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Respawn Entertainment, the EA-owned game studio behind shooter hits Titanfall and Apex Legends, is taking a departure from the far-future, sci-fi settings of its most famous games, including the upcoming Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. In partnership with Oculus VR, the studio today revealed Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, a virtual reality take on the classic WWII franchise. The game was announced with a 2020 release date onstage by Mike Verdu, the head of VR and AR content at Facebook, at the Oculus Connect developer conference in San Jose, California.
The Oculus partnership was first announced in 2017, just prior to EA’s acquisition of Respawn. However, given EA’s ownership of the Medal of Honor franchise, that deal opened doors for Respawn and the Facebook-owned VR platform to tackle the historic battlefields of Nazi Germany with the Medal of Honor name attached. A trailer for the title shown off at Oculus Connect shows off first-person VR gameplay that looks quite realistic, with two-handed reloading of classic WWII firearms and claustrophobic close-quarters combat.
Medal of Honor, which has remained dormant since 2012’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter, has a rich gaming history, having been created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in the lead up to the release of 1998’s Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan.
Spielberg was famously inspired to reach out to initial developer studio DreamWorks Interactive after watching his son play N64 Rare classic Goldeneye 007. Spielberg went on to craft the the narrative of the first three Medal of Honor titles. Dreamworks Interactive eventually became EA Los Angeles and then Danger Close Games before shutting down after EA paused Medal of Honor development following a string of controversies related to Warfighter.
Now, one of the most esteemed first-person shooter studios in the industry, Respawn, is bringing Medal of Honor back from the dead and in VR form. The project is under game director Peter Hirschmann, who was a producer at Dreamworks Interactive on the original game. Hirschmann says he and a number of other Medal of Honor veterans are on the team and have been tasked with keeping the spirit of the series intact as it moves to an entirely new platform.
I got to try the game at a preview event earlier this month in San Francisco, and Above and Beyond is among the tightest VR shooters I’ve played, up there with Epic’s Robo Recall. The game is organized by 50 missions, and each one has a simple objective and a series of open-ended enemy encounters that can be approached from a number of different angles and with an assortment of various weapons.
It feels very arcade-y in that sense, a bit like the classic shooters of the ‘90s console era (think Goldeneye 007) blended but immerse VR mechanics and modern enemy AI. Moving around is performed with the Oculus Touch joysticks in the style of Marvel Powers United VR. And every action you take involves some type of physical action. You can’t reload with a button; you have to grab a magazine from your belt and jam it in. Grenades must be taken from your a belt on your chest, lit, and physically thrown.
This may sound tedious, but in the heat of combat, it has an exhilarating effect that makes a convincing case for taking these historic and video game-friendly backdrops and putting them in VR. Above and Beyond will feature some Medal of Honor favorites, like the storming of the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and plenty of covert operations behind enemy lines with the French resistance. In that sense, it will be familiar to long-time fans, or really anyone who’s ever played a historic 20th century war game. But in VR, it takes on a new life.
When I took the headset off after my roughly 45-minute demo, I was sweating profusely, having just put myself through quite the workout shooting my way through a Nazi base and then traversing the side of a snowy mountain to hijack a radio tower. It may look anywhere near as nice as the newest Call of Duty game, or at the same level of intensity as Battlefield V. But Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond does have the benefit of pushing you ever-closer to the sensation of actually being present on the frontlines of history.