It's almost like Call of Duty: Finest Hour never happened. Originally meant to show EA's Medal of Honor series how WWII should be done, Finest Hour was a huge letdown in every respect. It looked dated for its time, it was full of glitches, and was clearly rushed out for the pre-Christmas spending spree. Worse than that, though, people actually bought it.
But Big Red One more than makes up for those past horrors. Sensing the franchise could be dead before it really started, Activision pulled the game from developer Spark, and passed coding honours along to Treyarch and Grey Matter, developers of Ultimate Spider-Man and Return to Castle Wolfenstein respectively. Big Red One is everything a WWII game should be. It's even up there in style, presentation and immersion with the Xbox 360 version, Call of Duty 2.
You'll be hard pressed to find a more engaging opening set of events in any wargame. When you fire up the single-player story mode and the action begins, you might think you're watching a fancy cutscene. Then you realise you can move the camera and look 360 degrees around you. Then you realize your team-mates are talking directly to you. Finally, you realise that this is the actual game and not a fancy cut-scene at all, as you start running into battle. If you thought the character models in the Brothers in Arms games looked the business, they're nothing compared to those in Big Red One.
The dramatic opening showcases the new game engine in all its glory. Planes scream overhead after being shot down by anti-aircraft fire; tanks grind their way into position while firing at enemies too afraid to come out of buildings; mounds of dirt and plumes of smoke fill the air while bullets zip past your helmet. It's the most intense WWII game experience right from the words go, go, go!
Emphasis has been placed on story, and keeping your squad (part of the real-life Big Red One, the US Army's 1st Infantry Division) alive is key, although that said don't worry too much if you lose a few along the way. They keep you informed about the changing mission objectives, and also provide surprisingly decent AI covering fire, even if they are prone to sticking their heads in your line of sight. Try to resist the temptation to shoot them yourself, though, as the game doesn't like you doing that. The summary execution of your more idiotic comrades results in an instant game over, with the ironic message from the UNITED STATES developers that "friendly fire will not be tolerated".
You and your squad begin to traverse various locations in South Africa in an on-the-rails first-person shooter of epic proportions. Although when we say rails, we really mean tightrope. There's no room to manoeuvre off the beaten track or even fall off a wall onto the other side at certain points. You can only go where the developers want you to. Health and ammo pick-ups litter the way, usually gathering en masse just before a massive set-piece, so there's no point in exploring every nook and cranny for secret pick-ups. Don't bother, because there aren't any. But that's fine by us - this is all about shooting evil Nazis in their hundreds, and eventually thousands by the end of the game.
It's set-piece after set-piece, all constructed with formidable precision. One element that makes it all far more interesting is the sound. We've never had to stand in the middle of a real battlefield, but we'd imagine it would be pretty loud. Imagine hundreds of people screaming all around you, gunfire, and the rumble of tanks, aircraft and artillery in the background. It's what we imagine war sounds like, and it's what Big Red One sounds like too. If you're a bit on the posh side and have a full-on surround sound system hooked up to your Xbox, your ears are going to love this.