This week in Speech Check, our semi-regular mini-series on the most memorable speeches in video games, Peter takes us to Stalingrad via Call of Duty: Finest Hour. Welcome to the greatest moment of your life.
Before Call of Duty was about unbridled machismo, mercenary robots, and anti-gravity firefights using golden camo double laser shotguns, it was a series about normal people fighting and dying in extraordinary circumstances. Call of Duty: Finest Hour’s opening speech, delivered by a Soviet political officer, captures the brutality, anger, and zealotry of World War II’s eastern front as a stark contrast to American-centric FPS campaigns.
In Finest Hour’s first level, you are not a well equipped, trained killing machine. You aren’t the US Marines or the British SAS. You are a Russian conscript who has never fired a rifle, packed into a rowboat with other men who are terrified out of their minds, paddling your way to a city literally on fire as the skies above you crack open with the hellish din of shrapnel and human screams during one of World War II’s bloodiest conflicts.
The man at the head of the boat begins to speak. “Welcome to Stalingrad,” he says. “You are about to begin the greatest moment of your life.” He quickly tasks you with a simple remit: Kill the German invaders, and defend the city of Stalingrad.
Some context: our new friend is a Commissar, a political officer tasked with spreading the good word of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Kind of like your friendly neighbourhood propagandist from the local totalitarian communist regime. He’s there to incite white-hot ideological rage against the Germans.
Where an American campaign may have had a tough-love sergeant yelling in your ear, the Russian campaign gives you a man whose mantra is “cowards and traitors will be shot.” Every FPS game I had played until this point had lovely speeches about brotherhood. Here, you get a bloodthirsty howl for revenge laced with socialist spite.
He implores you: “Do not count days, do not count miles, count only the number of Germans you have killed,” an echo of real-life Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg’s advice in his 1942 poem, titled “Kill.” It’s what happens when you get two nations led by brutal dictators with effective propaganda departments and no regard for human lives. And you get a front row seat to the commitment Stalin’s Commissars bring to the table.
As the speech progresses, waves from explosions send the small craft lurching, men two feet away from him are killed from stray gunfire, and the Commissar doesn’t even skip a beat. He even joins in the shooting of would-be deserters. Band of brothers, this is not.
In the end, the clash between his attempts at inspiration and the surrounding chaos make his words ring hollow. You aren’t on a noble crusade on the side of good. In this war, everything has gone to shit, and even the people telling you what to do are trying to kill you. Whether through starvation, disease, or shrapnel, the death toll on the eastern front was a different level of brutality and scale compared to rest of the war in Europe.
After reaching the docks, the player immediately experiences the war effort for what it truly is – too many broken men strewn across too few medics, and a staggering shortage of supplies so bad that only one of out of two conscripts gets a rifle. The unlucky ones only get five bullets and are told to run up a hill with no cover, scavenging guns from corpses. Guess which camp you fall in.
You aren’t here to kick some ass and grab a beer with your buddies. This is a rock fight in the burning crater of a city where humans once lived. Welcome to the greatest moment of your life.