Medal of Honor: Rising Sun is a prime example of a video game which starts off great but soon loses its momentum. The fifth game in the pre-eminent wartime first-person shooter series, from the days before it was knocked from its perch by Call of Duty, it first went on sale in November 2003 to a mixed-moderate reception, less than previous editions, perhaps reflecting the imbalances in the experience.
The game begins on board the USS California, stationed at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, on the morning of December 7th 1941. Playable character private Joe Griffin is awakened by an explosion outside. The bunk room is being evacuated and you are ordered topside, which means having to navigate a ship in chaos. The rumblings from outside continue, water is leaking in through the hull and crew are trapped under debris and in the kitchens, which are on fire.
Griffin finally makes it on deck to horrendous sights: the sky is full of dark smoke, some crew are being knocked overboard and others are trying in vain to fight back against the planes crashing into the ship. You are told to get on a machine gun and shoot at incoming planes and boats, but there’s only so many Griffin can keep at bay. A shockwave knocks you overboard, but you are rescued by a gunboat and the fight back continues on the water.
This is a breathless, exciting and atmospheric start to the game that aims for realism as best it can, while at the same time also a respectful first-person recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately none of the remainder of Medal of Honor: Rising Sun – which forays into famous moments from the Asian front of World War II – can match the prologue for sheer ambition and enjoyment.
The following mission, while perfectly playable, feels like it could be from any FPS game – just moving from checkpoint to checkpoint, shooting all enemies along the way. Things pick up when the action moves to the Guadacanal, where play has to stay stealthy undercover of darkness. The only problem is the picture is so murky it can be hard to find targets. The decline only continues from there.
MoH:RS is also hampered by significant gameplay problems: levels can go on far too long, movement is quite slow, environments are blocky and players can get caught on them. Most annoying of all, enemies regularly get back up once shot. There are also some significant difficulty curves: in particular it can sometimes be difficult to know how many enemies there are in an area, meaning one can suddenly shoot you out of nowhere.
A later level, Singapore Sling, encapsulates all of the game’s problems. It starts well with Griffin sneaking around a misty dock before catching sight of enemies in a bustling town square, but the screen soon gets murky and the environment is confusing to navigate around. Stealth is of the essence here to succeed yet no matter how hard to try to avoid being seen, enemies always seem to find you – and more and more seem to appear.
There’s also a jarring change of pace: after trudging through so far to reach what seems to be the central checkpoint, you are then tasked with double-backing through the level and finding missing POWs before being able to move on – giving enemies a chance to regroup. All this makes for challenging gameplay, but in the sense of there being too many bugs which get in the way.
Despite a lukewarm critical response, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun still managed success, but some twenty years on is not thought of as one of the better editions in the series. It is most notable for its opening mission, which still ranks among one of the best moments in the series and a great example of what you can go with this genre if you do it right.