Company of Heroes

As sick as some people are of seeing one WW2 title after another fill store shelves and forums, Relic’s newest entry into the strategy arena is probably one of the best RTS titles to hit the market in a long while. Company of Heroes, brings a lot of fun the virtual battlefield without making it feel as if it catered exclusively to veterans. It’s a tough game, but it’s probably one of the most exciting RTS titles that I’ve gotten into in awhile.

Company of Heroes stormed the beaches of Normandy on a PC.

The Great Crusade

History grognards shouldn’t expect Company of Heroes to be a page by page retelling of the Normandy campaign, although it takes the history and more than a little creative license with it.

Following the footsteps of Able Company from their initial landing at Normandy, you’ll follow their exploits through some of the most important battles fought during the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Starting at Omaha beach and taking you through to the closure of the Falais Pocket that would spell the end for the German Seventh Army and the Fifth Panzer, Company of Heroes weaves as much strategic action as it tries to tell it’s story from the viewpoint of those that you will lead into battle. Much like Band of Brothers would take us through WW2 as seen from the eyes of a company of raw recruits, Relic’s title will try and share some of the same intensity with what it offers, succeeding very well in doing just that.

Gameplay

You can dive into the tutorials or the campaign from the start. The tutorials are interactive allowing you to try out what they teach and the basic mechanics are easy to get a hold of. It’s fairly simple to get used to Relic’s gameplay mechanics and in minutes, I was ready to try and storm Europe. The controls are pretty extensive and getting used to the keyboard shortcuts for the interface will be something that you should practice early on. The gameplay starts off slowly enough but it soon ramps up almost midway through the fifteen mission campaign as the Third Reich tries to desperately hold the line. The intensity of some of the missions were every bit as frustrating as they may have seemed to have been described in the history books, but success was a lot more satisfying when “Mission Completed” came up on the screen.

Control point-style gameplay isn’t a new mechanic in Company of Heroes, but it was the first RTS title that I had played where it felt as if it made it such an important part of the strategy. That, and its emphasis on resource points. Players that were used to building up their resources by mining Mineral X to supply their war machine are going to find that the game does things a little more differently. Maps are broken up into zones, each of which can be controlled by taking over its “control point” which is usually represented by a flag pole or a resource point. Resource points are particularly important, adding fuel or ammunition to the total number that your reserves are automatically fed with over time depending on what it is. The more you control, the faster you will gain. Controlling more territory also adds to how many “manpower” points you earn making territory an even more important consideration. All units have a cost that hits one or all of these resources making it important to hold onto as many as possible. The AI is not going to simply let you have them, either, as it will do its best to take them away from you and it will do a pretty good job at it at any difficulty level.

You can do the basics, such as build structures around your base to fill your ranks with specialized units ranging from snipers to armor. In addition to this, your soldiers will earn over three levels of experience, becoming veterans on the field as they survive making them deadlier than ever. Veteran units can even be called into battle in other missions if you’ve managed to hold onto a few from the previous one making it feel as if each mission was interconnected outside the storyline. The player also earns experience along with their men, and this leads to Relic’s “Company Commander” system. When the player reaches a certain amount of experience, they’ll get to invest those points into one of three different abilities focusing on a certain military approach. For example, by going with the “Infantry” discipline, you’ll open up the upgrade trees that will allow you to speed up soldier production or even call in artillery. These abilities don’t carry over from mission to mission, though, and most of the main campaign will pre-select one for you, but its a great concept that adds a lot of fun…and strategic decision making…to the game.

All of the weapons and abilities that you and your opponent might use are straight from WW2. You’ll be able to build tank traps to keep the enemy’s armor from coming across a bridge, lay down a line of mines to trap a patrol road, set up machine gun nests to protect valuable control points, or put up sandbags to provide cover for soldiers assigned to protect a certain area. Your soldiers can also take cover inside buildings, or turn them into HQs capable of creating troops to save you having to simply march everyone from your base to the front lines. You won’t have to worry about tank rushes more than you will enemy soldiers and engineers getting behind your lines and disrupting your supply sectors by trying to capture them.

