On September 6th, at approximately 1200 hours, Ben and I made our way across the sunny and peaceful sights of Sydney towards the Man O’War steps by the Sydney Opera House for EA Australia's Medal of Honor Warfighter preview event.
EA's invitation had explained that the day would involve, along with a 10-minute single-player hands-on demo, "deeper insight" into the skills and experiences expected of Tier One soldiers with their two Aussie Special Forces partners, Rofo and Dog, but stressed it wasn't a "boot camp" while advising us to wear dark and comfortable camo gear.
It's not an everyday opportunity for a bunch of games journalists to meet Australian Spec Ops soldiers, so I wasn't planning to waste it. However, I didn't make the necessary clothing preparations because I honestly thought we’d just have a tour or session with the soldiers, get some tips, and just play some Medal of Honor for the rest of the day over some beers. Boy, did I pay for my laziness later.
I'm on a boat!
The day started innocently enough. Once everyone had arrived at the steps and EA made us sign the usual forms, Ben and I became acquainted with a sleek black Tactical Response Boat, the type of speedy vehicle special forces use when they require specialised rapid landings. The boat swiftly took us out onto the harbour and past the sights of Port Jackson and Hunter’s Bay, before zooming back in towards a beach by Manly.
The sun was shining and the ocean gleaming, and everyone was really relaxed and soaking in the scenery and weather. I almost forgot what we were travelling on the boat for, as we did nothing but zoom in and out of the bay for a good half an hour. That was until we were promptly and casually informed by the two soldiers driving us to shore and the EA PR guys, Ben and Jason, that we were to simulate a beach landing.
Don't ever wear jeans to boot camp, kids.
That’s right, a beach landing. Except it was on a public beach with plenty of amused civilians rather than enemy soldiers, and I was wearing G-Star jeans and Adidas sneakers instead of cargo pants and army boots like everyone else. I laughed a bit, then realised as we headed straight for the beach and the driver's radio cackled with confirmation for the landing that I was going to have to jump out.
Suffice to say, jeans and sneakers was not the greatest or most comfortable choice of clothing to jump out into the surf from. It also wasn’t a great idea to practically dive in either, as I realised later on when my phone had completely malfunctioned from the saltwater. Consequently, I was the only one of the thirteen or so of us to be drenched above the waist, and you can bet that Ben made sure to let me have it for the rest of the day.
The Wake-Up call
Our warm reception.
Making my way to shore, I was promptly reminded how much of an idiot I was by Dog, one of the two former Australian Special Forces soldiers taking us through the activities through the day. Dog was an intimidating guy, wearing a half-mask and garbed in camo and webbing, kitted with grenades and mags, and an authoritative voice that embodied someone who doesn't take shit, or excuses.
Dog barked orders for us to line up almost immediately, and informed us that for the rest of the day we were to call him Sir and that we were in for a challenging few hours. A few of the beach-goers watching had a good laugh at the sight of us as we frantically rushed over to a demilitarised APC by the roadside, and crammed into the back of it without much time to think.
Inside, the APC was cramped. I was right next to the door and the only visibility I had was through a small window at the back, and the front cab, which had Dog in the driver's seat. The enclosed space and bumpy ride definitely created a tense atmosphere, and woke up anyone who still didn't realise the (awesome) seriousness of the day ahead. But I suppose everyone was mainly concerned with the concept of exercise that Dog had implied.
The calm before the storm.
When we all emerged, we found ourselves at the front of the North Head Sanctuary, our training grounds for the day. Before we could move onto our first activity, Dog tagged Ben for not having his shoes on, and made the rest of us wait in push-up position until he did so, which gave me a bit of a laugh. I shut up soon afterwards when Dog yelled at me for doing push-ups, which I stupidly assumed was what we were supposed to have done.
Once Ben put his shoes on, we made our way over to the front, where each of us had our own set of equipment and essentials set before us. There we met Rofo, an equally imposing figure holding an impressive Bullpup Barret 50. cal rifle which reinforced our silence. Both he and Dog outlined the ground rules and let us know that we were in for a gruelling but very rewarding day, should we decide to give it our all and take it seriously.
