There's something inherently wrong about basing a game around the Second World War. Developers will preach on and on about how their respect for the veterans takes precedence over everything else, but can you really justify pixelating the most harrowing, Earth-shattering event of the 20th century? Well, they're trying. Again and again. And the sad thing is, most people don't give a fiddler's pluck about the rich history upon which these games are based; they just want to shoot lots of people with big, rusty rifles. Step up Call of Duty.
Finest Hour tries to disassociate itself from this by opening each level with a woebegone cutscene explaining how the lead characters ended up on the front line. Family photographs flash past to the strains of a tinkling piano and it's all very poignant and touching, adding emotional weight to an otherwise unexceptional plot. You care about your character and you'll be genuinely upset when they're ferociously ravaged by clattering gunfire.
Which is almost certain to happen. Call of Duty is a visceral symphony of explosive, intestinal death. Men are tossed violently into the air by deafening explosions, their limbs flailing madly in a macabre dance of death as a fifty piece orchestra blares with piercing trumpets, seething strings and ominous, rumbling drums... it's completely insane and takes cinematic gaming to a whole new visceral level. The frenzied screams of your men, the rousing sing-along before they charge an enemy outpost and the relentless whistling of bombs being dropped is enough to give you shellshock. Although there's little involvement with any of it, the spot effects and atmospheric detail littering each level makes Medal of Honor's lauded Omaha Beach scene look positively childish in comparison.
When you're actually in the game, controller in hand, eyes transfixed, you start to appreciate just what the developers are aiming for. It's purposefully cinematic and assiduously linear for a reason; the remarkable set-pieces that the series is famous for wouldn't work otherwise. You're led by the hand a lot of the time, but that's what games like this thrive on. Still, this doesn't mean that the FPS stuff is lacking. It feels very similar to the bold, exacting MOH series, but aiming is much more accurate thanks to the ability to peer directly down the shaft of your weapon. Otherwise, it's a refreshingly typical FPS with no gimmicks or conceits - you just walk, shoot and strafe. It's what's going on around you that makes it so exciting.
Call of Duty is split into three diverse sections; The Eastern Front, The Western Front and North Africa. For the Eastern missions, you take control of an unworldly Russian private forced to do battle in the epic siege of Stalingrad.
These are arguably the most entertaining missions, thanks mainly to the extraordinary atmosphere and ceaseless, pounding chaos all around you. From the powerful opening crawl to charging an enemy bunker atop an immense hill to the fantastic sniping mission, the Russian campaign is frequently outstanding.
After that, there's a slightly underwhelming set of North African missions wherein you control the game's British contingent. After the stark, frazzled buildings of Stalingrad, a dusty, featureless desert makes things considerably less interesting. There's no questioning the authenticity, but much of the game's atmosphere is lost among inorganic level structure. Put simply, it looks and feels rushed at present. The vehicle stuff isn't particularly well executed either. The tank feels awkward and inaccurate, but this could simply be down to early code. Of all the campaigns, this is definitely the most unaccomplished. Story-wise, you control an English soldier and receive barking, cockney orders from a sergeant major voiced by AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson. His dad was in the Afrika Corps you see, and he lent the developers a load of his diaries from the period. Admit it, Spark's dedication to realism is unflinching.
Lastly, we have the Western Front. This is the most traditional campaign since you control a rock-chinned American lad in the vein of MOH's Jimmy Patterson. The scenes we all know and love from films like Saving Private Ryan are re-created and the look and feel of war-torn Europe is incredibly convincing. Billowing smoke from bombed-out churches and battle-scarred streets - all very similar to MOH: Frontline, but at the same time very different. One of the vehicle-based missions on the Western Front takes place in a Nazi-occupied airstrip. You must roll up in a tank destroying planes as they try to take off and ultimately capture the base. Sound great (and looks great) but the vehicle handling currently needs work and shots rarely hit their target as we fudged through the muddled mission structure. We're confident that this'll be fixed soon enough.
Finest Hour's soundtrack also adds to the cinematic feel. Famed game composer Michael Giacchino is writing this one - he's the guy responsible for the poignant, memorable score from MOH: Frontline and with a fifty piece orchestra under his belt, he's created a score that would make John Williams weep. It matches the onscreen action perfectly and traditional instruments from whichever country you're in creep forward to differentiate between scenarios and create a truly varied sound.
Brilliantly, online multiplay has been confirmed for Finest Hour. You can engage in Axis versus Allies team-based multiplayer, working together with players from around the world as a team to complete specially tailored mission objectives. There's also a large variety of Team-based objective games, and you can be the last man standing in Team Deathmatch. It also uses the USB headset, so if you want to start barking orders, go ahead and knock yourself out.
In terms of pomp and presence, this betters Medal of Honor in almost every way. The gameplay, however, is almost identical. Spark will deny it hands-down, but this is essentially an extension of their last game - Spark being staffed by ex-EA MOH coders.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour will be out for PS2 in November