Company of Heroes could be the most revolutionary RTS to come along in awhile
Let’s face it, there are tons of Real Time Strategy games out there… and there are plenty of WW2-themed games. Can there possibly be a single title that can sate our appetite for a smart, fast paced RTS and allow us to re-live Saving Private Ryan? You bet your M1 Garand there is.
Company of Heroes could be the most revolutionary RTS to come along in awhile. What is so impressive is how the graphics, gameplay, sound, art, physics engine, and most importantly the destructible battlefields themselves combine to create a truly unique experience. Bomb craters stay for the entire battle, tanks will topple trees, soldiers can take cover behind burned out vehicles. In fact, it’s startling sometimes to see an idyllic country village reduced to rubble in so short a time. Soldier animations are fluid and realistic as they take cover in buildings and behind hedges. Music is present and never overwhelming but the real creamy goodness here is the sound effects and voice acting. Unit acknowledgements can be humorous or realistic depending on the situation and each unit has its own personality. And nothing can describe the feeling you get when you hear that first crack of rifle fire off in the distance or when you call down a strafing run on a mass of enemy soldiers.
As in any RTS, gameplay revolves around the collection of three resources, manpower, munitions and fuel. These are gathered through capturing and holding territory. This moves the game far past simple Base Destruction strategy as exciting firefights can develop when you’re trying to defend a key fuel dump. Territories must all connect back to your HQ, making cutting an opponent’s supply line a viable and sneaky tactic. Moreover, units must work together and protect each other if they are to survive. Attacks must be planned and coordinated as the tried and true method of making as many units as possible and marching them to the enemy base is more stupid than effective. CoH allows you to use realistic tactics to solve realistic battlefield situations. Micromanagement is inevitable but in CoH is manageable as units take cover themselves and are quick to tell you if they are under attack or being mauled. There aren’t many base structures to build but that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough things to spend your resources on. Certain upgrades, like grenades, are universal while you can upgrade individual units to carry certain weapons. If for example you have an idle engineer unit, put a flame-thrower in his hands and watch what he can do.
The 15-mission campaign follows the fictional Able Company from Omaha Beach through the Battle of Normandy. The missions run the gamut of locations as you lead Able through hedgerows, up the streets of Cherbourg, through a secret V2 missile site. Numerous cutscenes and mission briefings immerse you in the action and are as nice to look at as the game itself. The campaign is fun and worthy of a run through or two, but really it is an extension of the tutorial and practice for the skirmish and multiplayer modes.
Multiplayer is where this game shines. Depending on the side, a player has three tactical doctrines to choose from. The Allies have access to Infantry Company, which allows the ability to get Rangers and call in artillery strikes. The Axis can choose Blitzkrieg doctrine that focuses on speed and attacking. Players really have to work together and communicate to be effective and one inattentive teammate can drag down the entire team. Relic Online, Relic’s own proprietary service is easy to use and stable. Time will tell if it holds up from the hordes of players who are surely coming.
The only playable factions so far are the Allies (US) and the Axis (Germans) and there are only a handful of multiplayer maps. Some may see this as a handicap but I see it as a foundation. After France there was Holland, Belgium, Germany. Beyond that there is Russia, Italy, the Phillipines, Iwo Jima. With an engine and gameplay as good as this one, the sky is the limit.
There is little to criticize about CoH. Riflemen and engineers especially can build a myriad of WW2 defenses, concertina wire, minefields, sandbags, but surprisingly absent are foxholes. Vehicle AI is a little buggy as well. Moving more than one at the same time is difficult to do without them getting in each other’s way and this can be especially frustrating with panzers bearing down on you. It also is a bit tricky to get tanks going in the right way as I’ve had my Shermans charge into battle backwards on more than one occasion. Firefights get a little weird at point-blank range as there is no melee fighting and it is not uncommon to see two men standing next to each other pointing rifles at each other’s head. When a soldier encounters an obstacle, he looks to go around it, which I can understand if it’s a house or a river, but it’s a bit unrealistic when they go out of their way to get around a fence. The learning curve is pretty steep and I had to set the opponent on easy and resources on high for a few times before I started winning.
It’s difficult to appreciate the detail and realism in Company of Heroes without experiencing it. Screenshots don’t do nearly enough justice. In one of my first skirmish games, I was using a unit of engineers to build a sandbag barricade in defense of a critical fuel point while an MG team stood watch. The enginers finished and notified me by saying, “I hope i never see another f…… sandbag for the rest of my life.” I was about to give them new orders when a German artillery barrage came in, obliterated the fortifications, wiped out the MG team and left a single dazed engineer. And I was helpless to stop it.
This human quality and depth of gameplay is what sets CoH apart from RTS games where your units are all expendable. In CoH nothing is expendable. A rifle squad under heavy fire and taking casualties valiantly stays in place until you tell them to retreat and you could just let them sit there until they’re wiped out but in CoH the better strategy is to retreat, regroup and live to fight another day. All the units have a role to play and none of them really become obsolete as the battle goes on. Successful units gain veteran status, which increases their accuracy and strength.
The developers tackle re-creating the battle of Normandy with style, respect, attention to even the smallest detail and stunning realism. Company of Heroes is sure to be one title that will be played for a long time. Fans of RTS games, WW2 buffs and anyone who enjoys a good video game won’t be disappointed. You’ll find yourself driving to work and re-playing battles in your head. You will be standing in line at the grocery store and suddenly a new tactic for attacking Anti-Tank guns will pop into your head or you will finally figure out how to stop those tough Tiger Aces.
It is games like this one that make video game playing worthwhile, and I can’t wait to see what Relic has in store for it.
Top Gaming Moment:
TOP GAME MOMENT
Stopping a tank rush cold with a single anti-tank gun and a veteran squad of Rangers.