Right about this time last year, Call of Duty was released in the midst of a glut of World War II first person shooter titles. It seems that every year a new war is focused on until everyone wants to run screaming away and play Minesweeper rather than see another â€œX-Conflictâ€ title bloat the market. Every year these titles flood the market, and every year there are winners and there are losers. Last year, the crown was placed squarely on the head of Call of Duty for the PC for an incredible mix of immersion, gameplay mechanics, and a fun balance of realism and shooter action. Fast forward to this year and the new war appears to be Vietnam. Rather than follow like sheep to the next conflict, Spark Unlimited took a look at what Infinity Ward did to make Call of Duty fun on the PC, spit-shined their coding boots, and brought us Call of Duty: Finest Hour.
Finest Hour kicks off with a fantastic rendered cutscene setting up all of the sides youâ€™ll get to play throughout the extensive campaign. You see the struggles in Stalingrad, the life of a saboteur in North Africa, and the advancing of the American flag on the Western Front. The war torn cities of Europe are captured in great detail in the intro, which leads nicely into the detail level of the game. When you kick off the game, you are given a story briefing via real life footage from the war mixed in with some well rendered additions. Seeing Stalin himself ordering his troops adds a certain flavor that wouldnâ€™t otherwise be present if it was just Der Kommissar So-and-So.
As you enter the game you are crossing the Volga in a boat with your fellow Russian Comrades. If this seems familiar, it should â€“ it is pretty much the same opening as the movie Enemy At The Gates. Thankfully, you make it across the Volga, unfortunately you are #2 in line which means you hold the bulletsâ€¦not the rifle. As you gather your bearings youâ€™ll notice that machine guns are bearing down on the area, smoke fills the air, tracers rip the night sky, German bombers pelt the area with munitions, and the hill into Stalingrad is swarming with soldiers both live and dead. The level of detail present in the backgrounds is astonishing given that the game remains at a solid 30fps for the vast majority of the time, only stuttering for an occasional massive explosion.
The detail of the character models in Finest Hour vary quite a bit. Suffice to say, you can tell who is important and who has been designated as more meat for the grinders of war. All models for both sides of the conflict are dressed appropriately, with Officers wearing the appropriate coats and hats complete with medals and jack-boots. Where you notice the â€˜grinder syndromeâ€™ is when you see hundreds of Naziâ€™s closing on your position and you are behind the scope of a M91/30 Mosin-Nagent Sniper Rifle. Round after round and enemy after enemy, they really do start to look the sameâ€¦such is the nature of war. Thankfully, all of the models are good, just not nearly as good as the main characters or the plot-centric ones.
There are some fine details worth mentioning that I really was surprised to see. When firing the sniper rifle and chambering the next round, the rifle shakes in the correct pattern that is made from the bolt and lever action shaking the weapon. Another nice point was that you could shoot any exposed area a soldier was foolish enough to leave dangling out. In one particular mission you are required to defend a tank depot for 10 minutes using a team of snipers. Most games would have you wait until the â€˜designatedâ€™ time for the enemy to peek their head out for you to shoot them, but Finest Hour allows you to shoot the top of a soldierâ€™s head over the top of their cover if it exposed â€“ it isnâ€™t the usual 2 foot magic bullet-stopper above all cover. After you terminate your target, they tend to die in a wide variety of animations, often clutching towards you in a final desperate death thrust. As you move further into the game, you are treated to some tank combat. The tank combat is also well animated and the tanks are detailed with smoke plumes, hatches, and pintle tie-downs. Overall, the animations and level of detail is well done and push the framerate about as far as can be expected, a worthy effort to translate what made the PC title of last year look so good onto consoles.
Muppets! Finest Hourâ€™s voice-overs were handled by Jim Hensonâ€™s Henson Workshop, so each character has lip synch with their characterâ€™s facial movements. The voice actors handle their lines very well, and nobody sounds like they are trying to force a particular accent too much. When you fire up the game, there will be one voice you immediately recognize â€“ Dennis Haysbert. You might remember Mr. Haysbert as the voice of Lambert in Tom Clancyâ€™s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. His voice lends a History Channel documentary type feel to the game and helps with the overall immersion factor of the game.
The big lure of the sound in Finest Hour wonâ€™t be the voice work, itâ€™ll be the incredible orchestral work used in the game. The music in Finest Hour varies from subtle and quiet pieces to heart-swelling battle charge arrangements that push you and your men on to victory â€“ For God and Country!
The controls in Finest Hour utilize the entirety of the Gamecube controller. The left analog stick controls your movement and strafing, and the right analog controls your 360 degree camera. The D-Pad is used to change weapons, items, reload, and use health packs, but also serves to allow leaning around corners if you hold the L button. The L button is used to give yourself a more precise aim of your weapon allowing a more steady and controlled shot. The R button fires your weapon. Z allows you to bring the butt-end of your weapon to bear on your enemy in a devastating melee strike. The Y and X button toggles your posture from prone to kneeling and back to standing. The A button throws a grenade if you have one available, and the B button acts as a contextual action button.
Given that this isnâ€™t Spark Unlimitedâ€™s first trip around the block, they understand that controls can make or break a game. They have obviously spent a great deal of time honing the controls to ensure that they are responsive and you are fighting the enemy, not your controller. To ensure that goal is achieved, you can select from 5 pre-configured controller setups to fit your needs as well as invert your aim, adjust your look and turn speed, and toggle an aim assist that helps you â€˜stickâ€™ to your targets. You can also turn off rumble, subtitles, hints, friendly fire, and select your audio options as you see fit.
