With some of the highest scores awarded for a real-time strategy, being one of the Top 20 Metacritic All-Time High Scores, Company of Heroes ended up being one of those games I had little excuse not to try out, given that my PC could (just about) run it. Admittedly I’m unable to comment on the graphical splendour which seems to have charmed so many gamers’ hearts, as every setting on my screen reads either ‘low’ or ‘off’, but I’ve played a fair few strategy games over the years, and despite my early cynicism, Company of Heroes has warmed to me after a little experience on the online battlefields.
Whenever a game is released with a major historical theme, such as the ever popular World War II era, cries go up about the loss of realism to the gaming gods. Such and such would never happen, this and that never existed. Of course, many strategy games don’t even attempt to pander to the pedants of realism, and have been all the more successful for it (take the recent Supreme Commander, or any in the Command and Conquer series). Company of Heroes is no saint in this regard either, but its efforts to create a game at once realistic and fun have to be admired. There will always be players who complain about how developers could have stayed truer to real life, but Relic have done a good job in creating a game which at least seems realistic enough, and in ways which make the game fun to play. Shells fired at tanks have a chance of only glancing off the armour, and depending on the situation might even miss altogether; units under heavy fire become surpressed, limiting their movements and actions, or even pinned, leaving them helpless unless pulled out or relieved; and the variety of weapons and vehicles keep the tactics fresh and varied.
In truth, Company of Heroes might best be considered a game of tactics than strategy. The population limit keeps the action low key, making each encounter all the more important, and shifts the focus from great numbers of units, to how those units are used and combined. The key resource of ‘manpower’, used pricipally for bringing units into the field, goes largely undetermined by the course of the battle, i.e. despite territorial domination, the number of units available to either side should only marginally favour the attacker. The other resources, all of which are collected by capturing and holding points on the map, increase the number of options available to the player, but the staple diet of infantry, machine guns, snipers and mortars are available on just the basic resource. The requirements for these other resources, however, force the players to take and hold key map locations, and some multiplayer game modes go beyond this to include specific capture-and-hold objectives. However, the game is designed so that individual points produce no benefit unless they are connected to the ‘base’, a welcome variation on Relic’s earlier Dawn of War engine, allowing wiley players to ‘cut supply lines’ and force breaks in the enemy front lines.
This focus on squad-based combat does run the risk of having the key moments in a game hinge on that little bit of luck and making the early openings seem all the more important. Yet the openness of the maps generally serves to ensure that victories are warranted, with players able to pull out and redeploy as necessary, and at least in my experience avoids that seemingly autistic level of control required to play to any decent level in WarCraft III et al. The two sides also seem fairly balanced, which is no doubt a key benefit of excluding any other factions.
The game’s single-player campaign is perhaps the biggest disappointment, being at once too short, and too one-sided. The storyline follows the typical pattern one comes to expect from the American campaign in Europe, but it feels somehow empty, given the ample scope for including other Allied forces and theatres, or even simply a German/Axis campaign to complement the fairly short Allied one. However, that being said the AI can be a decent opponent, even on the skirmish maps, combining their troops well, flanking your positions, and pulling back if the pressure gets too hot. Of course it is not without its flaws, and will often get what a friend of mine terms ‘a hard on’ for a specific point on the map, and repeatedly rush headlong into disaster. That being said, the campaign is entertaining whilst it lasts, and in combination with the skirmish mode, is ample preparation for the online game where there should be some decent longevity, particularly with the expansion due out later this year.
The online experience seems to be a bit of a mixed bag, but thankfully doesn’t suffer from the same pitfalls that afflicted C&C Generals. Players get ranked separately according to the type of game they play – a 2v2 specialist might not have the same punch in a head-on meeting. In my very limited experience, there does appear to be a good mix of skill levels, plenty of scope for new players to learn the art, and the very mechanics of the game mean that few encounters feel so one sided as to make the experience joyless – though the better matched games probably feel quite stressful!
If there was one area in which I felt Company of Heroes truly fails, it would have to be the inclusion of a ‘base’. It would appear that the concept has become so vital to the real-time strategy genre, that developers can’t bring themselves to exclude it. Some have complained that the base element in the game is too lax, too incomplete, whereas I would argue its inclusion is entirely superfluous. In the multiplayer game, the annihilation mode requires the destruction of all enemy buildings, which often times comes as the final blow to an already defeated army. Otherwise, the base is simply an area for troops to arrive and heal, but the concept is open to being exploited by the trickier or less principled player. The game could simply rely on an area for troops to enter the battlefield, akin to that used in the Sudden Strike series, with an upgradeable technology tree behind the scenes akin to the building of separate structures for the different unit types.
Overall though, Company of Heroes offers something we wish all RTS games could deliver – a well-balanced, good looking, fun, themed game, which awards merit in good tactics and clever troop movement. Whilst some players bemoan the fact that multiplayer games are always fought Allies versus Axis, the restriction does ensure that the designers had to ensure the teams were balanced. And although I can’t take full advantage of the game engine, the way troops make use of the terrain for cover, using fresh craters as foxholes, occupying houses and church towers, certainly does add a level of depth and detail lacking in most contemporary RTS games, so at least you have something fun to watch even whilst your troops are getting massacred and overrun.