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Posted on Aug 25, 2009 in Electronic Games

Darkest Hour – PC Game Review

By Phillip Culliton

Darkest Hour: Europe ’44 – ’45
Publisher: Valve/Steam. Designer: Darkest Hour Team. A free add-on for Red Orchestra by Tripwire Interactive (available via Steam or retail for $19.99)

Passed Inspection: A realistic depiction of the mechanics of combat. Detailed weapons, right down to the Garand’s distinctive "ping." A very few incredibly atmospheric maps.

Failed Basic: Never quite captures the grandeur of Red Orchestra’s you-are-there conflicts. Many battles are one-sided affairs or otherwise poorly designed.

While Red Orchestra covers action on the Eastern Front between German and Soviet forces, Darkest Hour returns to what is likely more familiar territory for gamers, the Western Front.

Red Orchestra. Anyone looking for a multiplayer first person shooter that captures the brutality and uncertainty of war will find no better title than this. Running across the sights of a machine gun hundreds of meters away and being cut down without firing a shot, being run over by a friendly tank as you hide praying in the grass – ignominious death is a commodity that’s on a fire sale. Balancing this is an intense attention to realism that crafts excitement and immersion from the pervasive confusion of combat: Bolt-action rifles are accurate but slow, so each shot has to count; house-to-house battles are terrible affairs that often end at bayonet point, and the survivor is likely the player who took care to stay silent; careful movement is the key to not getting yourself shot, and getting shot means being dead. The action takes place online, pitting all comers against skilled players from around the world, and the game has created a multiplayer community that rivals those of its big-budget competitors such as Call of Duty.

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Enter, then, the first official release of an add-on for Red Orchestra’s engine: Darkest Hour. While Red Orchestra covers action on the Eastern Front between German and Soviet forces, Darkest Hour returns to what is likely more familiar territory for gamers, the Western Front. American dogfaces and British tommies land at Normandy and open up the road to the Rhine through a series of brutal small engagements that strike a much different note from the larger but little-known affairs portrayed by Red Orchestra. Unfortunately, this works against the game, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

In Darkest Hour players take control of a single soldier fighting in a variety of standalone encounters across Northern Europe. At the start of each battle players select the role they’d like to play, as defined by a fairly well-designed set of classes. These classes range from simple (rifleman) to fiendishly complex and hard-hitting (commander or tank crewman). Often, the more powerful classes have hard limits on the number of players that can choose them – for instance, there is usually only one commander per side. There are challenges inherent in each role, however, and players looking for a good time can have just as much fun playing as a rifleman as they can at driving a tank.

Available battles run the gamut from early engagements by Allied paratroopers to desperate scuffles in the confusion of the Ardennes. Curiously absent, though, are the massive set-piece struggles and attention to detail that made Red Orchestra so occasionally breathtaking.

The feeling of taking part in a larger conflagration is a key to many Red Orchestra battles, and here the action is noticeably smaller-scale, taking place in tiny villages or isolated sections of forest. While this should in theory make for more intensity, one quickly discovers that the missing atmosphere is tantamount to unrealism: it hardly matters whether your weapon has the same manufacturer’s stamp as its historical counterpart when you don’t actually feel that you’re fighting in a battle that has larger meaning.

This is made worse by the inadequacy of some of the maps, mostly in terms of compromises apparently made in favor of realism or balance that undermine the immersion of the game. One, for example, takes place in a trench line under assault by German armor and infantry in the middle of a snowstorm. Painfully jarring, though, is the fact that defending troops have failed to create a defensible position – you have practically no line of sight to the attacking Germans, which effectively kills any excitement the map may have had and introduces frustration in its place. Another map involves an American assault on a German-held village, and the only approaches available are across a hundred meters of open ground, under the very gunsights of the defending troops. While this may be realistic, it is anything but fun. In short, while the game may strike a balance of realism and immersion in its mechanics, it is let down on the same token by its maps.

This is not to say that all battles are gamey let-downs: in fact, there are a precious few that not only aspire to the level of authenticity in Red Orchestra but surpass it. One in particular involves an assault by American paratroopers on a bridge. It’s a familiar scenario, but the fight takes place almost entirely at close-quarters: seizing one of a few available approaches, clearing out the claustrophobic underside of the bridge, infested with stranded riflemen, clinging desperately to the few meters of ground gained on the opposite side as counterattacks tear your comrades to pieces – it’s an experience that is invasive and affecting. I found myself stopping play because the fight was just too intense. Unfortunately, these moments are far rarer than they could be.

