Reviewed: December 22, 2004
Released: November 16, 2004
"Head to the front lines of World War II's epic battles, including the Russian charge of Stalingrad, British PPA Commando raids in North Africa and American-led tank battles in Belgium." If this sounds like old hat to you, you aren't alone: The World War II video game has become something of a staple on game store shelves, a sub-genre every bit as crowded as any main genre these days. Call of Duty: Finest Hour is the latest release in the Call of Duty series of FPS titles, and the quote above is from the back of the game's box.
However, Call of Duty games are still around because they're usually very well done, and Finest Hour is no exception. Instead of one super-soldier single-handedly turning the Nazi tide, this newest offering puts players at the controls of multiple soldiers at different points and from different nations, throughout the course of the game. It's intense, it's tough and it looks great. It also walks a fine line between capitalizing off of a dark period in our recent history, and respecting the sacrifices that were made during that time.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour is intense. No, not what you think is intense. It's non-stop: shells exploding, machine guns firing, people dying and getting injured all round you, from the opening sequence to the end of the game. A lot of reviews have gone on about how "realistic" it all is for a video game, but I won't. I didn't fight in World War II, or in any war, for that matter. How should I know how realistic it is? Besides, from what I have heard about war in general, perfect realism would probably make this game not a whole lot of fun to play. There are no life bars or instant health regeneration in real life.
What I can say, however, is that this game is cinematic. It has the presentation of the best war movies from the last 60 years, with an emphasis on those movies and scenes, which are considered to be relatively realistic by those who do actually know such things. At times, Finest Hour even resorts to blatant plagiarism of scenes. Take the opening scene, for example, copied almost perfectly from the opening of the film Enemy at the Gates, a movie about rival snipers during the siege of Stalingrad. Rather than feel contrived, though, this helps the game maintain the feel of watching a very well done war movie. Or perhaps I should say "a series of WWII vignettes."
In Finest Hour, your mission is to take control of not just one, but four separate Allied soldiers, from Russia, Britain and the USA. Each has their own personality, their own views and their own reasons for why they are at war. As with most WWII movies, the resolve of the main characters to fight the good fight for their country is their most heroic aspect, rather than any superhuman combat ability. This is in keeping with the general trend of history-based FPS games creating a rough and difficult environment by making the main characters as close to actual human beings as they can.
However, the varied stories, viewpoints and play styles offered by a multi-character format allows for both a greater appreciation of soldiers' ideas about the war they are fighting, and for a game that never becomes dull or monotonous. Just when you think your soldier has done about all he can do without becoming Rambo, the game switches to a new character, with a fresh perspective and a different series of objectives to complete. It helps keep the game closer to what its creators hoped it would be: a respectful, almost reverent tribute to the common soldiers of World War II (although the instruction booklet seems to get caught up in "war buff"-style facts about the hardware and machinery used during the conflict), as well as an enjoyable game in its own right.
On the technical side of things, although nothing is really new, it is all very refined. There is no auto-targeting, which makes sense given that the soldiers in Finest Hour are supposed to be regular human beings, not people with cyborg implants or magic mushroom power. However, the developers thoughtfully added an option to make the crosshairs "stick" a bit when over an enemy unit, making the game easier to jump into for people like me, who aren't big fans of dual analog controls. This option, as well as an option to display a "don't shoot" icon over friendly units when targeting, are easily turned off for a grittier experience.
As far as dual analog control schemes go, Finest Hour's is one of the better I have seen. The problem of aiming a lighter weapon without turning the character's entire body to do so still has not been addressed, but since most of the weapons in this game have quite a kickback when fired in real life, the point is basically moot.
I found that the default setting for turning speed was far too slow to keep up with the Nazi onslaught this game threw at me (and a quick living room test showed that people do actually turn faster than what the game suggests). Luckily, that too can be altered with a simple menu option. Faster turning not only more accurately reflects how quickly a person can really turn ninety degrees (especially during a high-stress situation), it also makes the game at least two times easier to get the hang of.
Finest Hour is a tough game; make no bones about it. Fast turning or no, the sheer number of enemies the player must deal with every step of the way is at times staggering. One earlier mission had me almost single-handedly defending a fortification from a massed Nazi incursion for ten entire minutes - with a slow-loading sniper rifle and 95 bullets. Yes, this was on the "Easy" setting.
