Those who say that ‘War is hell’ haven’t played [i]Company of Heroes[/i] (CoH), the recently released WW2 Real-Time Strategy game from [b]Relic Entertainment[/b], creators of [i]Homeworld[/i], [i]Impossible Creatures[/i], [i]The Outfit[/i] and [i]Dawn of War[/i]. It’s no great surprise that most RTS fans emitted a collective groan of indifference about a year ago when Relic announced that the setting of their next ‘big’ RTS game was going to be World War 2. ‘The Big One’ (WW2) has been the focus of more games than every other war combined and while Relic has certainly established no small amount of street cred for it’s amazing string of high-quality Real-Time Strategy games (Impossible Creatures notwithstanding), some worried that perhaps the creativity had finally run dry at Relic’s Vancouver game development studios. As it turns out we didn’t have much to worry about. Read on to find out why!
Starting with the obligatory 1944 D-Day mission, the single-player campaign in [i]Company of Heroes[/i] follows the exploits of Able Company as they fight every inch of their way into Hitler’s ‘[i]Fortress Europe[/i]’. While it’s all the rage these days to pooh-pooh exceptional graphics as unimportant to gameplay, in [i]CoH[/i] they provide a visceral thrill that is unequaled by any other game in this genre and integral to the total experience. Soldiers, vehicles, buildings, trees, and even telephone wires are blown to smithereens with some of the best and most realistic explosions ever seen in any game. The art direction is pure Band of Brothers with army green, steel grey, and mahogany-colored mud all lovingly depicted in the French countryside. Most games make it a point to give their players a color-coded unit cue for which troops are theirs and this colored banding is often over-the-top or too distracting but such isn’t the case with [i]CoH[/i]’s units. The color coding is so subtly handled that you barely notice it’s there which is, of course, the way it should be. It’s a testimony to just how amazing the overall graphics are in the game, that even the User Interface (UI) is aesthetically pleasing.
But the graphics aren’t the sole owners of center stage; [i]Company of Heroes[/i] sports an impressive integration of in-game physics to round out the presentation package. When you call in an off-map artillery strike to clear out a pesky nest of Nazis, the building that they’re bunkered in will explode in an extremely realistic fashion and (seemingly) never the same way twice. Vehicles sway wildly when hit hard by an enemy tank’s shell and in one instance, when I’d loaded a half-track full of soldiers that then promptly hit a mine, it flipped over, spilling my grunts onto the muddy road in disarray. I’ve also seen telephone wires cut in two and trees uprooted if caught in particularly heavy bombardment. It would be one thing for [i]CoH[/i] to have tacked on the physics as an extra aesthetically-pleasing element but in this game the physics affect gameplay in nifty ways as well. That wiped out building you destroyed with your arty strike can suddenly prove lifesaving for your infantry squad when an enemy division rolls into town. Your troops will dive for cover into the ruins, dynamically using the terrain to their advantage.
This leads to another fantastic aspect of [i]CoH[/i] – your unit’s AI and pathfinding. You’ve seen it all too often in a RTS game – you click your unit, carefully choosing a smart path that takes advantage of the terrain so they’ll arrive at their destination safely, only to find them either stuck on a rock or meandering aimlessly like near-sighted penguins. Those days are (mostly) gone with [i]CoH[/i]. Your squads not only take the smart route towards their goal, they do it in a way that takes maximum advantage of cover along the way. If they come under fire they’ll drop to a prone position and immediately crawl towards the best cover locally available while returning fire. It bears mentioning, however, that vehicle pathfinding is a bit less stellar. Specifically, tanks seem to have the most trouble getting to their destinations if more than one is selected. The issue seems to be that they both attempt to take the best path and occasionally end up bumping and jostling each other in a bizarre metal parody of the Three Stooges as they both roll towards their respective destinations. Thankfully, this is a fairly rare occurrence and the game provides you with the ability to give a facing command which helps to partially alleviate this issue.
Sound and music are both spot on and further add to the immersion factor in what is already a wildly immersive experience. Bullets whiz and flame-throwers crackle with manic glee as the stirring orchestral score ramps up the gravitas and provides an aural experience rivaling even big-screen epics like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘Pearl Harbor’. Famed PC game musician Jeremy Soule provides a perfectly suited soundtrack for this war-torn setting. Teeth-rattling explosions lend even the smallest mortar strike serious credibility and if you have a high-quality set of speakers and/or headphones you’re in for a real treat.