Much more positively, combat in Darkest Hour looks, sounds, and feels real. This was a major feature of its predecessor and the same experience is provided here. Weapons feel right, fatigue is well-modeled, and you must work at your skills to master the intricacies of fighting on an unforgiving battlefield; although this is cold comfort when changing an overheated machine gun barrel in the middle of a firefight, it is an awesome testament to the developers, and makes for a moment-to-moment experience that is more involving than any other Western Front shooter on the market. Despite (and flying in the face of) atmospheric issues, this gritty low-level realism is where Darkest Hour truly shines.

Darkest Hour is a game that fails to live up to its legacy, but at the same time creates one of the most realistic depictions of the Western Front available in a market deluged with similar titles. Fans of World War II games and challenging first-person shooters would be well served by giving it a look.

Armchair General score: 78%

ACG Intel:

Darkest Hour: Europe ’44 – ’45

Darkest Hour on Steam

Phillip Culliton has been a wargamer since the ripe old age of nine when he spent a week’s lunch money on a tattered board game set in Vietnam, causing his peace-loving parents much consternation. It was no surprise to them when he began writing computer wargames in their basement as a wee lad; he went on to become a "real" programmer and spent eight years building intelligent systems for the legal industry until happy chance ejected him to bob adrift in the new economy. He currently works as a developer and writer in the game industry. He continues to cause consternation, now for his lovely wife, by introducing his children to the same great hobby that struck his fancy twenty years ago.

4 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I came by to read this review after someone on the Darkest Hour forums mentioned it. (http://forums.darkesthourgame.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=5739)

    I just thought I’d share a thought or two.
    About public servers for first person shooter games: The quality of those games are going to vary a lot.
    I think the game is at its best when players are working together and communicating. Not necessarily with mics though that does help things.
    When you look at certain elements in the game such as the need to supply ammunition, speed up loading of the bazooka/pzschrecks , the radioman/officer combination, I think you can see where the teamwork comes in.
    Hrm. It’s 4:47am… I better cut this short and get some sleep. At any rate, I’d encourage you to play the game a bit more. Granted not all maps are going to be successful but then I would have to say that gaming experience is going to vary widely due to the players involved in each session.

  2. Mr. Culliton says: “Darkest Hour is a game that fails to live up to its legacy, but at the same time creates one of the most realistic depictions of the Western Front available in a market deluged with similar titles.”

    How many times are we going to hear this? Combat Mission: Shock Force had the same labels applied by various reviewers. How many times can developers trot out the same formula of flashy graphics and snazzy explosions? Apparently, as many times as they want. It’s like reality TV – everyone complains that they hate it, no one claims to watch it, and yet new shows get dumped into the schedule every year.

    Perhaps forget about “legacy” and even forget about the dream of a truly “realistic” tactical game (on any level – man-to-man, squad-based, or platoon based) since the market apparently isn’t interested half so much as they are in “reality gaming”, that is to say, something that requires a command menu whose orders they can count on the fingers of one hand, breeze through missions in 20 minutes or so before work, after dinner, or between episodes of Big Brother, and be mesmerized by the explosions, tracers and screams of the wounded.

    And put away the notion that you need to be able to accurately model, say, the national differences in calling down indirect artillery fire, be able to cut through barbed wire, build a hasty roadblock, close-assault a tank all the ways the German manual called for, etc. Never mind the average GI never accurately fired his rifle at another human in an average battle, the Sgt. Rock/Sgt Fury depiction of battle will always be more popular than the SLA Marshall theories.

  3. “the first official release of an add-on for Red Orchestra’s engine: Darkest Hour.”

    Thats not really true: Mare Nostrum was the first mod released over Steam by Tripwire.
    http://store.steampowered.com/app/1230/

    And the reviewer should have stated more clearly that DH is a mod and not developed by a professional studio. That said its still one of the best of its kind, and certainly the most realistic FPS depiction of the western front.

  4. Shadrach: you are correct, Mare Nostrum was released first, at around the same time as Red Orchestra itself. Thanks.

    Mr. Dorosh: clearly “realistic” was used in a comparative sense. I’d like to note that Rommel’s depiction of battle, in “Infantry Attacks”, does read rather like the play of some of the better-organized FPS simulations. Occasionally the effect is more important than the detail.

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  1. History Roundup 08-31-2009 « Great History - [...] Armchair General we have a game review for the follow on to Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 called Darkest Hour:…

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