Of course, war games are supposed to be tough, are supposed to be unrelenting. Finest Hour does a beautifully refined job with the difficulty curve via the various gameplay options. Although there is no real tutorial level to speak of, and although a newbie such as myself might need two or three tries to get the hang of the game's pacing, the difficulty options make a huge difference. On "Easy," for example, the characters can take several hits and keep going, thanks to plentiful health items scattered about the battlefield.
The ammunition micromanagement is also greatly diminished on this setting, especially during the first few missions, where bullet pick-ups are strewn about the play area like confetti. (It shouldn't be difficult for most of you to imagine what the hardest setting is like.) In addition, the options I mentioned above (turn speed, sticky targeting and friendly fire indicator) actually make a big difference during play. There's also the helpful option to invert the Y-axis of the controls, which makes them easier for some gamers.
Of course, Finest Hour is not perfect. Particularly during sniper missions, in which your character is sighting enemies through a scope, it's easy to note that shooting an enemy in the foot, knee or hand can drop them just as easily as a bullet to the head, provided the rounds do adequate damage. Your fellow soldiers also seem to be some of the most ineffective people to ever take up arms on a battlefield. Often they will fire upwards of half a dozen bullets at an enemy, then give up and get into a rifle-butt fight with them reminiscent of American Gladiators.
The enemies, oddly, seem more than happy to reciprocate and will cease firing in order to wrestle with an Allied soldier. Given that a moment before, the field commander may have been authoritatively ordering the main character what to do to stay alive, it's weird to see him drop his guard and rush the enemy with no apparent regard for his own well-being.
While the brawling is entertaining and exciting to watch, it's also an indication of the way in which Call of Duty's developers have handled the more average abilities of the main characters: they seem to have made all the soldiers around them less than average fighters, so as to offset the characters' abilities more. This is fine, especially since the Call of Duty games are FPS titles, not squad-based tactical combat like Rainbow Six. It still couldn't have hurt to have made the Allies just a bit more intelligent, though, especially considering the importance that the game places on listening to the commands of superiors, who usually seem to know what they are doing.
The graphics in Call of Duty: Finest Hour are just shy of perfect. Character models, facial mapping, architecture, water, terrain, even the skies above the battlefields are amazingly well done, with superb attention to detail and top-notch texturing. Although the people still look like video game characters rather than real people (because of a slight flatness to the face, usually), they are still detailed enough that it is easy to tell many Russian soldiers simply by virtue of their looking Russian in ethnicity. The same is less true of Germans, Brits and Americans, the former two sharing much ethnic history and the latter being a huge mix of different looks and races. However, this should be a good indicator that this game has gotten to the point graphically that it can wear the trappings of a feature film and actually come off feeling, and looking, like one.
All of the game footage is rendered in-game, although some of the cinematics make smart use of blurring effects and various film washes, so that the end result is nearly indistinguishable from a pre-rendered quality movie. However, the best use of footage in this game has nothing to do with graphical acuity: actual film footage from 1930s and 1940s newsreels is used to powerful effect as a means of helping to set the stage for each conflict the game presents. These film montages are sparse, but very potent. They keep it in the gamer's mind that, no matter how well made this title might be, it's based on a real conflict, in which millions of real people fought and died not so very long ago at all.
I had worried that Finest Hour would take its attitude towards "The War" either too lightly or too sappily, but my fears were unfounded. This is one of the best examples of how the game's developers struck a solid balance between the two and managed to give the game more of an emotional punch in doing so. It is also worth noting here that load times, while present throughout the game, are so infrequent that they aren't noticeable at all. I would honestly guess that I sat through less than 15 load screens throughout the course of the game, and all of them were actually quite fast.
All of the above is supported by a rock-solid engine with no jaggies or draw-in whatsoever, and some of the best effects I've seen in a long time. Fire, water, smoke and tracer bullets - heck, everything that isn't running on two legs or bolted to the floor - exhibits a very high level of effects quality. The result is that these effects are hardly noticed during play, because they look so natural. The only time I noted anything that didn't quite convince was when looking at a vast cesspool in the sewers underneath Stalingrad. It had unusually rough texturing, even considering what it was composed of, and seemed more like a flat panel of putrid earth at first glance than a disgusting pool of human filth. Looking at what I just wrote, though, I have just realized that might not be such a bad thing.