A Long Day Ahead
Rofo and Dog weren't two guys to be messed with. Both are physically imposing, hardened soldiers with booming voices and plenty of combat experience under their belts, as their bios that I had read beforehand had outlined. Add in the fact they had intimidating half-masks and sunnies covering their faces and were kitted with grenades, ammo mags and the like, and you can be sure we damn well listened to their instructions.
Well, all of us except for Ben, who had passed the task of representing MMGN on the mock-battlefield to me, having had enough after the beach landing. He got to relax with the EA organisers with some drinks, and snap photos of me suffering in my drenched jeans and sand-filled sneakers for all of you to laugh at later.
But one of the nice EA organisers pitied me, and threw me a MoH t-shirt, nice and dry to wear for the day. I think a free t-shirt more than made up for my embarrassment.
Our gear for the day.
Once we gave our own bags to the EA organisers, we proceeded to kit up. Our equipment consisted of webbing, which held a bush-knife, an air horn for later and water; a backpack with a sledgehammer, notebook and more water: and protective gloves, a gasmask and a shemagh scarf. Each of us also was assigned a candidate number, and given a patch with a number to signify our call-sign for the day. I was lucky number 8.
Dog eventually came around to help me with my backpack after yelling at another guy for not packing his sledgehammer correctly. When he saw my jeans and sneakers, he stopped right in front of me and stared for a while, and eventually just shook his head.
Rofo and Dog both made their way back to the front and asked the group if we were the type of people to give up when shit got tough, or persevere. I aimed to prove them both, even in my ridiculous choice of clothes for the day, that I was definitely part of the latter.
Dog wasn't too happy about my choice of clothing and gear prep.
But it was easier said than done. Our first few minutes was spent running in single-file around the sanctuary, and it wasn't long before everyone realised how heavy the sledgehammer and other gear was, and how hard it was going to make the day. After a couple of photos and video shots of us whizzing around the academy, we made our way to the armoury up the hill to grab our guns.
It was a bit of a surprise to actually be armed with real weapons. The armoury was filled with sub-machine guns, assault rifles, carbines, and plenty of other models and makes I did not know. Each of us were handed an MP5 Navy, heavy black assault rifles that served to weigh us down further. The MP5's were unloaded, but Dog emphasised that we keep them safetied at all times or suffer the consequences. We didn't need any convincing. From the armoury, we then ran further up to a massive oval, where Rofo took us through our first series of drills to test our endurance, agility and stamina.
It immediately became apparent that while the rifles looked cool, they sure as hell made things ten times harder as we rolled, crawled, ran, and practised the proper movements and stances of soldiers under fire before repeating them again and again, under the glaring sun and the harsh insults and loud orders of Rofo and Dog.
Dog: "It's been two f***** minutes and you guys are already slowing down?!"
We went through a lengthy and challenging session of learning how to leopard crawl, the proper tactical stances when advancing on your enemy, how to steady our weapon appropriately, and so on.
While I had initially felt confident and cocky, repeating the basic motions soon exhausted me to a surprising extent. Running and crawling forward with a massive gun slung over your shoulder and a backpack full of items and a sledgehammer drains you fast, and doing it all in wet jeans was excruciatingly annoying, too.
For the entire session, Rofo enforced that the group stay in a coordinated line; as a unified team. Rofo would stop the whole group every time stragglers needed to catch up or one person was just a little too slow, but everyone gave one hundred-percent. It definitely helped getting through the drills as a unit, as we all shared the burden with each-other as teammates, and I was lucky to have a good bunch of guys (and gal) who would constantly help each other out with backpacks, drills and the like, and we always motivated each other to keep going.
Despite our best efforts, we lost one man early along the way during one of the leopard crawl tests, the mortal wound of ripped pants being too much to bare. However, the rest of us pressed on and made it to the next section of our day.
Stalking 101 for Tier One Operators
Once we made our way roughly half-way across the massive oval of hell, Dog lead us to the brush and trees on the far side, and tried to see if any of us could spot the sniper that was silently watching our approach. Not surprisingly, none of us did. Rofo then revealed he was scoping us out from his expertly crafted hiding spot with his Barrett, literally right on top of us. I tried to think of it as no biggie, but it was hard not to realise that one of the deadliest recon snipers of our country had us in his barrel's sights.