Relic seems to have made all the right gameplay design choices and these decisions push [i]CoH[/i] past the tired RTS genre and into a more exciting realm of possibility. Gone are the days of simply lassoing the largest group of units and throwing them into the fray, knowing that your superior numbers will win the day. In [i]Company of Heroes[/i], the concepts of cover, flanking, and combined arms genuinely make a huge difference. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Relic’s design decision regarding tanks vs. infantry. In a standard RTS you could leave your infantry squads to plink away at a tank with their rifles until it was eventually defeated but not so in [i]CoH[/i]. In the classic WW2 match-up between infantry and tank, the tank is impregnable to bullets; no amount of prolonged small-arms fire will ever take down any tank in the game. Instead, as a ground-pounder you’ll have to rely on either (historically inaccurate) Sticky Bombs, bazookas, or their German equivalents, the Panzerfausts, to wipe out your steel-encased foes – rest assured you’ll need more than one to get the job done.
During each battle your troops earn experience points which can be used to purchase unit upgrades or special events (such as artillery strikes or bombing runs) along one of three specific Command paths: Infantry, Armor, or Air. Each path is tailored to a particular style of gameplay though they’re all very useful regardless of your strategy. Dirt farming is nowhere to be found in [i]CoH[/i], instead (in a nod to Relic’s ‘Dawn of War’ series) you must capture a series of victory point locations that are divided into three categories: manpower (for soldiers), munitions (for weaponry upgrades or arty strikes), and fuel (for vehicles). If a captured victory point is not surrounded by your territories on a least one side, it will not yield its bounty to your totals. This is how Relic seamlessly represents the effects of being ‘out of supply’. Victory conditions come in two flavors during a match: by the utter Annihilation of your foes or success by Victory Point Acquisition (i.e. whoever can reach a set number of victory points will cause their opponent’s tickets to start counting down toward defeat, similar to the Battlefield series Conquest mode).
Also, as mentioned previously, the game allows you to set the facing of your units and this, combined with the use of cover, provides for even more strategic gameplay. Should I setup my ambush here along the hedgerows but with an exposed flank or do I attempt a less risky advance from the high ground into the village? Should I place this mortar team behind the cover of these building (answer: yes) or put them closer to the front under less cover so they’ll have a more effective range? Choices like these drastically change the way you’ll approach each battle and these choices make the game much more enjoyable. Even tanks offer more tactical opportunities as the game engine effectively simulates positional vehicle damage meaning that even the Germans’ ridiculously powerful King Tiger tank is susceptible to a bazooka up the tailpipe. In fact, tank vs. tank battles nearly become a mini-game unto themselves as players micromanage both the facing and movement of their tanks in a desperate effort to get that all-powerful rear armor shot.
Micromanagement itself accounts for the game’s sole weakness. In the heat of any particularly frenetic battle it can become almost ridiculously difficult to keep your war machine operating at peak efficiency. Though your units’ AI is stronger than that found in any other RTS they still need tough love from time to time and giving it to them while three different fronts have opened up on the map can prove frustrating for newcomers to handle. Thankfully Relic seems to have been aware of this difficulty and has kindly given players the ability to pause the game while still issuing orders. Using this feature can help alleviate most of the micromanagement headaches you’ll face or at least diminish the difficulty level of all but the most hectic conflicts. A tactical map giving you an overview of each scenario’s battlefield also provides some welcome relief for the strategically-challenged among us.
The length and quality of the single-player campaign in [i]CoH[/i] bears mentioning as Relic could have easily mailed in a standard by-the-books campaign but even here you can see the delineation between the industry’s finest RTS developers and the bush leagues. Missions are varied and range from all-out frontal assaults to cat and mouse style tank hunts. Particularly noteworthy are Missions 8 (St. Fromond) – you’re tasked with holding a town square for a set period of time while under a furious counter-assault, Mission 9 (Hill 192) – where you must capture a well-defended hill in under forty minutes, and finally Mission 14 – in which you must defeat a German tank ace driving the dreaded King Tiger tank. Though there is a small story (of sorts) tacked onto the whole campaign, it’s perfunctory at best. The scenarios themselves are the bread and butter here.
Multiplayer is adroitly handled by Relic’s newly created Relic Online game service. While there are some initial issues with invisible players in the game lobbies and a few other minor glitches, as a game-matching feature it’s quite serviceable. The only real concern right now involves a bug where your opponents can drop from the game which then in turn credits you with a loss. For those who are extremely devoted to their ranking on the Relic [i]CoH[/i] ladder, this is a very frustrating bug and one that Tranj (THQ’s Senior Creative Manager) has said is “a very high priority for us.” Relic has recently revealed that a patch is on the way (ETA: 2-3 weeks) to fix this drop bug and several other small issues.
Relic appears to have achieved the impossible with [i]Company of Heroes[/i] – they’ve created a RTS in the trite World War 2 setting that is simultaneously beautiful, visceral, exciting, and yet revolutionary to the genre. Newsflash to competing RTS designers: the bar has been set and it’s [b]WAY[/b] up there. It’s been a long time since the ‘S’ in RTS meant something – it does now.