Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts Review
2GHz Pentium M CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800GTX Go
or 1GB for Vista
64MB DX9 Video
It's only been a year since RTS veterans Relic Entertainment unleashed Company of Heroes on us, and already we'll be jumping back into the muck to battle it out again, Axis versus Allies, in what seems to be an endless struggle during World War II. I say endless because game publishers have been continually shelling us with WW2 games for far longer than the actual war's duration. Many of these titles are derivative and dull, and often their sequels are even worse. But with Relic's new "stand-alone expansion" pack, Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, you'll find at least a few fresh perspectives on WW2 games. Even Hollywood seems a little nervous with war movies now, as the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers was so good that it seems there's nowhere else to go but down. And while game companies have quite a ways to go to match the glory of Band of Brothers, the Company of Heroes franchise is surely a step in the right direction.
If you've never played Company of Heroes before, well, the premise goes a little like this. You'll control squads of troops from infantry to paratroopers to engineers, as well as ground vehicles, in pitched battles that at least vaguely resemble the real fights from the war in Europe. Your "resources" are gained simply by capturing and holding points spread throughout the map, and you spend them on upgrades for your troops and their special abilities (like a sniper's camouflage or a grenade toss, to start with). With a more detailed simulation of the battlefield than many games supply, cover, suppression and flanking all become a big deal, and destructible environments will keep you moving around as you realize that some old wooden cart will simply break apart under fire from an MG42. When your (or your opponent's) troops get caught in the open they will become pinned down, and might get wiped out unless they get rescued by other troops you have in the area.
All of this is brought together by a physics and graphics engine that goes beyond what you expect out of a conventional RTS game. Buildings can be destroyed and new abilities allow the enemy to leave a little surprise for the enemy that tries to garrison inside later. Soldiers run, duck, hit the dirt, fight and die in quite realistic ways, and this adds up to being more than just pretty pictures as the guys at Relic have littered the battlefield with hard choices. Sure, you can take cover behind those barrels, but the wall or house with their better cover is just a little bit further ahead - should you take extra fire on your way and risk getting pinned down to get to the better cover? The action keeps flowing since Relic has removed the need for manual collection of resources, and while having a HQ or a base of operations can be beneficial, there are no peons out there chopping wood or gathering gold. Your resources are still an important commodity as they fuel the important special attacks your troops have. After all, engineers are just soldiers with mediocre aim until you put a satchel charge in their hands and have them toss one at a nearby heavy gunner nest.
In Opposing Fronts, the focus moves away from the standard US/German army troops over to more specialized ones - the highly trained British Army and their ability to construct emplacements and trenches, and the German Panzer Elite who can often use Blitzkrieg-like tactics and high mobility to get behind enemy front lines. There's a story as well, as the game doesn't always take place from the usual RTS top-down perspective. In-engine cutscenes will set up the situations in many of your missions and keep a few recurring characters coming back, adding an interesting link between RTS gameplay and the more personal nature of many WW2 action games. The mid-battle briefings are interesting as well, as you often don't know your next objectives until you complete the current one; it adds a level of urgency and surprise to many of the missions.
Unfortunately, your objectives and the cutscenes you get just don't seem as exciting this time around as last time, but it might also be the battles Relic chose to do this time. The storming of Normandy Beach and capture of the French town of Caen has been done ore than a few times before in WW2 games, and on the German campaign you fight during Operation Market Garden. That whole mission was a major flop for the Allies, and isn't as heavily covered in history classes and our gung-ho war movies - especially from the whole perspective of Germans winning those battles. Of course, few German soldiers were the sick and twisted Nazi murderers that seem to be much more common in our movies than reality showed, but I still find it hard to get behind the Germans' cause when I'm controlling them. It was the same in the original Company of Heroes for me, but at least there the German missions felt like familiar fights from a new perspective, rather than unfamiliar battles while playing as the faction I wasn't too excited to play as in the first place.
It's the presentation of the war, though, that helps the Company of Heroes franchise become just that little bit more engaging and reminds you that these are little fake people you're ordering around. (It doesn't sound like much when I put it that way, but dammit, it actually works.) The huge amount of colorful language tossed around during fights also helps to add a more authentic atmosphere, and the first time you lose a squad of infantrymen because you screwed up and let them get exposed while under fire - well, it's not just frustrating from a gamer's perspective, but it also hurts just a little bit. Ok, not that much, but there's more of a human connection to Opposing Fronts than we get from the RTS classics and even recent stuff like the excellent but robot-filled Supreme Commander.
One of my favorite parts of Opposing Fronts is that it does not require the original Company of Heroes to play. Sure, without both installed you'll be limited to only the new campaign - which winds up being longer than the one in the original game - and you can only use the Brits and Panzer Elite in multiplayer modes, but they're still solid combatants and so far seem well-balanced against the original factions (even if the Panzer Elite peter out mid-game and the Brits come into their own only at the end). And online play is a big deal for Relic, as they set up their own online service for their RTS titles and it offers a solid interface and plenty of ease for jumping into either quick-play ranked or custom games. If you'd rather stay offline, the skirmish modes allow you to play a range of AI opponents from pussycats up to armchair generals that do pretty damn well out on the battlefield.
My biggest issue with Opposing Fronts is that it looks and plays so similarly to Company of Heroes that you might be able to save some money and just play through the original game to get your fix. Relic hasn't really changed much here, and the new story and unique special abilities given to you on the new sides you play as don't add up to that huge of a difference considering the settings haven't changed too much and the same basic tactics you must employ to win are so similar. Yes, this is an expansion pack to an RTS game with impressive accolades and solid sales, so it's almost a given that we're seeing a lot more of the same. I'm glad that the developers didn't try and go crazy with "originality", either - we don't need an RTS version of some guy in the French Resistance avoiding German guards while sneaking down an alley. What we get is just as fun as Company of Heroes, but just don't expect any huge changes if you decide to pick up Opposing Fronts.
From a technical point of view, Company of Heroes did not disappoint, and the expansion is just as impressive. The graphics are great for an RTS game, even if we've already seen the same fields, fences, and stone walls a million times in past WW2 games (but that's not Relic's fault). Support for the original game has continued, with timely and substantial updates that not only fix bugs but make the game better. As of this writing there are already three patches out for Opposing Fronts; that might sound like a bad sign, but they download automatically from inside the game and Relic has been doing an excellent job of adding in new content and little bits and pieces along with the bug fixes. While the game can be just a little tough on system requirements, the believable physics and destructible environments make it worth it, and the DirectX 10 support in Vista adds a bit of extra eye candy for those that have the hardware to support it. Granted, as with every DX10 game I've played so far, the improvements over DX9 mode on the same computer are small and the hit to the frame rate is huge, but there simply aren't a lot of strategy games out there supporting the newest graphics features around. In that respect, the Company of Heroes franchise is easily the farthest ahead in the realm of RTS games.
With a great new campaign and smooth multiplayer modes, Company of Heroes is an easy choice for RTS fans to make. It may feel just a little bit too similar to the original game and the two new playable factions' abilities take some getting used to, but the advanced tactics you can use and constant, nearly economy-free troop management mean that you'll be focused on the fighting from the beginning to the end of every mission. What it lacks in originality is mostly made up for in its accessibility and fun, but for those who played the first game, it's understandable if you aren't necessarily dying for another tromp through Relic's WW2 world. Give it a shot, though, and I think you'll find that this world's worth another go.