Company of Heroes Review
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It would be easier to just write off all of these World War II games if most of them weren't so damn good. From Brothers in Arms to Call of Duty to the various WW2 strategy games out there, developers keep finding new ways to revitalize the delivery, gameplay, and style, and keep players coming back for more. Relic Entertainment, creators of the Homeworld series as well as the very popular Warhammer 40K Dawn of War, are now here to make their mark on the WW2 genre with their new strategy game Company of Heroes.
Relic has taken elements that worked well in Dawn of War and ported them over to Company of Heroes. That sounds a bit goofy, but it actually works perfectly despite the massively different setting. Just like most real-time strategy games, you'll be collecting resources, building fortifications, recruiting troops, and creating war machines from your nearby base. But this game takes it much further by using an effective cover system, the ability to suppress or pin your enemies down under fire, send snipers to do their dirty work from a nearby window, create many types of semi-permanent structures to slow down the enemy with, and collect resources in a very realistic and natural-feeling way.
Let's start with resources. There are three of them in Company of Heroes: Manpower, Munitions, and Fuel. Holding more territory on the map gains you more Manpower, and holding specific key areas of a map will gain you Munitions and Fuel at a faster rate. Manpower is your most vital resource, as it mainly allows you to recruit new troops into battle. Munitions is used to build many structures, and is also used for upgrades for certain squads and for your troops' special attacks like satchel charges or grenades. Fuel is used to build armor and certain buildings, and often winds up being the most scarce resource out of the three. The nice part is that while you can build certain things to help the resources roll in faster, you don't have to do any kind of collecting of resources. It just rolls in, leaving you to spend more time dealing with combat and tactics.
Capturing points is a key part of success in this game. You'll need to advance quickly and intelligently if you want to gain a better foothold on the map, and you'll also need to know when to retreat. And retreating is actually a distinct element here, because there's an actual button you can press to retreat - this allows you to get your troops out of a losing situation even if they're almost surrounded. It works well and it means that if your troops are taking heavy losses, you won't have to write them off entirely like you would in most strategy games. But capturing rather than retreating is of course more productive, and to do so you'll need to advance carefully, tear down enemy defenses around the capture point, and then hold it for a short while to make it your own. Then you can even build your own defenses, and the nice part is that even your regular troops can build some stuff - you don't have to go running engineers with you everywhere you go to build some things.
Engineers are still important, though,as they can build all kinds of stuff to hold back the enemy while you plug them with anti-tank rifles and small arms fire. Barbed wire holds back the troops, while mines will stop tanks and half-track vehicles quickly. Heavy MG emplacements will also cut down the enemy infantry, and you don't even have to staff these things with troops out of your current stock. Engineers can also build sandbag walls for your troops to get behind for cover. But this stuff often gets blown up or simply gone around (see: tanks smashing through walls and infantry pouring through the new hole), so you'll need to refresh or re-deploy your defenses often to really hold the line.
Cover is very important to keep in mind in Company of Heroes, especially when your mission is to defend a specific spot. Your troops will be in one of three states when not actually under fire: exposed, mild cover, or good cover - this is indicated by an icon above that squad's head that's either red, yellow, or green. You can place your troops pretty accurately behind cover, too, because giving them a movement order shows with little dots on the ground where exactly your guys will stand when they get there. They'll also automatically try and find cover nearby too and will fairly intelligently get into positions, but it still helps to micromanage at least a little bit when you've got multiple squads with different roles (machine gunner, mortar team, anti-tank rifles, etc).
You'll quickly find out that when a German squad is holed up in a building, you'll have to change your tactics to win. No longer does firing from behind cover really help; you'll have to get in close to toss a satchel charge or some grenades into the building. And when they go boom, the explosion usually takes out part of the building (if not demolishing it almost completely). Using buildings as garrisons for your troops is particularly effective for both sides of the war, and it forces the enemy to charge in, exposed, to get a shot at taking out those troops. And blowing up these buildings is visually impressive, but much of the rest of Company of Heroes is destructible too. Sometimes this element will force you to change your tactics, while other times it just looks great.
Many of the memorable weapons and armor from WW2 have been reproduced here, as well as stationary emplacements like anti-aircraft guns and the like. You'll also find that the path the Allies took starting on D-Day has been reproduced, from Omaha Beach to Carentan to Cherbourg and beyond, and yes, the paratrooper drops early in the morning before the land invasion are here as well (and paratroopers are a great kind of soldier in Company of Heroes that do well in a large number of situations).
Even tank combat has elements of real strategy. Much like in real life, the tanks in Company of Heroes have the strongest armor on the front, so if you can position your own armor to get some rear shots on the German tanks, it will give you a major advantage. Has the enemy laid mines in the road? No problem! Just smash through a nearby wall or hedgerow for your armor and troops to slip through. The only issue I have with tanks is that there's not really any easy way to fix their orientation you've left their rear armor exposed. They'll often stutter and then refuse to move when you try and get them to turn around, which can lead to a quick, frustrating death for your tanks in some cases.
Using armor to smash through otherwise impassable objects will allow for some great flanking maneuvers, and while flanking does work in this game pretty well, the effects of flanking them are still based on the amount of cover each squad has. Often when you take the enemy by surprise you'll "suppress" them, causing the enemy to crawl on their bellies and do less damage, and if you really catch them with their pants down, they become "pinned" and will basically sit there helpless while taking damage. Moving your troops around strategically and watching their status in battle will be necessary if you want to win most of the tougher battles, but it's not necessary to flank every single time just to win a certain firefight.
