Company of Heroes Reader Review
Company of Heroes is not a standard real time strategy game; nor is it a standard World War II game. And both genres do have their standards. Relic have crafted a beautiful, visceral, intense and highly polished experience which brings a startling variety of novel ideas to both real time strategy and World War II gaming, while not completely revolutionising either. Nonetheless, these are ideas which will surely become staples of both as other developers take heed of Relic's achievements.
The single player campaign is one of the best I have ever seen in a real time strategy title. The story follows the tried and tested route of Allies fighting the Axis in the Battle of Normandy. While the opening cut-scenes can give a strong sense of "we've seen it all before", the moment the player is completing objectives it becomes clear just how different this is to any past experiences; the campaign offers a vast variety of interesting missions which make each level a satisfying and non-repetitive adventure presented in a professional way more expected of first person shooters.
Bookending each level are the obligatory real time cut-scenes, and in these Company of Heroes puts itself beyond it's peers, as each cut-scene is cinematic, dramatic and unusually involving. Though using the standard game models, the detail and animation is phenomenal, and the lack of main characters is unnoticed as anonymous riflemen are given more life and personality than any number of characters from rival titles.
The detail of the cut-scenes is translated immediately to the gameplay. Every bomb strike creates a veritable crater in the ground and tanks can roll recklessly through walls and buildings, laying a permanent waste to the streets. Buildings strewn across the map can all be garrisoned and obliterated, with tank blasts blowing away the windows and forcing great holes in the walls. While all of this sounds immediately aesthetic, it creates a massively dynamic environment which completely changes the tactics the player uses.
However, the major point of brilliance in the game is in squads and their fantastic artificial intelligence. Each member of a squad is an individual, and each reacts individually to all manner of situations. They are always looking for cover and are all to keen to dive out of the way when being shelled. They crawl through the dirt as machine gun fire rains about them, and return fire in any way they can while not exposing themselves. This is great innovation which means players don't need to mindlessly babysit or micromanage their units for them to stay alive, something you can only be thankful for in the early minutes of a game when a single squad costs a rather lot. If, however, you are willing to micromanage, you can manually equip squads with bazookas or machine guns, which are dropped upon death and can be rescued by other teams.
Company of Heroes is an intense experience - no doubt crafted as such to mimic the sheer chaos of real life combat. A careful balance been attempted, and while at the times it can feel too overwhelming, at others the player has nothing to concentrate on but delicately facing one stealthy sniper off against another amongst the hedgerows. However, such encounters are an unfortunately rare treat.
There are two factions in the game - the Allies and the Axis - and while you play solely as the Allies in the campaign, the Axis are just as fleshed out with a plethora of unique units and new and interesting ways to perform staple functions - such as upgrading and gaining veterancy. While you may think you've exhausted the game by completing the campaign, the player still has a lot to learn in the skirmishes, both offline and on, and it's arguably here than the real meat of the gameplay resides.
And it's here where the cracks begin to show. Unnoticeable in the strictly controlled campaign missions, the artificial intelligence begins to falter in the skirmishes. Computer players are repetitive, predictable and utterly incompetent at simple tasks such as clearing the player's shoddy defences on a bridge. Even the hardest difficultly proves to be no challenge after a little experience, ridiculously offsetting the initially sharp learning curve. Unless you go online and face the challenges of finding agreeable participants and dealing with connection problems, these issues cause the game to quickly stagnate.
The multiplayer has it's own set of issues, such as a suspect balance in favour of the Allies, and an annoying dominance of powerful tanks. Each individual tank requires a focused effort to overcome with particular attention drawn to the specific weak points, while the tank itself can lay waste to scores of infantry squads with ease. Tanks are also relatively cheap, allowing players to easily amass them and not require any variety of units or strategy. The sheer assortment of units ultimately proves to be daunting, with most players choosing to focus all of their efforts on building only the most general purpose units and never touching the likes of the Crocodile Sherman Tank or the Knight's Cross Infantry.
All the problems Company of Heroes has are relatively minor. The game is a rock-solid wonder of real time strategy ingenuity; the exhausting intensity brought on by any battle is unrivalled by all other games in the genre. It features remarkably high polish, and is as much a technical achievement as an artistic one. At the end of a game, the ruined countryside and villages of France are a marvellous sight to behold.
8 / 10