During the 20+ years I've been a gamer, I've fought many battles and countless wars. Until recently, the one I'd fought more than any other was the battle of Hoth, the famous opening act fight in The Empire Strikes Back. I don't know how many times I've flown a ship across that frozen landscape, but it's more than I can count. In fact, the mere mention of Hoth now makes me break out in hives—if I never see Hoth again, it'll be too soon. I'm beginning to feel the same way about World War II. Yes, the second world war was a crowning moment for an entire generation of Americans—the ultimate triumph of good over evil (and one of the few wherein the notion that the other side was undeniably the bad guys was not open to debate) and arguably a shining example of the best and worst humanity has to offer. All that aside, please, no more videogames dealing with this global conflict. If I play another fresh-faced soldier sticking it to Hitler and his Nazi goons in one of the seemingly endless theaters of conflict, I may have to give up gaming entirely.
Now, this is not to say there haven't been some absolutely fantastic games based on WWII—there have. One need look no further than the Medal of Honor games or the PC version of Call of Duty released last year. Yet, for every great game dealing with the Axis versus the Allies, there seem to be ten that are nothing more than standard shooters (often of the first-person variety) utilizing the battles waged in Europe and Russia as little more than a scenic backdrop for "me too" gameplay. The latest in the long line of less-than-stellar World War II games is Call of Duty: Finest Hour.
The PC version of Call of Duty was a fantastic game, arguably one of the best WWII shooters to ever appear on any platform. Expectations for a console release were undoubtedly high, but this version is no port of the PC classic—it's a new game designed specifically for consoles. The end result is a game that looks sort of like Call of Duty, but lacks most of the passion and charm of the original game.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game's numerous missions. Finest Hour is a heavily-scripted experience, almost to the point of being completely on rails. Things happen because they're scripted to happen, not because they're an organic outgrowth of the gameplay. There's never any real sense of immersion for the player; gamers simply follow the path, react to what happens (in the precise fashion the game wants them to react), and move on to the next overly scripted mission. Compounding this issue is the fact that the missions themselves are generally devoid of any real personality or even an illusion of freedom. Too many times, players find themselves in a mission that exists solely to highlight one element of the gameplay—e.g., the tank missions. Driving the tanks is almost always a mission of its own. If players start driving a tank, they'll be driving it for most of that specific area. Conversely, there are some levels that require stealth (while none of the other levels do), levels devoted almost entirely to sniping, etc. In short, it's pretty generic.
Equally generic is the game's plot. The selling point of Call of Duty is that players will not only experience war events through the eyes of British, American, and Russian soldiers, but also that they'll often be part of a larger regiment of troops. Rather than take on the Nazis all alone, Call of Duty gives the player allies. The allies are acceptable, for the most part. It's a bit of a downer that they can't be commanded by the player to take specific actions, but the artificial intelligence is decent enough—meaning they actually manage to help from time to time. The biggest disappointment is that they tend to get caught on things in the environment—they've got the player's back one minute and are nowhere to be found in the next because they're caught in a doorway or something equally stupid.
The artificial intelligence is something players will be able to deal with. That each individual player-controlled character is so bland and non-descript is a separate matter entirely. Part of the charm of playing different soldiers in different theaters of war is that players get to experience unique personalities and viewpoints. Finest Hour never gives its characters any depth, though—players are "American G.I.", "Russian sniper-girl", or "British soldier." It's the equivalent of having a film made up entirely of a cast of extras. This is possibly the game's biggest disappointment, because despite being scripted, the game does manage to capture some of the frenetic tension of battle. I've never been in real armed conflict, nor would I even begin to assume that a videogame can simulate it, but for intensity in comparison to other WWII shooters, Finest Hour scores pretty high on the list. If I'd actually cared about my onscreen avatar as a real person, this game could have transcended its by-the-numbers gameplay and become something genuinely special.
Everything else follows the "struggling to rise above mediocrity" motif that colors the rest of the game: graphics are serviceable if nothing special, aiming is pretty lackluster (the hit detection is particularly bad…I missed guys I had dead-to-rights and hit guys I was shooting in the general vicinity of…) and the music and cutscenes could have been ripped out of any other WWII shooter to appear in the past five years. Ho-hum.
None of this is to say that Finest Hour is a bad game—it's just not a game fit to carry the Call of Duty name. In the world of console first-person shooters, it's incredibly average. In the realm of WWII games, it's even blander still—and that's the problem. WWII deserves a better than an average game, particularly now when the shelves are sagging from the weight of the countless games milking this conflict for all it's worth. Developers (and not just Spark Unlimited) would be well advised to take this advice: if you don't have anything new to bring to this subgenre, then don't bother. War is Hell. Playing a game about a war shouldn't be.