Your troops can be upgraded in many ways. First, keeping a squad alive through several firefights will allow them to become veteran units, and while this is an automatic thing, you can also upgrade their weapons to be somewhat useful against tanks, have a squad commandeer a machine gun or anti-tank weapon to use, and even bring them back to HQ to replenish their numbers. Since you're commanding a squad of guys at once, it's important to replace soldiers in the squad who have gotten killed in action. And there are some nice touches here for the arrival of some troops, too. Want to call in a squad of paratroopers? Press a special button and choose the drop point, and you can drop them in just about anywhere you want on the map.
The number of strategic options goes even beyond this - Command Point upgrades give you a separate level of global improvements that stay throughout a single player campaign. You can pick from one of three trees to go into and must stick with that tree, and from there you've got several upgrades you can pick from, some of which cost more points than others. The important part here is that in multiplayer games, you are going to want to coordinate with your teammates, pick one of three options, and then try and take advantage of those unique strengths. If your teammates are smart, they'll have their own specific role here and hopefully together your team has made sure there's a good mix of abilities on the battlefield. If you all go Armor or all go Paratrooper, you'll find yourself hurting against a more diversified enemy.
Relic has also added the element of supply to Company of Heroes as well. When you capture a location on the map, it needs to be connected to territory you already own; if it's not, you won't gain any resources for holding that territory. This forces players to work on a natural front line, and it also means that if you're not careful with how you capture territory, the enemy can sneak in and cut off your supply by capturing one or two specific spots. This doesn't affect your troops at all, but losing your source of supply will cut off new resources for bringing new troops or armor into the battle. It's a great system that adds an element of strategy without adding a huge amount of worry - once you figure out how to best advance on any given map.
What really impresses me about this game is that all this depth is there without bogging down the interface or making the game too difficult to get into. These elements are introduced in a short tutorial system as well as during the initial stages of the game, so that you don't have to constantly check the manual or read super-long tooltips to figure everything out. It's easy to get into and due to the game's familiar setting and subject matter, players who have played past WW2 games can jump right in and easily get going - and then they start noticing just how deep this game actually is.
The single player game consists of fifteen missions, many of which have multiple objectives that will take from a few minutes to almost half an hour (if you're slow) each to complete. The missions here trace the landing at Normandy on D-Day through until the German military's back was broken. What I really appreciated here is that the non-straightforward missions were delivered with just the right amount of tension and with enough options for the player that I didn't dread them going in. Compare that to, say, the no-buildings-allowed missions in Rise of Legends, where one mistake could get a key hero killed and doom the mission completely, and I think you'll find that this game is so much more enjoyable. Company of Heroes is still difficult when it needs to be, but I'm not worried that one mistake will force me to restart the map.
While Company of Heroes includes all kinds of new elements to make this one of the most unique and engaging WW2 strategy games ever, it's still missing certain parts that played a large part in the war itself. The scope is probably the first thing I should mention: this takes place entirely on land in mainland Europe, and there are no aircraft of any sort for the player to control. The same goes for boats, and despite the game's inclusion of the D-Day landing at Normandy in France, you won't be deploying the boats yourself. Nor are there foxholes to be dug, which were certainly a critical part of survival during The Battle of the Bulge and other skirmishes and battles throughout the war. Finally, the game basically pits the Americans against the Germans, which is a pretty narrow-minded view of the actual war itself where many nations contributed important elements to many battles. While Company of Heroes gives us a more realistic depiction of WW2 than many other games, it's still missing major parts of the war. Maybe we'll see these elements in later games or in an expansion pack or two.
The presentation in this game goes far beyond what most strategy games out there can muster. Cutscenes - even the ones done inside the game engine - show actual life-like movements from the troops, and often the the game will zoom the camera out right in the middle of a cutscene and you'll suddenly be controlling the tide of the battle. Combine this with some great full-motion cinematics that also nearly seamlessly transition into the game engine, and it really helps to make this game feel more like a real war experience than just any plain old RTS title. It also helps that your troops will say all kinds of things in many situations, not just canned responses when you issue orders. They'll yell when they're in trouble, cuss and scream at the Germans, and the animations back up all this talk to make the troops feel more human than what we've seen in the past for RTS games. The sounds of war are equally brilliant, with distorted and muffled gunshots and artillery blasts when the player's camera is far away, and as you get closer it becomes sharper and louder. These modifications to sound effects wind up being an important element that most strategy games lack, and while I didn't miss them before, I will now in future, lesser strategy games now that I've played Company of Heroes.
Finally, let's talk about the multiplayer. A nearly-full selection of options are included here for online and LAN battles, with only a few omissions like the lack of a free-for-all game for anything more than two players (the game forces the Germans to fight the Americans no matter what). The Axis are played somewhat differently from the Allies, and while it's not exactly a night-and-day difference like the Terrans vs. Protoss vs. Zerg from Starcraft, you'll find that you'll still need to switch up your style and learn how to actually play as Axis to do well as them.
The multiplayer interface for Company of Heroes is based on Relic's new online system. It's got a slick game browser and there are little to no issues with getting (or staying) connected to games. So far the system seems to be holding up under load, and it is a nicer system than the usual GameSpy interface most RTS or action games have been licensing recently.
Put all this together, and it certainly adds a lot to the standard WW2 RTS. You'll have to issue orders to whole squads at a time and they'll usually figure out the best way to attack whatever they're up against, while you'll still be wondering if it's better to bring in the mortar team or start with a camouflaged sniper first. There's just the right amount of micromanagement to start without feeling like you're "fixing" bad AI by controlling every single movement. Maybe when players get far better at this game they'll start to micromanage anyway, but the important part is that it doesn't feel like it's necessary after only a couple of hours of play.