Your soldiers, and the enemy, can also use most of everything in the game as some kind of cover, making use of what Relic has called ‘environmental strategy’. They can hide behind trees, small stone walls, inside craters carved out by your artillery shells, behind the wreckage of vehicles your troops leave in their wake, and will intelligently duck and cover and do their best to defend themselves if you can’t get to them right away. They’ll call out for assistance and follow your orders as best as they’re able, and will be able to take weapons left behind by the enemy when they survive or upgrade what they have to carry anti-tank guns, flamethrowers, or the BAR machine gun to help even the odds. You’ll be able to pick up panzershrecks, commandeer anti-tank guns after taking out their crews and turn them against their own armor, and even use rocket throwing Nebelwerfers once you’ve ‘liberated’ them. The only thing you can’t use are enemy vehicles, but most everything else is fair game.

The tactical detail also extends down to each unit, especially against armor. When I saw my first Tiger appear in battle, I wondered how many Shermans would die before I could bring it down. Fortunately, Relic took some liberties with many units in the game in order to make it more of a contest, something that brings some balance to the game and some head scratching to WW2 buffs. For example, they haven’t made the Tiger too overpowering in allowing it to kill Allied tanks with only one shot from its 88mm gun, but it’s still something that you would rather not send only one Sherman in to fight by itself if you can help it. Flanking enemy armor and hitting it from the sides and the rear, using the Sherman’s speed, or even getting your soldiers to throw sticky bombs will be what the player will need to decide.

The only downside to much of this was that many of the missions can get chaotic to the point where it almost feels as if you have to micromanage everything just to keep the Third Reich in check. You can pause the action and issue commands, but it can get to the point where it seems that the AI throws everything it has at you in a blitzkrieg of thunder and steel. It could get pretty intense, it wasn’t to the point where it was impossible to keep up with.

Beneath the Steel Skin

Relic’s “Essence Engine” provides everything what players will witness on the battlefield, making it possible to zoom close enough to a Sherman tank to almost seem as if they are walking right next to it. The graphics continue to look good when held up to this kind of scrutiny and the in-game cut scenes that help to tell the story of Able Company seamlessly blend right into the engine showing off its power, zooming up and away to the tactical view as a new mission starts. Relic’s animators also look as if they’ve tried to give everything in the game that should move as many moving parts as possible giving all of the units an even deeper amount of detail. You’ll see tank treads roll, turret barrels recoil as they fire, engine doors blow open and hang from a good hit on a tank as it rocks on its suspension, canvas flaps fly open on a tent as a machine gun lays down suppressive fire from behind them, and infantry duck and crawl to avoid being caught by enemy lead. Havoc physics complete the illusion filling the air with flying wheels, steel shrapnel from exploding trucks, a machine gunner falling from a tank turret and rolling onto the ground, and the occasional torso from an artillery hit on a ‘soft’ target. Buildings will show battle damage and will even collapse, crushing whoever might still be inside. You can turn the battlefield into a moonscape with enough artillery, and the roads can get choked with the remains of armor providing cover for your soldiers that you may use to ambush the enemy. Tanks can even roll through walls and even smash through hedge rows with the right equipment. Relic has really done a fantastic job in creating a battlefield where it feels as if almost anything is possible.

All of your units have something to say, turning their speech into a static filled radio transmission if you happen to pan away from the unit that you had just clicked on to do something. And its pretty candid. If you have kids, I hope that you play this game with the volume down so that they don’t hear what the soldiers say when they’re under pressure. Some of it is even funny, but be warned that the “M” label on the box means what it says. The actors did a fantastic job throughout the entire game, from the desperate cries of your Allied soldiers to the German troops muttering to themselves as they march. From the cuts to the field of battle, all of the voice acting and the booming sound effects gave Company of Heroes a kind of hectic rush, especially when things are starting to fall apart. Artillery strikes will abuse your bass and machine gun fire will tear into your eardrums as you try to maintain order among your lines.

The price for all of this visual eye candy, though, is pretty steep. Even with the recommended specs, you might want to try the game with a gigabyte or more to keep it running smoothly along with a speedy processor, but you can always adjust the detail to try and squeeze as much or as little performance as you need.

