Company of Heroes – A Belated Review August 21, 2008Posted by Jevan Moss in Games, gaming, PC, Reviews.
The summer drought is always a good time to catch up with underplayed games, and as usual I seem to have built up an embarrassingly large back-catalogue. Thanks to our extended hiatus though, it’s the perfect excuse to review some of the games we missed, starting with the rather excellent Company of Heroes.
I’ve been a big fan of the RTS genre ever since I played the original C&C, so I can’t believe I left it so long to get stuck into what’s probably the finest example of the genre to date. I blame Hitler of course, as without him we wouldn’t be flooded with WWII games sporting near identical three-word titles. I mean come on, Company of Heroes? Relic might as well have called it Medal of Duty and have done with it. What’s next, space marines?
Surprisingly though, such a clichéd setting has been used as the foundation of a hugely progressive game. Relic had already made strides in the genre with the Dawn of War games, replacing traditional resource gathering with control points scattered around the maps, forcing players to remain on the offensive at all times. CoH takes this a step further, linking each control point to a territory, and requiring each to be linked to your HQ through an unbroken chain. This results in a visible frontline for each side, rather than encouraging the scrappy encounters of DoW. Better yet, it allows for plucky players to find a way through the enemy defences, take a single control point, and cut their opponent off from entire clusters.
Having to fight over control points also forces players to make full use of every level of the tech tree, starting with basic infantry combat and moving up to heavy support and elite troops. This doesn’t take long, thanks to the tree being surprisingly short, but unlike most RTS games even the most basic units remain useful at every point of the game. In fact, it’s in your best interests to ensure your units survive for as long as possible, rising in rank through combat and becoming far more effective as a result. What’s more, every unit becomes vulnerable when attacked in the right way, so it’s absolutely vital to support them with others. Tanks all have relatively weak side and rear armour, so mere foot-soldiers can prove fatal if they dash behind, attacking with rocket launchers, sticky bombs or even upgraded machine guns. It’s a good idea to keep some engineers near by to enable field repairs, machine gunners and armoured cars to take care of infantry attacks, and half tracks to provide reinforcements after casualties.
Having to deal with so many units at once requires a great deal of micro-management, and that’s without even considering the intricacies of the maps themselves. Hedges, walls and even the sandbags you can erect make for excellent cover for your troops. Every habitable building can be garrisoned, and high walls offer no safety from tanks, which can smash straight through them. Multiplayer games are especially frantic, as attacks can come from all sorts of unexpected directions. Having to deal with this while also making sure your tanks are pointing in the right direction, your troops are reinforced and your repairs are prioritised makes for an exceptionally engaging, not to mention exhausting experience that can make even defeat feel satisfying.
There’s a lot more to enjoy than the multiplayer mode though, as the single-player campaign is also exceptionally strong. I haven’t seen this much variety in a campaign since Starcraft, starting with the obligatory beach landing before leading you through both the countryside and cities of France, and even a German V2 factory. Missions never fall back on simple “kill them all” scenarios, instead throwing something different at you with every briefing. The aforementioned V2 mission doesn’t even give you a base, instead requiring you to capture or destroy anti-air guns in order to airdrop additional troops and supplies, while vehicles arrive over time assuming you can hold the entrance. The Starcraft comparison doesn’t end with variety either, as CoH shares its flair for mid-mission surprises, helped by brief in-game cutscenes. Sadly it doesn’t stretch to engaging characters and story, but you can’t have it all.
It speaks volumes that I can lay on so much praise before even mentioning the atmosphere. Machine guns roar with vicious fire. Tank engines growl, while their treads kick up dust and debris. Troops yell at you when attacked, drop to a crawl when pinned and die in wince-inducingly violent ways. Explosions blast them into the air, fire sets them alight, and a Sherman tank mine-flail proves just as effective at slicing up people as it is at detonating mines. This attention to detail is evident in every bit of the game, even down to the impressive hand-drawn stills that make up the mission briefings, and everything works to portray both the horror and the thrill of war in equal measure.
Company of Heroes is quite simply the pinnacle of the RTS genre as it stands today. It may not be as progressive as World in Conflict, nor does it match the scale of Supreme Commander, but instead builds on the genre’s roots in its own masterful way. No other RTS has matched its elegance of control, its visceral action or its perfectly judged unit selection, and I can’t imagine anything will for some time yet. It actually manages to make WWII an exciting setting again, and for that it deserves the highest praise of all.