Answering the call, you find yourself and a group of soldiers in a creaking rowboat approaching the scorched shores of Stalingrad. Mile-high pillars of black smoke paint the sky and ceaseless gunfire spews from pill boxes, soldiers and even low flying planes. Stalingrad is one of many, set-piece living battles that make Call of Duty: Finest Hour an immersive experience over the course of three campaigns, each beginning with real FMV footage from the 1940s. Your landing at Stalingrad is similar to the frenetic Normandy landing in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and marks the beginning of your epic journey through WWII.
Each campaign has approximately eight missions placing you in the shoes of different international soldiers struggling to defend their homelands. Completed missions can be selected individually on the main menu, though even after playing them once you still are unable to skip opening RTMs. There are five control schemes available including Lefty which completely reverses all of the controls. The Friendly Fire blocker prevents you from shooting near your allies, which is good in theory but ultimately useless since even on the hardest setting you can’t (accidentally) shoot your own troops (not through lack of trying). Surprisingly, there is no option to adjust sound levels individually so expect music to frequently overpower character dialogue; you may want to keep the subtitles on.
Out on the battlefield you can avoid enemy fire by keeping as close to the deck as possible, indeed, you can also adjust your stance between standing upright, crouching and a prone crawling position. In the latter you can occasionally see through the level boundaries and even pass through the collision detection of just about any object lying on the ground including machine guns and debris. Movement becomes increasingly restrictive as you get closer to the ground but you also become a smaller target. When prone you can’t move and shoot simultaneously but in all three positions you can lean around corners and aim down the sight (ADS) of your weapon for a closer view of your target(s). As you move, the targeting reticle becomes larger making accurate shots more difficult to execute. When hit by enemy fire or caught on the perimeter of an explosive blast you may experience a brief moment of shellshock where time slows, sound bends, and the screen blurs wildly as you try to regain your bearings.
Medicinal pick-up items include health kits, which work the instant you walk over them, and the first-aid kit, which becomes part of your inventory for use at your discretion – you can even use them to heal allied soldiers. These soldiers will often fight alongside you and directly follow your orders, such as when to kick open doors and when to proceed (though if you give a soldier the order to go while blocking his path the prompt remains indefinitely and he never gets past you).
Attempting to backtrack through levels or walk too far from mission boundaries may cause friendly troops to attack you for treason. Again, this is a cool idea but it’s not always clear just where ?too far’ is, and invisible collision sometimes blocks off what appears to be accessible areas.
You’ll wield more than a dozen period-specific weapons over the course of Finest Hour all with varying rates of fire, range and damage. No matter which weapon you use, however, you can’t shoot while reloading; not even guns that reload one bullet at a time. Some of the larger machine guns such as the Bren and MG42 are equipped with bipods that can be deployed for easier stationary shooting, since they are inaccurate when fired on the move.
Beyond small arms you will also have a number of opportunities to command tanks, which are equipped with a coaxial machine gun and a main turret. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to move in and out of the tank at will, but you are again offered three different views; through the tank’s main sight, behind the tank (chase view) and outside of the top hatch where you can use your own weapons and move the tank simultaneously. The transition between views could perhaps have been executed a little better – as it stands it’s simply a quick fade to black. Feel free to run over enemy or ally soldiers indiscriminately – let’s face it that just never gets old.
As for the tank’s faults, the turret rotation speed is fairly slow and unaffected by the options menu’s Look Speed setting. Plus, clicking R3 (default control configuration) re-centers the turret faster than it would move otherwise, which is frustrating when the general movement is so slow by comparison. It is often difficult to see where enemy fire is coming from and some missions have an annoying infinite soldier spawn. This means that, once you progress through a cleared area, more soldiers will appear from the rear and start shooting again – lumbering you with only a vague indication as to where it’s coming from. There is also no indication as to when your tank’s turret is ready to fire again, and when driving a tank through a structure with a low ceiling you may find the camera passing through the ceiling’s collision detection. Holding L1 keeps the camera behind the turret as it rotates, though this should happen by default since it’s tough to tell where it’s aiming when the camera remains stationary. Some of the frantic battle recreations where the use of tanks is called upon are the retaking of Red Square and the storming of an airfield where you can shoot down planes as they take off. Nice.
AI runs the gamut from one end of the spectrum to the other. In the beginning of the first mission, as you are told to follow Sgt. Puskov, the soldier blocking your path doesn’t move until Sgt. Puskov is done speaking to you. If you pass Puskov and attempt to proceed before he’s done speaking not only will the path remain blocked after Puskov proceeds, you may even be attacked for proceeding too soon. Within the first campaign alone there were at least three instances of crazy AI; enemy soldiers either continuously running in circles or into walls. Conversely, it was impressive to see enemy soldiers rush to man stationary weapons when the previous operator was killed.
Audio and graphics come together beautifully in Finest Hour to effectively recreate many scenes from WWII. Everything from the rousing orchestral music, to the growl of low-flying planes, to the weeping soldiers on the dock makes the arrival at Stalingrad nothing short of overwhelming. There are even medics attending to the wounded as you collect your bullets and follow a specific soldier with the assigned rifle (another terrifyingly realistic observation when it comes to the atrocities of war). Although soldiers don’t actually replace the clips on their weapons, reload animations are thorough and well executed. The only real problem as you land at Stalingrad is the commanding officer repeatedly barking the same dialogue, which becomes extremely annoying as you move about the landing area acclimating to the controls. Finest Hour is kept both lively and realistic through background audio including barrages of loud gunfire and chatter among your squad. I don’t know exactly what the terrors of war sound like but I’d hazard a guess that this is probably pretty close.
Sadly, considering the realism on show, enemy soldiers don’t bleed when shot, neither do they react in a show of dismemberment when killed in explosions. Downed foes also disappear almost immediately after death, sometimes they even become magically stuck in midair before doing so. Even enemy tanks strangely vanish when destroyed. You’ll notice graphic dropout when turning around or rotating the tank turret; portions of flames on damaged aircraft also pop in and out of view. Overall the collision detection is poor, and when crashing your tank into the train station after retaking Red Square, it passes like a ghost through all of the debris, not to mention that the turret can pass through anything on any level. When storming the airfield you may find enemy soldiers walking into an aircraft’s wings. Don’t worry, though, you can shoot right through it. Additionally, the sniper rifle scope is opaque until you ADS.
More than a solid single-player experience, Call of Duty: Finest Hour supports online Axis vs. Allies combat where you can voice chat with up to sixteen other players in Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Search and Destroy missions. You’ll also find interesting extra content including animation reels, slide shows and behind-the-scenes footage as you progress through the campaigns.