It is 1942. France has been crushed by the Nazi war machine. Her towns and cities are under occupation. Collaborators work with their Nazi overlords to carry out the wishes of the German Führer. Yet many ordinary men and women have taken up arms, joining the Resistance in a perilous fight for the liberation of their homeland.
Such is the overwhelmingly dramatic historical context for Medal of Honor Underground, the first sequel (and part-prequel) to the 1999 hit Medal of Honor.
Having the follow-up revolve around the French Resistance was the idea of Peter Hirschmann, writer and producer of the original Medal of Honor. A veteran of Steven Spielberg's production company Amblin Entertainment, Hirschmann had transferred to the master filmmaker's newly-formed videogame company, DreamWorks Interactive (DWI), in 1995. There he was tasked with realising Spielberg's vision of an authentic WW2-set first-person shooter. But by the time that the financial success of the resultant Medal of Honor had become clear, Spielberg had prematurely sold his company to Electronic Arts (EA), which found itself the caretaker of a potentially-lucrative new franchise - if it didn't scupper its chances with a poor first sequel. Underground would have to be good.
Hirschmann decided to bring back a non-player character from the first game, French Resistance fighter Manon Batiste, and make her the star of game number two. “I think a portion of the credit should go to Matt Hall who really brought Manon alive through his artwork,” says lead designer Lynn Henson of the character Hall had modelled on his own wife Michele. “The other, more obvious, idea went to the PS2 team,” expresses Henson, referring to the second sequel for consoles, Medal of Honor Frontline, which was in development for the sixth generation console at the same time that Underground was being readied for the PS1.
But utilising Manon was not a universally-popular decision, as Underground's producer Scott J. Langteau recalls: “[Hirschmann] and I both had to convince the executives at EA that a female main character was going to be a good bet. With the success of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider, we were able to make some good arguments and though there remained significant doubts from some, it was approved.”
“When we did a preview of the game in the early days of production,” Langteau continues, a journalist “did a piece on Underground and the previewer said, in regards to playing the role of a woman in the French Resistance, that this would be one game he hoped to lose. I thought that was a disgraceful sentiment and I've never forgotten it.”
Manon proved to be an inspired choice for heroine. Fighting on the streets of her own nation in such desperate times, at odds with her collaborating countrymen, and dealing with the loss of her brother, imbues her character and journey with far more intrigue and drama than that of the first game's rather anonymous hero, Jimmy Patterson. It also provides the loose assortment of missions that make up both games' storylines with a greater sense of narrative cohesion and ensures that Underground's ending is more satisfying than the original's abrupt finale.
Hirschmann, Langteau, and Henson met with actual French Resistance fighters for research. Having read her memoir Sisterhood of Spies, Langteau tracked down the phone number of Elizabeth P. McIntosh and cold-called her. They arranged a meeting with her and two other former OSS agents. Some footage from the resulting interviews appears in the game's end credits.
They also met with Hélène Deschamps Adams, who had joined the Resistance as a teenager and become a spy embedded within the Vichy regime. “She was one of the strongest-willed and sharpest-of-mind women I've ever met and I will never forget her,” says Langteau. “Her story, some details of which are truly heart-wrenching, will be with me forever. She was a true hero and French patriot.” She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the United States and honoured by France in a joint ceremony in 2000, “in part due to our work with her,” states Langteau, who attended the ceremony at the French consulate in Manhattan.
Authenticity thus remained an important part of the series' DNA, and each mission was once again designed to conclude with a faux newsreel, overseen by Hirschmann, educating gamers in WW2 history.
But there were departures from the strict historical record. For the first game, DWI “did a lot of research into what the Nazis were doing,” Henson explains. “It's impossible to not have read something about the occult. So when it was time to sit in a room and brainstorm new mission ideas, we loved the idea of doing more off-the-wall type things.” Hence one of Manon's missions, the infiltration of Wewelsburg Castle, involves encounters with SS officers dressed as knights wearing armour and wielding swords. They're a very memorable addition. The game also explores the Nazis' interest in archaeology, with Manon encountering ancient artefacts such as “the Knife of Abraham” and going undercover at the ruins of Knossos.
With research complete and story elements in place, it came time to make Underground a (virtual) reality. Hirschmann took a step back. “Peter was about as involved as Spielberg,” Henson recalls. “While he came up with the idea to have Manon be the main character, he was busy with Frontline. He simply didn't have the bandwidth to be any more involved.”
Other key team members from the original game were also working on Frontline. “Everyone was more concerned about that game, so our little team working on the PS1 game was given a lot of leeway to do whatever we wanted,” remembers Henson. Not that Underground was deemed unimportant. “We had the full support of the company,” Langteau asserts. “They wanted, and needed, a hugely-successful sequel to solidify MOH [Medal of Honor] as a franchise for the future.”
But they weren't given a lot of time in which to accomplish this. “The schedule was far shorter [than on the first game],” says Langteau. “We worked very long hours – 12 hours or more – and in the last six months of production, we pretty much lived at the office with sleeping bags under the desks. It was gruelling work but the team was so devoted and passionate, we were willing to do what had to be done.”
“Our schedule was very aggressive,” remarks Henson. “There wasn't really much time for me to stand behind someone and tell them what to do. I trusted our level designers to do what they thought would be a good experience and I only stepped in at the end to perform overall game ramping and balancing. “I think more of our team's individuality comes through in Underground, which I encouraged, because if they're passionate about it, it's going to be good.”
