Review: Hour Of Victory

hour_of_victory.JPGPlatform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Midway
Developer: N-Fusion
Release Date: 6/25/07
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1 – 12

Had Midway’s new arcade style Xbox 360 WWII shooter Hour of Victory been an old movie that pops up on cable every now and then, a capsule review for it probably might read like this:

Hour of Victory (1961) – Jack Palance, Nick Adams, Hardy Kruger. Three WWII heroes vs. Nazis galore. Plot thin, action heavy. Break out the popcorn if it’s your cup of tea.

Under normal circumstances, this sort of “B” movie homage translated to video game form might be great for a reasonably fun time for gamers who aren’t concerned that every single thing they play be “Game of the Year” material. As any gamer worth his or her salt knows, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a chunk of mindless fun in one’s game library. Hell, D3Publisher’s 360 gem Earth Defense Force 2017 still reigns supreme as one of the best of the “B” titles this year. That said and done, any game that hits retail in an unpolished state will be stacked up to any and every “A” title released up to that point. Of course, not every “next-gen” game is going to have “next-gen” gameplay (whatever that is), and here’s one perfect example. Hour of Victory has quite a few knocks against it in terms of AI issues, mission structure and multiplayer woes for starters. Nevertheless, playing through the single player campaign made me wish Microsoft hadn’t killed off the original Xbox so quickly. Tweaked a bit more to that system’s specs, this might have been a minor to moderate hit back on the big black box.

Pretty much any developer who makes a full price console game these days has to justify the cost by packing it to the gills with *quality* from stem to stern as well as allowing for the possibility of updated content. HOV has a fairly short single player campaign (about 6-8 hours), a few standard System Link and Xbox Live multiplayer modes and that’s it. This wouldn’t be a huge drawback if the main game was mildly spectacular (or even merely really good), but what’s here is something that booms like thunder yet strikes like Styrofoam for as long as it lasts. There are a few nice things here, such as the weapons selection, sprint button (complete with fatigue meter) and the ability to drive a tank in two missions. However, all these aspects have been done better in games that are better, so unless you’ve not played any of those titles, you’ll probably not be at all impressed. On the other hand, if you just want to shoot stuff up and can get over the faults, it’s your move.

The story centers on soldiers three handpicked to stop Germany’s atomic plans before they take off and turn the tide of the war. Don’t even think about looking for “based on actual events” here; the game works best if you turn off everything except your trigger finger. Before the majority of missions, you can choose Sgt. William Ross, Sgt. Calvin “Bull” Blackbull or Lt. Ambrose Taggert as your avatar. Each soldier has a particular talent suited to one’s play style as well as certain objects in the level, but this aspect doesn’t always work as well as it could have. Ross is the go to guy for run and gun tactics as well as pushing heavy objects, Bull can climb ropes to reach high spots to snipe from and Taggert is the lock picking, wire cutting stealthy type. The main problem here is you’d think soldiers were taught most, if not all of these talents, so the circa 1996 gameplay becomes more of a hindrance where it should be unique.

If developer N-Fusion were trying to do something different here, it would have been much better to have larger levels where you had to play as each character in order to complete missions. For example, you could have started the game off as Ross, barreling through enemies until you were pinned down by enemy snipers at a predetermined. Switching to Blackbull, you’d need to take a separate path, climbing a rope to a rooftop to take out the snipers and as many enemy soldiers (perhaps within a time limit). Finally, you’d hop into Taggert’s boots to kill hidden foes stealthily along a third route as he cleared a path to capture that MG42 waiting at the end of the stage. Instead, you’re forced to pick a character BEFORE you find out what sort of mission you’re tackling, which makes the “special skills” deal less interesting than it should be. For the pure Achievements whores out there, you can simply play a mission and then retry it with the other two heroes, but you’ll need to play a LOT of this one online in order to get that full 1000 points.

One of the problems with the majority of FPS games in general is the necessity for a complete suspension of disbelief when it comes to taking damage. While hunting down health kits floating around has been a tradition of the genre (and yes, necessary to keep the pacing quick), the more recent trend of hoofing it to a quiet spot to heal up magically takes away from the immersion factor in my opinion. Sure, it works in the Halo games, given the sci-fi theme, but in a WWII-based shooter, unless the game is outstanding, this issue sticks out like two sore thumbs. Like the mighty Call of Duty series, HOV eschews health packs entirely for the “stand still and heal” method of play, but here, it goes beyond ridiculous. At times and on the higher difficulty levels, there’s so much ordinance coming your way that you’ll be laughing and wincing simultaneously. Ross can suck up the most lead before expiring, but when you’re actually hit by a falling plane during one attempt at manning an anti-aircraft gun, your eyes will probably be doing back flips in your skull. Other times, levels seem like the end of a Sam Peckinpah film replayed over and over again every few feet… or a crazy on-foot version of Beachhead 2000.

