Company of Heroes Reader Review
Everytime I hear the screech of fireworks, I duck for cover, much to the amusement of my friends. I tell them it's "because they remind me of the war." I am 20, and in denial about the fact that when I was three a cannon blast in a Portuguese circus gave me shellshock (I was visiting the circus and did not grow up there, despite claims to that effect). Yet there is some truth to my mumblings: I HAVE been through the wars many times before, as (I'm sure) have you, via the medium of the interactive trickery of gaming. So, when another game about World War II appears, groans emit from the exhausted mouths of battle-scarred gaming veterans. But after spending time with Company of Heroes it becomes evident that the groans and moans are orgasmic, elated expressions of joy.
Developers Relic built upon the already highly-polished Dawn of War engine to create something so polished it should have attached a sign reading 'Warning: Extremely-polished Surface. Danger of slipping.' The concept of capturing strategic points has been extended to include three seperate types of point, capturing which awards the player a steady trickle of Manpower, Munitions, or Fuel. However, resources will only flow into the player's coffer if the territory containing the strategic points belongs to the player and is connected to the rest of the player's territory. This sounds complicated, but it is surprisingly easy to comprehend, and constitutes an effective gameplay mechanic once you see it in action on screen. It brings the concept of supply lines to a genre which usually ignores this, and also allows the player to have a sense of fulfillment: maybe it's just me, but there is indeed something rewarding about cutting off an enemy's supply line, or watching the map turn blue (the Allied colour) as you annex more territory.
Perhaps the most striking feature of CoH is the AI. Units behave in an extraordinarily realistic manner, at least for an RTS: there are times when you take it for granted that your men dodge behind cover, hit the deck and attempt to crawl away from incoming fire. Then it hits you: you're somewhat used to this... IN AN FPS. Playing CoH feels like playing Brothers in Arms or Call of Duty, but as the general rather than the grunt. It is a testament not only to the AI, but also to the terrain modelling; cover can be found anywhere, be it behind a wall, the bombed-out shell of a car, or inside a crater made by incoming mortar fire. Oh yes, the terrain is fully destructable - think that wall will protect your men? Sure, it will against that hail of MG fire, but when a Panzer lets rip expect the finely-crafted dry stone wall to crumble like a cake in the claws of a crab. Maybe you'll place a sniper inside a tall building to gain a vantage point as well as protect him, until a well-placed Panzerschreck blows a hole in the side of the structure. Whilst visually pleasing, this aspect also adds an entirely new dimension to the strategy; nowhere is safe, and the cover - the concept of which has developed only fairly recently in the world of RTS gaming - is quite literally blown.
There is on offer a wide selection of units, ranging from various infantrymen such as riflemen, snipers and machine-gunners, to vehicles like a Jeep or an M4 Sherman. All feel finely-tuned, and many have a choice of upgrade, such as better weapons or improved armour. They also have abilities, for example a sniper can activate the 'camouflage' ability thus rendering him invisible to enemy units at the cost of a speed reduction, whereas a Sherman 'Crocodile' (once appropriately upgraded) can activate its bulldozer, shredding the shrubbery and hedgerows of the bocage. This means that a level of micro-management is needed, but rather than annoy it is a pleasure, and there's nothing quite like ordering an Allied infantryman to throw a sticky-bomb on the back of a passing Panzer. Activating these abilities and upgrades can make or break an assault, or even an entire battle. So too can the choice of your Company Commander (a similar feature to the Generals of C&C: Generals): as your units carve up the enemy force, or even when they capture strategic points or territory, they gain experience. Once they reach level 1 you can choose which of the three (per side) Company Commanders to 'be', granting you various extra abilities. The Allied Airborne Company choice allows you to paradrop men and supplies as well as call in aerial bombardments, for example; the Axis Defensive Doctrine (surprise surprise) bolsters your defences with upgrades such as MG emplacements on all buildings, and also makes available the calling of mass artillery strikes. The unit upgrades and abilities, plus those of the Company Commander, make for differing battles every time, forging a stunning level of depth and intricacy.
The campaign itself is excellent, focusing on the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe through France, and though there are some missions (such as the opening D-Day one) which we've seen before, there is also a focus on less well-known battles, which is refreshing. It is also a decent length and, even on normal, challenging. The cut-scenes are rendered in a very basic animation style, but it feels stylish rather than cheap, and you get the sense that the production costs which could have been spent on FMV cutscenes have been spread across the rest of the game, which is the way I'd rather have it. The best, most realistic cut-scenes in the world mean nothing without appealing gameplay. Oh, and the story is fairly compelling for an RTS if not by RPG or FPS standards.
I've yet to try multiplayer, but if it's anything like the skirmish mode it should be very entertaining indeed!
So, why only a 9? Well, as brilliant as it is, there are a few things which are lacking... well, only lacking if you're greedy like me. There are no civilians whatsoever, and perhaps the gameplay is better for this, but I personally feel that bombing seven shades of schizer out of the French urban and natural landscape should have some visible, human consequence. I'm not saying the AI enemy should have to think about this, or even that civilians were a seperate faction or that killing a certain number of civilians would end the mission; just a simple inclusion civilians fleeing, adding to the sense of chaos. This is a personal gripe and does not, when it comes to it, affect my overall opinion of the game.
Visually the game is very pleasing, but it is a great system-hog, so I didn't get the best out of it at all. This is less a criticism than a warning, to be fair, although in my bias I would obviously love the game even more if I could play it looking its best on my system.
Also, while the focus on the Allied invasion of France has allowed for extreme fine-tuning of that environment and related tactics, the rural and urban landscape of the land of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité - yes, I know that at the time of invasion it was the Vichy-led land of Travaille, Famille, Patrie - does get a bit repetitive. The inclusion of other fronts, especially the Eastern Front, or the ability to play the campaign as the Germans, would have made the game perfect. As it stands, it's the closest to perfection a WWII RTS has ever come.
9 / 10