The World War II-shooter genre essentially began on consoles with the original PlayStation game Medal of Honor (itself begat by Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan). WWII games have since become a staple on the PC side. The platform has seen a host of games in the Medal of Honor series and, last year, a new franchise from Activision called Call of Duty. Call of Duty is now heading to consoles with a new game subtitled Finest Hour, which is being developed by a company called Spark Unlimited--a company made up, improbably, of nearly 30 members from the original Medal of Honor team.
The development pedigree is in place--Call of Duty: Finest Hour is being crafted by a group of individuals who are intimately familiar with and appreciative of the source material they're working with. To get a sense of how the game is coming along, we recently got our hands on an early version at an Activision press event. We also spoke with project leader Scott Langteau and military advisers Capt. John Hillen and retired Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey to get some additional background on everything that's going into the ambitious action game.
Like Call of Duty on the PC, Finest Hour will be split into Russian, British, and American campaigns--but this time around, the three sections will focus on previously unexplored areas of the war. In the Russian campaign, you'll fight through the German siege on Stalingrad, engaging in gritty urban combat and a daring raid on a Nazi airfield. The British missions are set in Northern Africa, where members of the SAS and Popsky's Private Army (a ragtag, real-life group of mercenary soldiers) will perform hit-and-run operations on Rommel's advancing panzer battalions. Finally, the American campaign is set after D-Day, beginning with the Allied advance against the Siegfried defensive line and across the German border.
There will be a total of six playable characters in Finest Hour, including such previously unexplored roles as a Russian female sniper and a member of the all-black 761st Black Panthers tank division. You'll switch off between each campaign's two playable characters at predetermined times, based on the development of the storyline (which is aided by between-mission cutscenes). Finest Hour seems to be approaching the war from a fresh perspective by featuring these heretofore unseen places and faces. It ought to make for a nice break from the typical WWII game scenarios (like John Smith of Nebraska's role in the Normandy beach landing), at least.
We played through two missions in the Russian campaign and also watched a demo of a previously unseen level in the American section. In the first of the Russian missions, which is technically the first major level in the game, we fought our way through a few tight rooms before finding our way to a window-mounted turret and laying waste to German soldiers outside. Afterward, we moved into the major objective of the mission: proceeding up the hill to disable a number of enemy pillboxes that had our allies pinned down. This mission involved running through a number of trenches, while fighting off German soldiers, in order to reach the back entrance of each fortification so we could take out the gunner who was firing down the hill at the Russian position. This mission introduced the Russian sniper character, though we didn't get to play as her, as that was reserved for later in the campaign.
The second Russian mission had us driving a T-34 tank in an assault on a Nazi airfield located outside of Stalingrad. Historically, Germany used this base to resupply its surrounded army during the lengthy siege of the city, and the Russians managed to seize the airfield for a brief time, thus disrupting the flow of supplies to the wearied troops. This mission showed off a portion of the vehicle combat in the game, which will comprise a fairly hefty percentage of Finest Hour's levels.
In this mission, we found the tank to play similar to tanks we've used in the Battlefield games, with independent tread and turret controls, and a massive main cannon and mounted machine gun available for the purpose of, you know, killing lots of Nazis. Objectives in this level included destroying a set number of grounded aircraft and then pressing farther into the heart of the base. Other vehicles on offer in the game will be the American Sherman tank and a jeep, from which the player, as a passenger, will operate a mounted machine gun.
In the American mission, which we only saw a demo of, the Allied troops were attempting to breach the border town of Aachen at the beginning of their assault on Germany itself. Aachen was of particular importance to Hitler, because for centuries it was the seat of power in the Holy Roman Empire--the empire dubbed by Hitler as the First Reich. As the commander of the Third Reich, Hitler thus gave an order that Aachen must stand no matter what--so guess which town was among the first to be attacked by the Allies?
In the mission, we were tasked with escorting a group of tanks through the city streets, fighting off antiarmor enemies wielding panzerschrecks who were trying to stop the assaulting force's advance. This mission gave us a good view of the hectic, harried nature of Finest Hour's core gameplay. Like many recent WWII shooters (most notably the original Call of Duty itself), the game will focus on cinematic action, placing you alongside a team of artificial intelligence-controlled squadmates in almost all of your battles. Langteau pointed out that while many other such games essentially cast you as a supersoldier, a one-man army against the entire enemy force, the Call of Duty franchise is about portraying one soldier's contribution as a member of a greater team. The game will even let you pick up medical kits and save them to use on yourself or sacrifice them in order to heal wounded teammates.
Indicative of the Spark team's devotion to re-creating a believable World War II-themed shooter is the amazing amount of research the developer has done to bring Finest Hour to life. In addition to members' previous experience working on the original Medal of Honor and follow-ups like Underground and Frontline, the team took weapons out to a range for sound recording, visited armories and museums to see original weapons and vehicles firsthand to gather data and texture reference, traveled to the real battle sites in Europe to get a feel for geography and culture, and even attended a Battle of Berlin reenactment in Oklahoma (where enthusiasts apparently take a break from the Civil War every so often).
What's more, military advisers Hillen and Keirsey have advised the team on every relevant detail from squad tactics to military history to accurate weapon detail. And to gain a perspective you can only get from someone who was actually there, Spark worked with World War II veterans like Sgt. Johnny Stevens, a former member of the 761st Black Panthers, to absorb as many details about the actual experience of the war as possible. How all this research will affect the final product remains to be seen, but it certainly forms an impressive base of knowledge for the team members to draw from.
About six weeks away from release, Finest Hour is coming together nicely on the graphics front. The three missions we saw each had unique visual style, with plenty of bombed-out buildings and other remnants of war evident in the level design. The game features a nice shell shock effect that occurs when explosions happen too close to your character for comfort. When a grenade goes off right next to you, the action will slow down considerably and the sound will be greatly dampened, and the duration of this effect depends on how close you were to the blast. From what we could tell, the game looks pretty similar in terms of detail on multiple platforms, although the Xbox version did have a noticeably higher frame rate.
As is typical in game development, Finest Hour's audio is still being implemented, even this close to the game's release, but what we heard while we watched and played the game was suitably powerful for a cinematic, combat-driven shooter such as this. Among the highlights are a score performed by an 80-piece orchestra accompanied by a 50-person choir, and narration provided by Dennis Haysbert, of 24 fame (you know, he plays the president). Some other interesting celebrity voice casting will apparently be announced in the near future, so stay tuned.
Though World War II games may seem like a dime a dozen these days, Call of Duty: Finest Hour looks to be doing some unique things with its theme while sticking close to the tried-and-true gameplay that has made past games successful. The game will also ship with a 16-player online mode for the Xbox and PS2, with modes like deathmatch, capture the flag, and search and destroy. Finest Hour is currently slated for release in mid-November, so watch for more details soon. In the meantime, check out a new assortment of gameplay movies and an exclusive video interview on the game's media page.