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Call of Duty: Finest Hour review

Excellent
AT A GLANCE

Nothing

It's the best war game on PS2 then. Job done. War is over. Troop disbanded. You can all go home for Christmas in an ill-fitting free suit. It's easy to be glib. Easy to see Call of Duty: Finest Hour as 'just another war game' and easy to question why you should buy it when you've already got Medal of Honor: Frontline and Rising Sun. Thanks. Here's why: Call of Duty is, at its best moments, twice as good as either game. If you want realism in your FPSs (and lots of people do given the million-plus status of the MOH games) this cannot be beaten. And here's why.

Call of Duty is a worldwide smash already. A spin-off from the hit PC original, this Finest Hour console-only game is a whole new experience with new locations and tasks. Making a game is a tricky process. A balancing act between giving a player plenty to do (but not leave them feeling swamped), giving clear instructions (but not holding their hand through every shot) and veiling the fact that behind the facade of good guys and bad guys acting out World War II, lies a computer program. COD gets the balance right. The world created by the levels is insanely detailed and packed with things to see and do. The missions are varied and easily understood and the AI is some of the best we've seen, with buddies that will actually take the lead and go on a killing spree if you're too shy to take point yourself. And there's never a shortage of things to kill.

The game revels in its ability to fling a screen full of troops around. Right from level one - the siege at Stalingrad - you're able to see hundreds of figures fighting the war ahead. Some are just pinpricks, others are in-your-face real and others fly planes and bombers that swoop above. We still don't know how it does it but it shows up the three-at-a-time combat of so many FPS games royally. Even the most distant, pinprick on the horizon is blessed with the AI and motion-capture to make you believe that they're real. Try sniping a distant running figure in the ankle and watch how they trip and fall if you don't believe us. And up-close they just get better. They shout, cry out and, if you get real personal, will twat you on the head with the butt of their gun. With a grimace. While Killzone has you mopping up pockets of resistance in futuristic shopping centres, Call of Duty places you in the thick of a proper war. We've successfully counted thirty blokes, across both sides, all scrapping on-screen with us stuck in the middle of it all - counting.

Which is inevitably both a technical miracle and a pain in the arse. In practically every other FPS there is a finite amount of baddies. They have 'spawn' points (ie, where they start from) and get close enough and you'll trigger them to start attacking. Then, when they're dead, they're dead. But here, just like really being at war with Germany, they just keep on coming. Clear an area and before you know it you're getting shot in the ass by some freshly alerted guards spawning from impossible-to-find start points. The result is real tension. You can never relax, get your back against the wall and know that you're safe. But this also means that, unable to truly clear a section, your best course of action is - just as in real war - to charge headlong through to the next checkpoint or mission conclusion without getting your ass shot off. Something not ideally tied to the length of the levels...

ON THE LEVEL

Each is comprised of a few 'scenes' or 'objectives' and often, just when you're expecting the next chunk of the city, or waiting to find out what lies over the next ridge it's the level's end and you're off somewhere else. Get lucky and you can charge headlong through some of the early (easier) levels and reach the mission's end by ignoring much of the scenery, action and army 'specially laid on for you to 'enjoy'. The good news is that there are 19 of the things, and each is very carefully plotted to contain regular servings of unique and memorable moments. For example after spending a chunk of level defending a tank you then get to drive the thing out through the streets. Sniping soldiers through the gloom of the sewers is a welcome change of pace. And working room to room and house to house clearing the streets of snipers keeps you on your toes and your nerves permanently set to 'jangle'.

IN THE ZONE

Killzone is certainly larger (despite having only 11 levels) but is more repetitive with the action stretched through an (admittedly wide) but still limiting corridor. By comparison Call of Duty is often as wide as it is deep. Yes, there is a clear path through the level and your next course of action is denoted with a fat star on your compass, but if you want to explore, perhaps scouting for decent sniping points or scrounging for medipacks before the next obvious onslaught, you can. And the sheer numbers of enemies pegging it out of buildings and down streets means that there's no shortage of things to kill if you decide to stay a while.

Weapons-wise the game is as all-encompassing as you'd expect. Every gun is an authentic recreation of real weaponry of the time and, while the novelty of old bolt-action, slow-reloading Russian rifles is charming for a short time, things soon pick up with the arrival of the Where Eagle's Dare staple, the German MP40. And the best thing about using a German gun on Germans of course is that you're never short of ammo as you steam through a pack of them, bullets flying, grabbing their dropped ammo clips as you go.

As is fast becoming the norm, you can only carry minimal weaponry at one time. Two guns, in fact. One of which must be sacrificed in order to make room for a new arrival (just stand over it and hold X). In addition there's grenades (on L2) and the occasional mounted gun turret to take control of too. But by far the main hardware 'moments' are the vehicles. The first time you take control of a tank you can scarcely believe it. It's a whole new game. You can even play from an in-cab slotty cockpit view or from a less blinkered third-person view. And there are levels on jeeps where your buddies do the driving and you're in charge of clearing the countless Hun ahead.

One drawback is that the intensity of the action is so extreme and the adherence to the uniforms and vehicles of the day so realistic that you simply haven't the time to tell good guys from bad. We can't help thinking that if the Germans had worn orange or if their guns had fired purple lasers they'd have been rather easier to spot in the throng and the game would have been more 'fun'. But that would be stupid. Just be thankful for a red glow on your targeting reticule that lets you know when your fire is hitting home, even if your view is obscured with yet another plume of smoke or burst of shrapnel.

Last month we played Killzone - a game that's all 'future' and 'space boots' but is similarly bogged down in clunky weaponry and the grit of war. But where Killzone had its quiet moments, plenty of scenery at just the right height to pop up from behind and a mix of weapons that felt and behaved differently, so COD features, relentless respawning enemies, scenery that's never the right height with painfully slow stance switching, and guns that - apart from the machine guns and sniper rifles - are much of a muchness. Killzone is all polish and Euro-cool while COD is all gritty nerve-shredding. It is hard to play and that's not just 'hard' in terms of 'difficulty' hard but actually 'hard' to perform the aiming, ducking, grenade flinging and running required thanks to the inadequate weapons and insistence on not giving you a moments peace. It's not often we play an FPS and fling the joypad down in fury but we guarantee that after getting your health shot away by a pillbox of soldiers that you could have sworn you'd cleared you'll do likewise.

WAR IS OVER

And yet COD remains head and helmet above all previous cracks at this genre, including the two previous much loved and ultra-popular Medal of Honor PS2 games. The set-pieces in Call of Duty come so thick and fast that they feel like the norm - a very impressive, unrelenting, sensory-assaulting norm. And while MOH re-used scenery, gave you near identical tasks to perform again and again and felt like a fat brown shooting gallery, so Call of Duty heaps on the excitement and variety and surrounds you with enemies and a task list as long as the Director's Cut of War and Peace.

Like creating it, playing Finest Hour is a labour of love. You can smell the attention to detail and it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine how it could be bettered, on PS2 at least. It's hard, it's real, it's the best war game you can buy.

Call of Duty: Finest Hour is released for PS2, Xbox and Gamecube on 3 December

Another brilliant PS2 first-person shooter. Boasting realism, originality and variety in equal measure - it's the premium choice for Medal of Honor fans this year

More Info

Available Platforms: PC, Xbox, GameCube, PS2

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