There are a couple of missions where you’ll have to play as one of the three characters and the game pulls parts of these levels off nicely. One area has you sneaking through some underground catacombs as Taggert as he frees and escorts a captured scientist. Unfortunately, this otherwise cool escape sequence is ruined by two things: one, a stream of respawning enemies that initially force you to camp out near a corner, taking out Nazis with head shots and nabbing dropped weapons when you run out of ammo until you realize that, and two: that scientist you’re escorting is 100% bulletproof. Even worse, the game shows off an annoying inconsistency by taking that formerly Kevlar-coated brainiac and turning him into a regular Joe, dropping him into a tank that you get to drive for a brutal three-part mission. Packed with Panzershrek-toting guards and a couple of tanks for good measure, you best bet here is to not jump in the tank and take out the respawning enemies at the stage’s start with well-paced sniper shots until they stop coming before slowly crawling forward in the tank, blowing up buildings and taking out enemies before they can get a bead on you. When the best part of a tank-based mission is leaving the tank behind, that’s not a good sign…

This brings up yet another issue: the alarmingly suspect AI. Sure, it’s nice to see enemies use cover, run up close for physical attacks or duck and roll away from your shots. On the other hand, you’ll also see enemies run past you and stand facing a wall reloading, others that toss grenades at their own men and a few more oddball bugs that should have been squashed. As mentioned above, death animations can be especially disturbing, not for their rag doll effects, but because you just don’t know what’s going to happen when an enemy dies. There are some cool deaths, but most bodies tend to double over into boneless yoga poses as if you’ve removed their spinal columns and pushed them over. On a few occasions, bodies will spaz out in fits of twitchiness, flopping about as if possessed. One total freak-out appeared late in one mission when a freshly dead body started spinning in midair as the neck stretched out about five feet as it spun. I actually dropped the controller and jumped out of my chair at that one, as I had no idea I was playing a sequel to The Thing.

Interestingly enough, the game sort of makes up for its AI problems (and gets revenge on you for mocking it) by trapping you in a final boss fight set in what amounts to a shooting gallery with you in the center in what’s possibly the cheapest firefight in recent memory. While you’re hiding behind a useless busted table trying to memorize the pattern of the game’s only boss, you’ll be continually shot to pieces by him and his minions. In addition to this madness, there’s a huge blown out hole in the wall in front of you where not only MORE enemies come streaming in to kill you, there’s a tank or three waiting to blast you to bits should you run outside for a breather. Should you survive this and beat the game, you should go make yourself a medal out of a bottle cap and a paper towel while you head onto Xbox Live for some multiplayer action. Unfortunately, you might not find more than a few people hanging out online playing this one, as the modes are only mildly interesting at best and frankly, a bit too buggy at times to be playable at worst.

On the graphics side of things, the game uses some neat mapping and lighting sporadically and looks nice in spots. Sadly, you’ll also come across doors with blurry textures, enemies or allies with permanently shadowed faces and bodies, along with rock stiff indestructible obstacles that block your progress. Any positive points in the Unreal 3-powered visuals are knocked out by some weird faces, some odd texture glitches and a few supremely awkward death animations. Even for the adrenaline junkies out there, the amount of destructible stuff in the war-torn environments is extremely limited, a shame considering some of the heavy weaponry you’ll get your hands on. Paradoxically, the game is absolutely packed with bullets and bodies flying, planes screaming through the skies and enough period weaponry to give a gun nut fits two times over. Voice acting is appropriately campy and sound effects are good, but the sound quality is very inconsistent, with looping effects or sound dropouts that become hard to ignore. The sole great point is there’s a surprisingly awesome score that constantly outstrips the visuals and gameplay. If music alone could carry a game like this, we’d be looking at quite the game here.

I suppose I could also complain about the checkpoint system, the super linearity of some maps and the general feeling of non-accomplishment you get thanks to the game not tracking stuff like time taken or shots fired, but I’ll leave that to those who decide to purchase the game. Besides, when it comes to reviews, I’m more of a believer in constructive criticism than destructive diatribes. Hour of Victory isn’t the worst game I’ve played this year (or ever), but folks expecting a lot from their next-gen software will most likely be incredibly disappointed at what’s here. On the flip side, Midway’s other Unreal 3-powered games, such as the incredible Black Site: Area 51 and John Woo Presents: Stranglehold are coming along fantastically, so at worst, this particular game can be chalked up as a temporary lapse in quality for the company.

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