, with a glimpse of what awaits our hero, and then - by means of a 'six months earlier' screen direction and a almost unbelievably crass sound montage mixing Arabic voices, military conversations about an imminent 'threat', a cheerful "good morning New York" style radio announcement and panicked news reports - reminds us, with all the subtlety of Black Swan, precisely what the casualty-heavy, beneficial-outcome-light conflict has been for.
we are certainly not invited to reflect much on the large population of non-combatants with little in common with the few that we are 'hunting'.
the fact that the supposed links between 9/11, al-Qaeda and Afghanistan that motivated the enthusiastic military incursions of ten years ago are now known to be far less substantial than was first thought (if thinking is the right description for the political/military analysis of that period) makes little to no difference here, as they are dramatically reinforced with relish. we (which in this game means, without exception, the American military machine) came to get the bad guys, and that's what we're still doing.
a key event punctures the intro sequence that precedes the first level. before the cut scene merges into a village-storming, door-kicking, indiscriminate house-occupant killing, untrustworthy, Arab-hostage rescuing mission, the swift ingress of jeeps is disturbed by a goat-farmer leading his flock across the characters' path.
we watch, intense tension bubbling just beneath an everyday middle-eastern scene. however, besides our uncertainty as to whether this herder is friend or foe - an ambush? a decoy? a bomber? - lies a subtle piece of propaganda.
after Anaconda, a disagreement between German and US soldiers emerged from the post-operation briefing apparently due to the KSK troops moving to a new hideout after their original one had been stumbled upon by a local shepherd. according to an interview with German troops, the Americans had been very much of the opinion that this was a situation that called not for a tactical rearrangement, but a silenced gun.
here we see that piece of history neatly airbrushed, with the intention that not only are the reactions of the US Special Forces more measured, but we get the clear sense that even the most mundane of situations is alien and menacing in this dangerous foreign hinterland - a subtle justification of the indiscriminate slaughter to come.
it would not be an exaggeration to describe the level of political engagement in this game as unrelentingly 'Bushite'.
whether it's enacting the utter immolation of settlements with a blaze of rockets from your Chinook, calling down fire from the 'birds' of the US Air Force on several buildings that appear to be hostile, or simply kicking down a door and shooting anything in sight, we are certainly not invited to reflect much on the fact that this is a country with a large population of non-combatants with little in common with the few that we are 'hunting'.
the 'bad guys', or 'bastards' as they are also regularly called, are a convenient and uncritically questioned alliance of al-Qaeda, Taliban and, curiously, Chechen fighters. there is neither any indication within the narrative why these groups might be cooperating, nor any recognition that in reality they almost certainly never did. it would not be an exaggeration to describe the level or nature of the political engagement in this game as unrelentingly 'Bushite'.
at two key points we witness imprudent interference from a stereotypically disengaged senior officer who barks orders via a video link. the key message is that the men on the ground (and no female soldiers feature in the game) are brave heroes working in near-unbearable conditions and subject to the diplomatic equivocations of politicians and politics in general. the message is clear - support the troops, believe the cause, beware the diplomats and detractors.
if you're a politically disengaged fan of this sort of fare, then you may well enjoy the impressive visuals, the powerfully immersive soundscapes, the sharp, responsive controls and the relatively clever narrative structure that has you control three different characters as their stories interweave. for my part, however, i simply could not swallow the huge, utterly unnuanced political pills i was being prescribed.
i simply could not swallow the huge, utterly unnuanced political pills i was being prescribed.
by the end, it was not just the tension, explosions, landscapes and relentless use of military jargon (numbers on the clock face for directions, NATO phonetics and abbreviations galore) that made me want to re-watch Generation Kill, but also the overwhelming desire for something with some sense of critical engagement.
for some, shooting a man in the face and witnessing the visual and aural implications in unremitting detail just because someone told you he was a 'bad guy' might be an unproblematic way to while away some time, but not for me.
forget Binyon, by the end what i needed was a deconstruction of what Owen called "The old lie": dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. old it may be, but, as Medal Of Honor demonstrates, that particular lie is still widely rehearsed.
[if you'd like to see more of the weird and wonderful world of reallyquitetired then the door is always open at his semi-detached house/blog]
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: