THQ Company of Heroes
A dream come true for RTS fans
- Brilliant RTS gameplay
- Would be nice if novices could slow the action down a little
Put simply, Company of Heroes is a masterpiece. Its dedication to realistic battle concepts and tactical warfare is enough to make it a high watermark for the RTS genre but its excellent graphics and physics, along with an intensely enjoyable single-player campaign and multiplayer options, help make this an instant classic.
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Over the past several years, Relic Entertainment has been busy at work putting out some of the most innovative RTS games in the last decade, culminating in the excellent Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. So it came as some surprise when Relic announced their next game would be set in the most excessively used backdrop in the genre — the Second World War.
Aside from the less than unique setting, Company of Heroes is a dream come true for fans of the genre, an almost instant classic which has somehow managed to strike the perfect balance between realism and inconceivable action.
Securing Real Estate
At the forefront of Company of Heroes is its 15-mission campaign where players guide the fictional Able Company throughout the first hectic weeks following the invasion of Normandy. Along the way players will participate in some of the most famous events of the entire invasion, including Omaha Beach, Carentan, Cherbourg, and the closing of the Falaise Pocket. Relic has done a great job making each of these missions unique and memorable by way of excellent cut scenes and voice acting. And though there is a mild feeling of deja vu — you can only fight through Normandy so many times before it loses its freshness — Company of Heroes manages to keep things rolling with its stellar design and gameplay elements.
Dawn of War vets will feel almost instantly at home with Company of Heroes, as it retains most of the basic elements present from that game. The most intriguing element that's been retained is the way the in-game resources are handled: rather than the standard "peon gatherer" model that most RTS games use, Company features a network of resource nodes that provide one of the three resources found in the game — manpower, munitions, and fuel. Each game map is broken up into sectors and each sector provides a specific type of resource. In order to "harvest" the resources of any given sector, you must first capture that sector's point; the resource will then begin to trickle in at a steady rate. Building an Observation Post atop of the point "secures" the sector and provides a resource bonus.
The hitch is that each captured sector has to be connected to the sector containing your HQ, which mimics the real-world concept of supply lines; these "supply lines" can then be severed by the enemy, thereby depriving you of that sector's resource. And since turnabout is fair play, you can do the same thing back, giving enterprising players the opportunity to strike at their enemies' flanks and deliver devastating economic blows. It's a great system that adds a significant element of economic strategy that has typically been avoided in similar games. It also forces players to take a realistic approach to troop management and makes for some great see-saw skirmishes where the tides of battle constantly sway to and fro, as valuable resource points repeatedly change ownership.
No 'I' In Team
While the expansion of resource nodes and supply lines already adds an excellent layer of overall strategy, Company of Heroes' greatest strength lies in its combat engine. Initial expectations surrounding the game were high but players will be truly astounded when they find out how much depth is lurking under Company's hood. Unlike most games where combat generally devolves down to a contest to see who can throw more units into the fray, Company requires players to acquaint themselves with combined-arms warfare. For instance, infantry units, which are often mere fodder in other games, shine as the base tool for any situation, while tanks, which have been inflated in stature for too long, take their rightful place as a support weapon.
Striking a balance between infantry and vehicles is the most important ingredient for success in the game. Infantry units are versatile but unless they're backed up by support units such as tanks and artillery, they're vulnerable out in the field. On the flip side, vehicles and armour can be devastating but they need wily infantry units by their side — to do the "grunt" work — in order to be effective.
Relic also brings to bear a realistic combat system in Company of Heroes. Take the concept of suppression, for example. Units in Company of Heroes can become pinned down by heavy gunfire, thus reducing their effectiveness and ability to fight; it also leaves them vulnerable to flanking manoeuvres. Players can and should lay down a hail of machinegun fire to suppress an exposed enemy so that another unit can move in to hit their flank or rear, a historically accurate nod to WWII tactics.
Likewise, these kinds of tactical options are also stressed in combat involving vehicles and armour. Most of the armour present on a vehicle is welded onto its front, meaning that the rear and sides are more vulnerable to fire. Careful positioning of units can ensure their ability to survive battles and flanking manoeuvres can again play a critical role in ending conflicts decisively. There was one minor A.I. hiccup in which armour would consistently expose their rear armour when moving short distances but luckily, Company of Heroes makes it easy to position your units to face any direction you want: clicking and holding down the right mouse button brings up a field-of-view grid that you can then swivel around, perfect for repositioning a machinegunner or tank on the fly.
And with so many different tactical options present, multiplayer offers a sense of depth that few games can match. Thankfully Relic has finally decided to set up its own online service, doing away with third-party sources such as Gamespy and the result is a far more stable and informative interface. Only a few minor balancing issues plague the game at this point, but Relic — which is known to relentlessly balance its games — should quickly clear up these issues.
To The Victor Go The Spoils
Graphically, Company of Heroes manages to capture the action in a visual tour de force, due to an entirely new engine. The level of detail shown during the game is simply astounding. Rubble strewn cities show significant damage from combat, and can be further destroyed as the fighting rages. Using the detailed Havoc physics engine the game world is entirely dynamic. Heavy weapons, such as tanks, do appropriate levels of destruction in the game environment, opening fresh holes in buildings, tearing down walls and the roof around your enemy's ears. Infantry units benefit enormously from these dynamic interactions as new sources of cover are continually created over the course of battle.
The audio is also spot on as are the controls: the standard RTS scheme is firmly entrenched here — though genre vets will have to learn some new hot keys — but it has a sense of polish and refinement that no doubt owes a debt to the many other titles that have come and gone before it. We were left wishing for a speed slider as the action can get a little intense and novice gamers might want to slow things down; however, the default game speed is usually manageable and didn't detract from the experience in a major way.
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