Finest Hour features some very impressive, cinematic voice work. This is what stood out in my mind most of all. The voice actors who play Russian soldiers do their damnedest to sound like "Russians" (that is, English-speaking voices with thick Russian accents), with surprisingly convincing and solid results. American and British voices are similarly solid and consistent as far as accentuation and cadence. If these voices belonged to characters in a movie, critics would enjoy how well they took on various accents for their roles. Very rarely did any of the acting in the game seem anything less than professional - though it was not entirely flawless, either.
It's hard to talk about "sound effects" in a game like this one. You see, the meat and potatoes of Finest Hour's sound package IS the sound effects. It's more appropriate to call it a "sound package," or perhaps a "sonic assault." Shells whistle and whine, explosions are ear-shattering, guns sound almost as if they were sampled from the real items, and small details like the sound of dirt showering onto the ground that follows an explosion have been amplified in order to put the gamer right in the middle of everything even more.
Sometimes, during the heat of battle, your character will slip into a kind of battle-shock in which all the sounds fade away and everything seems to move slowly. The only sounds are explosions, seemingly far in the distance, and the character's own breathing and heartbeat. The effect is very impressive. The game is punishing and unrelenting, not just in gameplay, but in its sounds as well. Once again, the obvious intent was to have the sound experience be on par with a great World War II film like Saving Private Ryan. The developers have succeeded fully in this endeavor.
Music, too, sounds cinematic, although it takes a back seat to the rest of the title's sound package. To enhance the rough, relentless feel of the game, no soundtrack accompanies the characters constantly. Most of the actual gameplay is devoid of music: war is not, after all, pretty or romantic. This is another fine example of the developers making sure that even as they designed a video game based on a horrifically bloody and bitter war, they kept a respectful and modest tone to it throughout. What music there is errs on the side of sappy a bit, but it's hard to fault the game's designers: most war movies also err in that direction, and Activision was shooting for that big-screen feel all along. Still, it would have been nice to see a somewhat darker approach to the game's score, considering that it doesn't shy away from the unpleasant aspects of war anywhere else in the game.
It's true that Call of Duty: Finest Hour is a one-player game with no alternate modes of play and only one story (or rather, a series of stories) to play through. It desperately lacks the online support that will keep you playing much longer on the other consoles versions and the PC. However, owing to the intensity and difficulty of gameplay, it should be a more than satisfying 15-20 hour quest for war gamers. The game itself, event-wise, isn't that long at all. But the sheer difficulty, and number, of seemingly insurmountable tasks that crop up with increasing frequency throughout the game, results in more replay and a more extended time frame for finishing Finest Hour than most other games in this genre can claim.
There are some cool unlockables as well, including concept art and 'memorabilia' of the main and supporting cast and quite a bit more to see as the game progresses. There's also a way to unlock cheat codes in order to try playing through the game a second time with all sorts of broken advantages. To their credit, Activision restricts the use of codes at first. Players have to earn the right to screw around with this game, intended to be a serious title.
For the type of game that it is, Finest Hour offers more variance during play than its competitors, sports a decently long campaign to begin with, and presents enough real challenges to keep most gamers quite happy with their purchase. Personally, I'd wait until the price dropped to $40 before picking it up, but that's only because I'm not traditionally a fan of this genre at all. That fact should serve to illustrate just how good the game actually is. Fans of these types of games can rest assured that money spent on Finest Hour is money well spent indeed.
Like all WWII games out there, Call of Duty: Finest Hour features accurate weapons, uniforms and vehicles. Its battles are based off of real battles from that war, as are the tactics used by enemies and allies alike. However, this game rises above the rest.
The use of multiple perspectives allows Finest Duty to jump all over the western theater of operations convincingly, recreating sieges, tank battles and commando raids with an unparalleled level of intensity and immediacy. The stories of the characters feel like they could have been your own, had you been in their shoes during that time. The game keeps a safe distance from its refined gameplay and spectacular graphics and sound by doing everything it can to remind the player that war is hell, and the sacrifices of soldiers should not be taken lightly or caricatured for anyone's amusement.
Because of this combination of top-notch production, well-balanced gameplay and humane reservation regarding the subject matter, I highly recommend this game to both veteran players of the genre, and newcomers who are curious about the best it has to offer. Don't expect an easy time, either way. But for a challenge that won't be one-upped, top-quality sound and graphics and a serious, reserved tone that does honor to the people who didn't have a choice to just play the video game version, pick up Call of Duty: Finest Hour as soon as you are able. You won't be disappointed.