The only two hits against the control scheme I have with Finest Hour stem from the tank battles and Gamecube controller itself. Having played all three versions, I found the Xbox version to be far more intuitive than the Gamecube controller, but that had to do with the physical layout of the buttons more than anything that Spark Unlimited could control. The issues with tank had to do with the ability to turn the turret in a reasonable speed. Given that some missions featured an obscene number of Germans with Panzerfaust Anti-Tank weapons, it was somewhat frustrating at times to not be able to turn the turret fast enough to dispatch them quickly.
â€œWar is Hellâ€ â€“ William Tecumseh Sherman, Atlanta – 1880
As is the case in most of the World War II era shooters on the market, Finest Hour places you in the boots of an Allied Soldier. Unlike the rest of the shooters out there, Finest Hour places you in six different sets of boots which is simultaneously one of the games strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned earlier, you begin the game as a Russian soldier crossing the Volga in service of Mother Russia in the great battle to retake the hill of Mamaev Kurgan also known as modern day Volgograd. The battle was so hellish that weapons were rationed, although there was enough ammunition to go around. The first person off the boats got a rifle, the second person got ammunition and instructions to go forth in the name of the Motherland. This battle tactic cost the lives of over 10,000 men in a single day against the superior firepower of the German invaders. Unfortunately for you, you are the second man off the boat.
You grab your ammunition and follow your rifle partner through the trenches toward the front. Bombers rip the landscape asunder dropping factory pipes over the bodies of your comrades and your advance is slow. Your rifle partner has his head screwed on and knows that the odds are not in either of your favor. He leads you through a series of near-death experiences and into a building overlooking a conquered Soviet bunker sporting a Nazi flag. As he explains your objective, the removal of said flag, he realizes that a sniper has a bead on you and pushes you out of the way sacrificing himself in the process. This is where you meet a female Russian sniper who promises to cover you while you take the hill and ensure your friendâ€™s sacrifice isnâ€™t in vain. You take the hill and move into the sniper mission as our Russian Sniper.
The sniper missions are mobile sniper missions with you and a few squadmates moving through tunnels and bombed out buildings acting as support and eventually savior to a team of tank commanders. Off to the next set of boots. The game keeps this pace all the way until the end pushing you through 6 characters through the course of the game. Right about the time you really start to enjoy the run and gun nature of being a Russian soldier, its time to play as a sniper. As soon as you settle in behind your rifle scope, it is already time to get in the tank and roar through Red Square to deliver an important replacement radio. While you do get to experience a great deal of varied gameplay this way and it keeps the pace of the game furious, it also makes the otherwise likeable characters into nameless and faceless characters.
The heart of Finest Hour is in its attention to realism. This is apparent in the selection of weapons available in the game. Each side has the appropriate weapon for the time period including the odd DPM which looks like a dinner plate strapped to a rifle. The Russians get the Mosin-Nagant and scoped variant; the Americans get the reliable Springfield rifle. Also present and accounted for is the powerful BAR, Thompson, M1 Garand (complete with realistic clip ejection sound), and M3A1 â€œGrease Gunâ€. The British and Germans also get period weapons including the top-loaded Bren LMG and standard-issue Kar98. As a nice side note, this is carried into the game manual as little tidbits of information about the weapons are listed under each one and a bit of history below that as well. The sound, the weapons, the shock of the bolt in the rifle actionâ€¦this game bleeds realism!
With all the attention to realism there has to be a tradeoff. Finest Hour is fairly linear. The games pace starts out frantic and never lets up, it tells you from the word go that you cannot escape the clutches of war and it truly never lets go. When you get through the end of the game, a feat which will take you a weekend, youâ€™ll wonder where it went. A testament to the pacing to be sure, but the linearity of the title constantly reminds you that this war is on rails. If only they could have kept the break-neck pace and made it a bit more open ended.
As I mentioned, Finest Hour can easily be beaten in a weekend. The early missions are fairly easy and straightforward, while the latter missions crank up the difficulty quite a bit. Some of the missions take some practice and some of the missions are just too damned cool not to play over and over again. I have always enjoyed the sniper missions in any FPS and this one is no exception. The rapid-fire movement from one character and mission type to the other does put a damper on the storyline and how much you get involved in these characterâ€™s lives, but it doesnâ€™t detract from the fact that this is a very fun title.
The largest slap in the face for the replay value of this game comes shrink-wrapped with a big red bow from Nintendo directly. Since they donâ€™t believe in this little thing called â€œThe Internetâ€ there is a shocking lack of multiplayer options in this version that is otherwise present in the Xbox and PS2 version. That just hurts Nintendoâ€¦where is the love?Call of Duty: Finest Hour plays like your favorite World War II movies come to life. Youâ€™ll relive parts of Enemies At The Gate, Day After Tomorrow, with hints of Saving Private Ryan. The game is realistic and fun, albeit an on-rails shooter at the core. Some parts of the game just beg to be replayed while others have you scratching your head why they arenâ€™t longer to begin with. The title is hurt a bit by the lack of multiplayer, but the rapid-fire single player mission keeps you engaged from the opening shot to the playing of taps.