Henson had been pleased with the quality of the first game: “Our weapons were good, our enemies were wily. We've got explosions, things that break when you shoot them. You're very limited in how you can interact with the world in MOH but, despite that, I still think it's fun.” So when it came to Underground, Henson states, “What I told everyone was to keep it the same, but more.”
Although DWI was no longer Spielberg's personal playground, he was still around. “Of course EA wanted him involved if he was willing,” says Henson. “But Spielberg is a busy guy. Even before the sale, he was pretty hands-off.”
He did have some suggestions, however, such as moving geometry and greater interactivity.
“We knew we needed vehicles,” says Langteau. “That was the primary addition. And we were so proud of them at that time. Looking back, we were able to do so little compared to today, but at the time, it really was a solid achievement.”
Unlike its predecessor, Underground includes mobile tanks, motorcycles, trucks, and half-tracks, along with daylight missions and co-operation with non-player characters. In addition, the AI that so impressed the last time around impresses here too. Enemies are far from perfect, but they remain worthy adversaries even today.
“Everyone had a pretty good idea of what the engine could do,” says Henson. It was the same one used for the first game, built for DWI's The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The department leads had all participated in making the previous instalment, Henson relates, “so we knew where the limits were. Our lead programmer, Ike Macoco, really worked miracles as far as implementing new features. I really don't know how he did it.”
Not everyone worked miracles. “When I first got into DWI and got to know people, I came to have the opinion that half of the people were there only to try to transition into a filmmaking part of the company,” recounts Henson. “There was a mix of super-talented people, and some that were just climbing the ladder. EA wasn't really different. There were great people, but also some that had no idea what they were doing.
“On one occasion, someone who wasn’t on our team said the gameplay was too intense and we needed to reduce it by five percent. I didn't know what he was talking about. Peter told me to just remove an enemy somewhere.”
Regardless, the company as a whole was able to craft something special. The original game had pushed the technological capabilities of the PS1. Somehow, Underground went further. In the run-up to release, Langteau was able to assure GameSpot that “there is next to no space left on the disc” and promise levels with as many as 29 compartments and 40,000 polygons - quite a strain on the memory allowance.
“We were always having fights over memory,” says Langteau today, “all departments getting very little for audio, textures, models, etc., and bartering each other on any given level, or section of a level, to get more.”
Matt Hall's concept art may have promised more than the game itself delivers, but Underground has aged far better than other PlayStation titles of the era. It is a testament to the artistry of the team that one of the game's greatest pleasures is exploring the environments. They're far more varied, interesting, and immersive than in the first game.
The “Liberation!” mission in particular is phenomenal, the strains of a French singer echoing eerily through the atmospheric streets of Paris (the sound design throughout the game is excellent). It's a tense and challenging battle, particularly with the somewhat unforgiving save structure and the return of bazookas in the enemy's arsenal.
For those players who achieve victory, a surprise awaits them, courtesy of a late-in-the-day decision.
“One of our unsung heroes was our producer Scott Langteau,” says Henson. “He was basically the keeper of the schedule, making sure we didn't go over budget, and all the things a producer has to do. He also tolerated us like no one else. We had a level based on Colditz Castle that we had to cut from the original MOH just because we didn't have the time to do it. It was a completely finished level in terms of art… I didn't want to just throw that work away, so I stayed at work after regular hours were over and placed enemies in it.”
These three levels became the bonus mission “Panzerknacker Unleashed” in which Jimmy Patterson returns to storm a castle swarming with dancing dogs carrying bazookas, battle an endless stream of SS knights, and assemble a robotic soldier called the Panzerknacker.
Henson continues: “Scott asked me something to the effect of, ‘We're two months from shipping and you want to add three more levels? Are you nuts?' But somehow, our whole team loved the idea of the bonus missions and everyone contributed in some way.
One of the level designers rigged the zombie enemies to explode after they died. Our lead animator rigged the dog enemy to use human animations so they could carry SMGs. And Scott saw everyone was into it and, despite how crazy it was, he managed to fit it into the schedule somehow.”
Although in the past Langteau has expressed regret that these bonus levels were not more clearly delineated from the main game, he stands by what he describes as Henson and lead artist Stephen Ratter's “demented vision”. “It was a blast to work on and play those levels,” he says. “There were reviewers who didn't realise the game ended after ‘End of the Line' and thought we had lost our minds on the last few levels of the game.”
Medal of Honor Underground was released in October 2000, 12 months after the original. “It was a huge commercial and critical success,” Langteau recollects. “Almost everyone at DreamWorks/EA was entirely over the moon with it, with the exception of my executive producer who I will never forget made a snide comment to me about how we didn't launch at number one in our release month. I thought, ‘Give me a break. Are you seeing these killer review scores?'”
“I liked everything about [it],” enthuses Henson. “It was still MOH, but now because all of the attention was directed towards Frontline, we were able to put more of ourselves into the game.”
Underground builds on the achievements of its predecessor beautifully, getting more out of the aging PS1 console than should have been possible. With its archaeologists, ancient relics, motorcycle sidecar action sequences, its more fanciful take on the Nazis, and Michael Giacchino's brilliant score, this outing feels even more like an Indiana Jones instalment than the last one. And that's despite Raiders of the Lost Ark director Spielberg's sale of DWI to EA. It's all tremendous fun. Medal of Honor Underground stood a fledgling franchise in good stead.
Images courtesy of Scott Langteau.