Defining Moments: Life’s a Beach

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These days, military shooters are ten-a-penny. In title after title we’ve machine-gunned, sniped and throat-slit our way through hundreds of enemy soldiers, terrorists and mercenaries – usually of foreign descent of course, with a few notable exceptions. Industry juggernauts Call of Duty and Battlefield are now annual franchises, giants of the entertainment industry with few peers, selling millions every year and generating serious amounts of cash for their publishers and developers.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Once upon a time, military shooters were relatively uncommon and players were more used to fighting back aliens, hell spawn and all manner of other enemies – usually with exotic weaponry with even more exotic names – Nail Gun; Shrink Ray; BFG 9000. Compared to such flights of fancy, the humble pistol and rifle seem less exciting; mundane, even. So it’s perhaps surprising that tastes have changed so much, so fast.

If we were to try and trace the root of this sea-change, we have to go back to a time before Call of Duty, Battlefield, Operation Flashpoint and others. We have to go back to Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

Created by film director Steven Spielberg, Medal of Honor was conceived to be an accurate representation of World War II around the same time as his now-classic film Saving Private Ryan. But Allied Assault wasn’t the first title in the series: preceded by Playstation titles Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground, both games received critical acclaim at the time and were highly successful. But it wasn’t until the release of Allied Assault that the series came into its own.

The game commences in North Africa as you head up a rescue mission before commencing real-life Operation Torch, before progressing to Norway in the second level where you’re tasked with scuttling the German U-boat, U-529. But it’s the third level, halfway through the story, that guaranteed the game its place in the history books of the medium. Allied Assault‘s recreation of Operation Overlord – previously immortalized on film in Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan – sticks in the mind to this day as one of the most harrowing, moving and memorable experiences the medium has to offer.

The level opens in a way that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Spielberg’s Oscar-winner. On your way to the shore of Omaha Beach off the cost of Normandy, your commanding officer hurriedly runs over your orders. The skies are grey, the waters are choppy. The atmosphere is immediately oppressive and you know what’s coming.

What follows is an extended sequence of wartime horror as you watch your comrades-in-arms being blown up left, right and center by German shells. As it was in real-life, so it is in the game – making it up the beach successfully is almost purely down to luck. You will die, repeatedly, but far from evoking frustration it makes you realize that this is what it must have been like. Whereas Saving Private Ryan could only make us passive witnesses to a recreation of one of the most important events in modern history, Allied Assault places us there, on that beach, fighting to survive as much as fighting to triumph over the ferocious will of the Third Reich. Played on a good sound system with the benefit of the resolutions that modern systems can offer, the visuals may look dated but the impact of the sequence remains as strong now as it was back then.

The level continues for a long time once you get past that initial sequence on the beach. But it’s that landing that sticks with you, long after the credits roll.

Allied Assault went on to win a cavalcade of acclaim, awards and sales. While the series is now a shadow of its former self, long since superseded by other shooters and practically consigned to the annals of history, Allied Assault remains a benchmark in the history of the medium. Responsible for the rise in popularity of World War 2 games and therefore almost single-handedly responsible for the military shooter’s transition to what we now see in heirs like this year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 – both recently released on the new generation of home consoles and PC – Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a true classic, and that is almost entirely down to the sheer brilliance of its recreation of Operation Overlord.

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