When it comes to war games, particularly of the World War II type, Call of Duty for the PC stands out as a landmark war shooter that had its head in the right place - total war immersion. The combination of realism and scripted events kept the player on edge while the wonderful use of sound gave every bullet a life of its own. Call of Duty: Finest Hour for the PS2, GameCube, and Xbox is a good game overall, but shows where the original for the PC did it better.
In Finest Hour, you take on the roles of civilian soldiers on three fronts: the Russian charge of Stalingrad, the British PPA commando raids in North Africa, and American tank charges through Belgium. While each campaign has ups and downs, the American campaign is most definitely the best, showcasing some tight level design and allowing the player to use a good amount of strategy. There is a multiplayer mode (over online only) where up to 16 players can compete in teams, but more on that later. The focus of this game is the single player campaign, and developer Spark Unlimited does a decent job keeping your interest up until the end.
You begin as a Russian infantryman in the charge of Stalingrad. And, in one of the game's finer moments, you follow your superior officer with nothing but a clip of ammo a la the film Enemy at the Gates. Duck through trenches and through destroyed buildings and keep up with him. It's invigorating, but you don't stay weaponless for long. Sooner or later you have to grab a German M40 and mow down Nazis.
One war, many Nazis
And mow down Nazis you will. Left and right. Back and front. From balconies and in armor (that's wartalk for tank?) you'll kill a whole mess of Nazis. After a while, it becomes very apparent that you are the lone reason for the success of your comrades. In fact, your comrades do little to help you, except engage a Nazi in melee or charge into machinegun fire like helpless turkeys. Sometimes they'll throw a grenade or gun down a Nazi, but for the most part that's your job. And you're a pretty unstoppable beast, anyway. If the AI isn't scripted in Finest Hour, they're mostly unhelpful and burdensome. If you have to protect a sergeant or Captain, watch him closely, as he'll get stuck on a wall, stand there and do nothing, or worse, run off and die. You're friendly AI (the non-superior officers) are little more than cannon-fodder for Nazis. Though the friendly tanks help you out, the friendly soldiers do not. Scripted events will tell you to stay behind the tanks, but your friendly soldiers will not heed this message, sadly. They will lay down a suppressive fire for you, but the enemy AI seems to know that you're the one causing all the damage, and aims to end your rampage.
Nazis just keep on coming. They pour out of spawn points until you set a bomb, and I experienced them appearing behind me once or twice. This just seems unfair as there is, at times, little health to find, and bullets hurt (especially on the hard difficulty). It's a war of attrition, dead bodies here and there, and you'll have a hard time counting the corpses (which disappear shortly after you kill them) because there are so many.
The level design is rather good from the very beginning. Things look detailed enough to convince, but not under careful scrutiny, and it's obvious where the restrictions are in each level: every level is very linear. Go here, shoot this. Go here, defend this. Only specific doors open, the others are as fake as paint on walls. Sometimes you'll trigger an event and a tank will blow a passage through a wall. While the PC Call of Duty had given the player the illusion of a world you could go anywhere in, this is where we see the home console struggling to keep up. The levels are much smaller here than on the PC Call of Duty. Certain areas open up for you to stretch, but it's rare to find. Most of the time you'll be on a narrow street, or down in a filthy, Nazi infested sewer.
There is slowdown even with levels of a moderate (read: a bit too small) size, at least on the PS2, especially when many people are shooting and grenades are exploding, and sometimes, sometimes, when you're just looking around for a better view. This is disappointing, and it hurts the controls, especially as you're struggling to aim. It gets frustrating, but it's able to be overlooked.
The sound is great in surround or Dolby Pro Logic II, and it borrows ambiance from its PC cousin. People shouting, things whizzing here and there: the standard fare, but all nicely done. It is very satisfying to hear the sound of the M1 Garand's clip empty - a heart stopping cling sound - that tells you its time to reload, or be gunned down. Other gunfire sounds equally convincing. The voice acting is sometimes good, sometimes laughable (the Russians sound like Americans doing bad Russian accents) but overall the dialog doesn't hurt it, and in fact helps to augment the war experience.
While the game keeps you interested in what's going on before you, the story is hindered by the presentation. Finest Hour puts you in the place of a number of soldiers. The drawback here is that you start with one, he gets offed in a cutscene, and you take over for another one. This abrupt character change keeps you from feeling anything terribly emotional about any of the characters. One mission, for example, I help repel Nazi invaders from a stronghold, protecting my superior officer, and gunning things down in a Jeep. Shortly after, he is shot dead by a sniper, and so I take on the role of another soldier in the Jeep. Just when I began to like my character he dies. This is disheartening to say the least, as I wished he would have pushed on to the next level.
Tank you very much
In the beginning of the campaign you'll get to play through as a Russian tank driver. And you'll spend a great deal of time shooting things from this perspective. In the tank, you are able to go first person (cockpit view), third person (chase view), or outside the top hatch (first person, as yourself). Though I cannot see the purpose of the third view (as the tank's machine gun does quite a bit more damage and doesn't consume ammo) the option is there, if you need it.
While in the tank, you'll have to stay on watch for Germans with Panzershrecks (or rocket launchers) which will reduce your armor to scrap in no time. Your time in the tank will be spent clearing out hordes of Germans with Panzershrecks who seem to have no shortage of them at all. Many will hide behind scraps, yet are able to shoot through the landscape. This causes issues when trying to target them, as the cannon blast will not always take them out. Apart from the AI, the tank missions were probably the most frustrating part of Finest Hour. I'd have Panzershrecks coming at me from every direction and I'd be too slow to turn the turret and gun them down. But lucky for all of us, health in the tank slowly recharges to full. No wonder the Russians were able to push back the Nazis; their enemies didn't have recharging health.
I shoot you. You go down!
After the campaign, which will take about eight hours to finish (depending on the difficulty), take Finest Hour online and see how you are against others. There are four game types: the standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Search & Destroy (an assault variation where one team defends two objects from the other team). While the first two are fun for a while, you'll probably spend your online time with Search & Destroy, or CTF, which are much more cutthroat.
There are eight maps online, which reproduce parts of levels from the campaign, but there isn't anything to really keep you after you've done it a few times. Overall, the online feels a little weaker than it should be and you could probably find something else to grab your attention.
An army of, seriously, one
While Call of Duty: Finest Hour is trying to be a sim-like war experience, it is hardly that. I ended up running and gunning like Rambo more than I'd like to admit. In fact, one of the things Activision could do next time is balance the difficulties to make the Normal setting closer to reality, the Easy setting just with less enemies, and the Hard setting with more. This might even out the arcadey feel that Finest Hour has and bring it back to its PC roots.
There is a lot to like here, especially for the World War II gamer. For playing the game on Hard, you will be rewarded with a more suitable, realistic game. On Easy and Normal, things just become a run-and-gun-a-thon. This is fine for a while, but you'll be wishing for more.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour has enough multiplayer to warrant a rental, and enough single-player to warrant a purchase if you're a fan of the series. Ultimately, it's the lack of reality, when you are pulled out of your character and dramatically inserted in another, which keeps Finest Hour from being the finest it could be.
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