Disc Diving is an essay series where I dive through my PlayStation 2 collection, replay the games that I own, and see how they speak to me now. The structure of these essays is a little more free-wheeling than what I usually write, as I just work through what stuck out to me in each game. The thesis is the game itself and each essay features multiple arguments and observations. This structure is malleable and will change if the game played calls for such change(s) to be made to the essay structure of this series.
“And when he gets to Heaven, To Saint Peter he will tell: One more soldier reporting sir — I’ve served my time in Hell.”- From the poem “Our Hitch in Hell” by Frank Bernard Camp (this quote is seen at the start of Medal of Honor Frontline)
If I recall correctly, Medal of Honor Frontline is one of the first first-person shooters that I ever played, let alone beat. But this story is not about nostalgia and how I used to feel about the game. It is about how I feel about it now, having just replayed it for the first time in fifteen-or-so years. I loved it back then, the memories tied to it are fond, and I am glad that I played it again.
Medal of Honor Frontline starts out as the most post-Saving Private Ryan World War II shooter ever. The opening moments in the game’s D-Day mission play like a commodified greatest hits sequence of that film’s harrowing opening minutes. In that regard, the game opens horribly. At the time it was probably cool but it just felt trite to me, now. Yet, something about it stuck with me (and this point extends to the rest of the game), the way that bodies are animated is super discomforting. The death animations, while obviously unrealistic, slip into some form of the uncanny where they wrap back in on themselves to feel real. There is weight to these animations that makes it feel like a life is being lost, and seeing a body contort into a canned death animation as gunfire rips through it is pretty scary. I was really caught off-guard by this. Enemies will hop in place after you shoot them or sometimes they will slowly fall over and writhe for a moment. From a gameplay perspective, enemies “die” quickly, but due to the animations, sometimes it takes an uncomfortable amount of time for the life to leave those bodies. Death is drawn out and ugly. That opening D-Day mission is also steeped in a deep gray to where a sense of melancholy permeates every facet of the game—despite it being a “greatest hits” of the war, itself. Medal of Honor Frontline is uncritical and unabashedly jingoistic. There is no reflection of history at all, but rather there is an interpretation of history as seen through the eyes of a country whose penchant for jingoism and military might was on a steady increase for decades and finally reached a boiling point in the wake of 9/11. I’m not saying this game is a direct response to how a lot of the country felt at the time, but to view this game as not being attached to that moment in time in some way is to give the game far too much rope. It is as bluntly pro-war as these sorts of games get. An elite American (white male) soldier paves his way to victory against a known evil—this thesis has been played out again and again in the rhetoric of the war hawking right. Yes, the Nazis were an objective evil and it is okay to gun them down by the truckload, but I think that the influx of military shooters at that time had nothing to do with World War II itself and more to do with living out a military fantasy; a sort of digital revenge and I am sure that lots of pro-war individuals ate these games up. This is something that I cannot shake.
But let’s get back to how this game looks. Medal of Honor Frontline is weirdly beautiful. Original Xbox and PlayStation 2 games have aged wonderfully from a visual standpoint, and in many ways, they still look better (or more compelling) than games do today. Medal of Honor Frontline is a perfect example as to why. The constraints of the system’s power meant that instead of creating a facsimile of reality (or realism), developers instead created an impression of realism. The latter is far more interesting than the former. These impressions of reality are heightened and thus they are far more expressive. Ruined cities feel grander, bleaker, and even more otherworldly than they already are. Darkness feels richer and more textured than any normal nightfall, and interior lighting is more deliberate than natural. Red alarm lights blanket a hallway in a deep sheet of harsh red light while muzzles flash and people scream and fight through cramped hallways. To call this game simple in its visual palette or that the graphics are bad/have not aged well shows that one has missed the point entirely. They couldn’t make what war would really look like so instead they evoked it (and they did so as commercially as possible, there is nothing truly harrowing in this game and to compare it to actual war would be pointless). This evocation of the unknowable horrors of war is most present in Medal of Honor Frontline’s night-time missions. Darkness is a shroud, it covers everything. The only sources of light are often bits of burning rubble or harsh spotlights. And then when gunfights erupt, muzzle flashes break through the darkness like miniature solar flares. It is genuinely scary and with this darkness brings confusion. Stumbling into random pockets of enemies who are as surprised to see you as you are to see them is common, and in those moments, the gulf between who will win and who will lose comes down to a few excruciating moments of random, hectic gunfire. War in Medal of Honor Frontline does its best to remain controlled but, more often than not, everything just falls into loud, violent confusion. The night levels exemplify this.