Rofo proceeded to emphasize the importance of cover, and how clever usage of the environment can make all the difference in avoiding detection from enemy snipers. He explained how to pick and create an effective hiding spot utilising whatever available - leaves, brush, branches - to mask your position. He also advised that as snipers for this exercise, the reality is we have to be sneaky and "play dirty" if we want to guarantee success, and that if any of us got wind we were spotted, to "run like hell".
Handing us over some camo paint to apply, he and Dog then instructed us on how to stalk someone for the upcoming challenge. As they advised us, the challenge proved to be all about careful movement; keeping our silhouette low, maintaining a bit of patience, and making sure there is ample cover between you and the target. Only one person in the morning group had managed to spot Rofo, so our group was definitely keen to show him we were better.
But Dog and Rofo were elite soldiers with years of sniping and recon experience, and we were an odd bunch of games journalists with camo paint crawling through the dirt and leaves. It took me two semi-lengthy tries to spot Rofo, due to a random stranger jogging through the public path nearby and interrupting my stalk. The man froze when he saw me in my camo and gear and actually asked if my gun was real.
Once I had explained to the random douchebag it was a drill, I moved on and eventually scoped out Rofo at the end of the clearing we were sneaking our way across, and with some minutes to spare. With a bit of patience and smart positioning, I dodged Rofo's attention when another person nearby had been spotted, using the trees and some thick brush to avoid detection. I then used the distraction to sneak up the front of the clearing and get a better view.
Although Rofo had radioed after catching a two second glimpse of my sledgehammer sticking out of my backpack, he lost my trail. I eventually got the thumbs up from Dog to confirm Rofo had not spotted me in return and felt boss after Dog let me know I had adhered to their techniques well. From there, I was instructed to join those who had finished and get ready for the next section.
Saving the hostage
Prepping for the hostage showdown.
A hostage rescue scenario was our last challenge. Each of us put away our rifles and were given Nerf guns in their place. But in no way did Rofo and Dog let us treat them like toys, barking orders and making sure we reloaded them correctly and had plenty of ammo for the task ahead. We also took a look at the hostage board full of polaroids to identify the friendlies from the enemies, and then we were split up into two teams: Sierra One and Sierra Two.
Part of the four-man Sierra One, I was led by Dog to clear out the main building and save the hostage at the top of the stairs. Dog barked orders and coordinated the four of us into pairs as we covered each other, stormed rooms and unleashed foamy bullet hell on the EA staff. Every movement was methodical, and it was all about teamwork. Sound effects and flashing lights served to intensify the experience and get our blood pumping, and make it all that much cooler.
I shot Ben in the face right after he took this photo.
Once we secured the hostage at the top and untied the poor soul, we re-grouped with Rofo's Sierra Two and entered the main room, where EA had set up the Medal of Honor Warfighter demos and food and drink awaited. Exhausted, I didn't think it would ever come, and you can bet I enjoyed my well-deserved beer with Rofo and Dog and the others at the end of a long, but extremely awesome day.
The extent EA, Rofo and Dog went to provide us with a basic realistic experience of the physical hardships that Special Operation soldiers go through really surprised me. After my experience, I definitely appreciated the level of effort that EA and Danger Close has gone to seek real-life military operatives and embed their expert knowledge in the gameplay to craft us the most authentic, enjoyable shooter experience possible. But in the end it was but a very controlled, very minor glimpse at the true experiences such special forces go through, and in no way did I think I was suddenly able to understand such hardships.
To my slight surprise, Dog and Rofo, who by this point had removed their masks, were just normal, really nice guys. Having a chat with Dog soon proved to be much more interesting and engaging than the 10 minute demo we got to play, and I soon discovered he was just as much of an avid video gamer as us.
The part of Warfighter's campaign I played alongside Ben was just as intense and exciting as the activities we had just went through, but it was far too brief for me to get a decent grasp of. It had all the usual elements - frantic and satisfying gunfights, a battered squad and a devastated but graphically impressive warzone - but because of my exhaustion, I instead left Ben to do the majority of the preview.
I spent the rest of my time at the gathering getting to know Dog and Rofo who, while being the most elite of Australia's soldiers, love to play the occasional video game and have a beer at the end of a long day just as much as the rest of us. It's a side of soldiers we often forget exists, and one that was nice to see and be reminded of.
Medal of Honor Warfighter is set to launch in Australia on October 26th, for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. A Wii U version is also scheduled. Keep watching this space for MMGN's preview.
By Nathan Misa