Alright, stop the war I wanna get off. That’s it, I’m done. If I see one more Nazi or German soldier I’ll be stunned because between the Call of Duty series, the Medal of Honor series, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the History Channel, Band of Brothers, the upcoming Brothers in Arms, Tom Brokaw, et al, it’s safe to say the entire population of Germany has been wiped out 20 times over.
I guess I’m starting to suffer burn-out on the whole second World War, and when awful games like Call of Duty: Finest Hour come along, I start to wish developers would leave well enough alone for a few years. There are games that elevate any given genre they feature, and then there are games that make you hope for luck next time. It’s sad that the latest installment of the Call of Duty franchise falls into the latter category. That being said, I still have faith in the future so perhaps the next game will be better. But I have no idea how it could be worse.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour goes through the three Allied campaigns during World War II, starting with the Russian front, then moving on to the British in North Africa, and concluding with the Americans as they move through Europe. You also change characters roughly every second or third mission in the game, though I’m stumped as to whether that makes a bit of difference during gameplay. It struck me as more of a gimmick than anything else, considering a sniper handles just as well as a tank captain and a British commando. Apart from the opening sequence for each new character, there is little to differentiate each one. When you factor in just how frequently you burn through characters, it’s impossible to get attached to any one in particular.
I have to be honest right up front. Call of Duty: Finest Hour looks terrible on the PS2. The environments are very nice as stationary objects, but when you get up close things start to pixelate heavily. The developers did extensive research into each location and tried to accurately rebuild everything for the game, but the environments never seemed to really come to life. Even as I was running in and out of buildings while fighting the Germans, there seemed to be minimal interaction with the buildings themselves. Tables and furniture are placed just so, and no amount of grenades are going to displace them.
One of the major griefs I had with Call of Duty: Finest Hour was how so many of the enemies and friendlies would just warp around the level. I would look at a character who was running towards a corner, then he would magically appear behind the corner. My favorite instance was when I killed a German soldier, and after crumpling to the ground his body was magically dragged along the ground and disappeared through a wall. The character models are also flat and each one seems like a carbon copy of the other. At one point, I did notice a difference in my squad leader from the rest of the group. The leader had a mustache, and that was it. Since sci-fi has taught us for years that facial hair equals bad guy, I was relieved to be playing a game set during World War II. Sadly, this was the only time in the entirety of Call of Duty: Finest Hour that I was relieved. The rest of the time I spent thinking just how bland, uninteresting and dull the environments, models, and interactivity were. When I could see them that is.
I don’t know what kind of setup the graphics gurus played on, but whenever the game would go to one of its frequent night missions, I couldn’t see a bloody thing. This was not helped by the fact that the enemy could see me clear as day and could wantonly shoot me. I played the game at night in a darkened room, and since I was just barely able to make out shapes I had to hope for the best and presume they were the enemy. I went into the control settings for brightness, and all that was there was a set of color bars with the instructions telling me to adjust my television. For the record, my television settings matched the recommended settings perfectly and I had to squint during the night time missions to see anything. It felt like I was playing… No, I’m not going for the cheap Doom 3 shot.
The area where Call of Duty: Finest Hour truly excels is in the sound effects and music department. The effects of the various weapons were all recorded live, and it is very, very cool firing machine guns and knowing the sounds you hear are the real thing. There was also a good reverb aural effect when buildings were bombed or shelled by tanks, and I love how the squads on both sides would shout orders to one another.
The voice acting was well handled by the Henson Workshop, and 24‘s Dennis Haysbert is excellent as the narrator during the stock footage sequences. These are used as transitions between the three campaigns, and it feels like watching The History Channel since each video brings you up to speed on what was going on in the region before your mission begins. It also helps set the stakes so you know exactly what your character was trying to accomplish.
The music is uniformly excellent, and while it does pull a few selections from the PC game, the majority was unique to me. There are some beautiful pieces scattered throughout, some of which are down right haunting. When you look out over the ruins of a battlefield, and a piece filled with sorrow echoes on the soundtrack, it brings to mind exactly what those men and women of 60 years ago went through.
What I liked about the control setup for Call of Duty: Finest Hour was that it was filled to the brim with options. You have a total of five different pre-defined control schemes at your disposal. You have the standard one, the lefty one for you south paws, a hybrid scheme, a scheme for quickshooters and one called commando. The last one is easily the most intuitive because it places the movement buttons and the attack buttons where they should be. The default scheme works out like this.
You must hold down the L1 button in order to aim down your gun’s sight, and this considerably increases your accuracy. The L2 button tosses grenades or mines, the R1 button fires your weapons, and the R2 button is for your melee attack, the up button on the keypad uses a health pack, the left button cycles through your grenades, and the right buttons cycles between the two weapons you can carry. The triangle is your posture up button, the circle is your posture down button, the square is for reloading and the X is your action button. It took me a while to get the hang of the controls, but once I did it was easy enough to get right into the action.