I beat Medal of Honor Frontline over the course of two days. It isn’t so much that it is a short game, instead it tends to just grab the player and not let them go. Once you play a mission, you can’t help but play a few more. This isn’t due to how the gameplay feels because even by 2002 console shooter standards, Medal of Honor Frontline feels slightly off. There is a weight to everything but somehow the game still feels stilted and floaty. What truly kept me playing it is just the sheer variety of what the game tasks you with. No mission is the same, and I mean this literally. Every objective and mission is fundamentally different than what came before it and what comes after it. There are missions that feel more familiar to shooters of this ilk, but then a lot of the game sees you as a lone soldier behind enemy lines engaging in acts of espionage and sabotage. Two of the highlights in the game are a mission that sees you sneaking undercover into a Nazi officers’ party only to have all hell break loose, and then arguably the best mission in the game is called “Special Cargo” and sees the player stowing away in a Nazi U-boat. From there you fight through the cramped ship with reckless abandon. There is little to no cover and you are opening fire with automatic weapons against enemies who are doing the same at engagement distances of maybe four or five feet. It is very stressful, but it is where the game feels almost like an action movie, and it really works! Eventually, you rig the U-boat with explosives and blow it up in a port. Beyond the action in that mission, what really made me fall in love with it is the level design of the German U-boat. It is cramped but super intimate. Every part of the vessel feels lived in. The living quarters for the general crew compared to the officers’ quarters stood out to me the most. General deck quarters are a series of cots cramped together in a dark room while the officers had individual sleeping areas complete with sliding doors and extensive wood paneling to give the facsimile of not being on a ship. You run through them with an automatic weapon all the same.
Lastly, I want to discuss the sounds of Medal of Honor: Frontline. The general sound mixing of combat and gunfire is better than most first-person shooters today. Everything is cacophonous, abrupt, and startling. It is as it probably should be. The weapons all sound heavy and punchy and this is exemplified in how they fire. Automatic weapons are the most fun to use as they generally sound great and unloading into a corridor of Nazis in this game is more rewarding and feels better than both of the modern Wolfenstein games (yes, really). My favorite weapon based on sound and how it feels is probably the Thompson submachine gun—a staple in most World War II shooters. It has an interesting and unique sound, and it feels great to run through levels with if your ammo count can keep up with its rate of fire. But beyond the general sound design is where the soundtrack kicks in, and Medal of Honor Frontline’s soundtrack is a genuine all-timer. The score was composed by Michael Giacchino (yes, that Michael Giacchino) and it adds such an air of sadness to the game. The score is reserved, thoughtful, and hardly ever gives in to bombast. Every movement of the game’s score feels laced with a sense of tragedy, of unavoidable sorrow, and through that Medal of Honor Frontline gets imbued with more meaning and emotional weight than is there in the text itself. The home screen and loading music will forever be burned into my mind. Listen to it below, it genuinely moves me to tears.
All in all, Medal of Honor Frontline is a special game not only for its place in my childhood but for how it approaches the military shooter. Yes, it is fundamentally uncritical of the American war machine but through its mission structure, sound design, and look, it becomes a portrayal of war as a sort of heightened dreamscape through hell and neverending violence. While it is up to the player to really choose to read it that way, the overwhelming sadness and terror to the game’s tone and combat is unavoidable. I am glad to have played this game again and I look forward to future entries in the Disc Diving series. Yes, the essays are not super deep and may read more like a journal entry, but hey, that’s the point.