Relic Online

Relic decided to build their own online solution, leaving Gamespy and developing Relic Online. When you start it up for multiplayer, you’ll need to create an account, but its seamless process won’t force you to visit a webpage to do so and is handled entirely within the game. Once you’ve got a profile, you can visit one of several chat channels for Company of Heroes, add friends to a list, or participate in ranked ladder matches. A list of games comes up in the lobby for you to choose from, complete with connectivity indicators to give you an idea of what to expect.

My first experience with Relic Online was not so good. I had tried for nearly half an hour to connect to a game and would often be disconnected, once held in some kind of connection limbo forcing me to kill the game in Task Manager, to finally connecting to a game only to be dumped back out because it wasn’t “able to connect to all players” when the admin finally started it. When I finally got into one, the gameplay performance wasn’t bad. When lag issues began to hit, it handled it with forced delays to keep everyone in sync and you can initiate votes to boot lagged players. Unfortunately, it eventually forced almost everyone to disconnect leaving me to face an opponent that was suddenly knocked out of the game by a connection problem several minutes later.

To their credit, Relic is actively working on the performance of their online service and my next few experiences with the game online were a lot smoother. Performance was great, even when in a pitched 3v3 battle on a large map, although there is still the occasional connection and lag issues. However, given what my first experience was like with the service, it has come a long way into providing an easy and fun way to wage war online. If Relic can continue to improve their online game, Company of Heroes should provide many evenings filled with the pounding thunder of artillery and armor. It’s a lot of fun in multiplayer.

It also offers LAN play that can keep the experience closer to home and a pretty good Skirmish mode for when you want to practice against the AI across a variety of maps. The AI provides a solid challenge across its difficulty levels and helps to keep the game feeling fresh even after you’ve won all of the medals from the single player campaign. The only thing you can’t do is pit Allied versus Allied to see who can be the better Patton.

And while the Axis forms the only other opponent that players will face, they might find that they may be ill equipped to start off with them as their favored side online. Able Company’s story is the only one that is told in the game, so players expecting to run a few missions as the Wehrmacht are going to be sorely disappointed. While this was understandable to provide a Band of Brothers experience through Normandy, it really only prepares you for being able to fight online as the Allies. Axis players will need to brush up on this side of combat, including its disciplines, from scratch, but will find that they’re more than capable of holding their own with specialized disciplines catering to their particular strategies.

Aside from the online issues, the game doesn’t exactly load on a dime, either, and you might find yourself going to make some coffee when it starts up the next map. You also can’t save over previous files, forcing you to exit back to the main menu to do house cleaning. Weighing in at around twenty to twenty five megabytes apiece, saves can start to add up if you’re a cautious gamer.

Collector’s Edition

The Collector’s Edition includes a DVD with game trailers and team diaries, a listing of all of the units within the game with photos of each including movies to show them off, and a gallery of art along with a collection of in-game screenshots. It basically feels more like a supplement to the package filled with material that you could probably use to build a fan site with. While it’s not bad, most of the items on the disc can be found online and really doesn’t feel as exclusive as it probably could have been. Don’t expect in-game commentary here.

In addition to the DVD, you also get a glossy map of the Normandy invasion. On the reverse side, a poster of the front cover for the title. You also get a small manual for “Camoflage and Cover” describing the tactics used by the Army along with a stack of identification cards that show off all of the units in the game. In case your house gets attacked by a panzer, at least with these you’ll know what it is. The extras are all packed with the game inside a tin case.

The Longest Day

Featuring a detail rich battlefield, a lengthy campaign, challenging gameplay, and a Band of Brothers inspired backstory to go along with it, WW2 fans have reason to rejoice. Even if you have only a passing interest in WW2 gaming, you might want to give Company of Heroes a try. The single player battles are filled with explosive, environmental detail filled with options that your tactical instincts can take advantage of and an extensive skirmish mode continues the offline excitement even when the trip through France is completed. Relic’s new online service still has some teething issues, but the multiplayer games can be filled with as much excitement as the single player. From leading Able Company through Normandy as they face some of the best that the Wehrmacht has left in a desperate battle to force the Second Front to the online matchmaking that Relic has put together, Company of Heroes can easily provide some of the WW2 genre’s finest hours.

- World 1-1

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