A buddy of mine recently asked me what my criteria for reviewing a game are. I told him first and foremost is whether or not the game is any fun. I don’t care how snazzy the graphics are, if I do not have fun playing it, then the game loses me. I’m looking at my copy of Ninja Gaiden while I type this. That is why Call of Duty: Finest Hour ranks so poorly with me: It’s not fun. I can count on one hand the number of times I smiled while playing through all three campaigns, and I don’t even have to use every finger. It didn’t matter whether I was playing as a Russian sniper in a bombed-out factory, or a British commando trapped in a ruin in the middle of the African desert, or an American soldier ducking behind tanks while German defenders tossed grenades at me. None of it was fun, and this was a crushing disappointment after getting the chance to preview it.
The game has plenty going for it, too. It bears the Call of Duty namesake, and the PC game and its expansion pack stand among the best and most exciting first-person shooters I’ve ever played. Call of Duty: Finest Hour is action packed as well, with terrific sound effects and missions that drop you right into the heart of the greatest conflict the world has ever known. So what about it managed to suck the life out of me, and take me to the point of throwing my controller through my television?
It’s impossible to stress just how slow your character moves throughout the game. Whenever you are on foot and have to follow someone, they are always about 50 steps ahead of you and increasing that distance every second. No matter how hard you press forward on the thumbstick, your compatriots haul butt while you trudge along. This could be considered problematic when you need to get out of the way of the enemy’s machine gun nests in a hurry, or when you are supposed to defend a particular non-player character that rushes headlong into battle and gets himself killed before you can even get close to him.
That brings up the issue of enemy and friendly AI, and man Call of Duty: Finest Hour could use some. One of the chief selling points of the game is how your men fight along side you, and while that’s great in theory, in practice the only thing I would see them fight was the environment. It must be really tough to run around a small concrete block, but they would stand in one place while running into a block, while I was fending off the German army. I particularly enjoyed when my cohorts would run into a corner, and then proceed to run in a circle until I moved out. Or whenever I would kneel to get a better shot at my target, my fellow soldiers would go out of their way to stand right in front of me. I would switch positions, and then they would jump right in front of me again. I can’t consider the AI a rousing success when I have to turn off friendly fire so I can wipe out my team just to get to the enemy. The enemy, by the way, actually behaved better than my friends because they would at least seek out cover before bum-rushing me.
There are plenty of weapons at your disposal, but none frustrated me more than grenades. Maybe it was a problem symptomatic of the game itself, but unless my target was standing right on top of a grenade when it went off, they were barely hurt. I also enjoyed getting shot through walls, followed up by enemy grenades which were clearly more powerful than mine because when they would go off 10 feet from me it would send me into shellshock. During this brief period, everything slows down and the sound rings in your ears.
While there is a good variety among the missions, I can’t point to any single mission in particular and say that was a great example of a level done right. Most missions are very short, when and if you make it through. Even when the game is set on easy, the difficulty seems artificially ramped up due to cheap shots from phantom enemies who require a reload just to find. Or the friendly non-player characters will run off on their own scripted course completely ignorant of the dangers surrounding them, and then you are forced to save them while completing multiple missions simultaneously. For example, during one of the British missions you have to rescue a pair of soldiers from a tower. Make sure you clean out every single German you can find before you do so, otherwise the soldiers will run down the stairs and head right into combat kicking off the next part of this mission before you’ve even completed your first objective. Oh, and while some missions have a checkpoint in the middle, not all of them do. I lost count of how many multi-tiered missions I encountered where I would get mostly through a ridiculously challenging setup, only to be killed by something I never saw, then have to start all the way over and re-do everything.
I honestly would not play through Call of Duty: Finest Hour again if someone paid me. If I was looking for an endurance test, I’d run a marathon. The game has a few moments here and there that are genuinely fun, but you have to wade through an ocean of pain to get to them. The sound effects and music are terrific, but if you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan in a full surround sound setup then you’ve heard much better. The “anyone’s guess” checkpoint system really hurts, because whenever a game has to resort to cheap shotting you in place of actual difficulty, it would be helpful if all your level progress wasn’t so casually disregarded.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour is anything but. This game has so many glaring graphical and AI glitches it borders on comical. Add to that the fact that you have to dig to really find the fun, and you will quickly realize your gaming dollar is best spent elsewhere. I never thought a WWII game would come close to outright killing my interest in the subject, but Call of Duty: Finest Hour came awfully close. Considering how excellent the series is on the PC, this is downright crushing. Not to the “your wife just spent the night with the cabana boy and his sister” level of crushing, but damn close.