Brother, war art thou.
Okay, I’ll be honest. After hearing that Relic’s follow-up to the galaxy-dominating Dawn of War
would swap space
marines for plain ol’ World War II
marines, I was worried. After all, World War II has been done to death, and frankly, I don’t remember reading about any hundred-foot tall hell-demons rampaging through Luxembourg. But while it might trade chainsaws for chain guns on the way back through time, Relic’s Company of Heroes
takes the developer’s signature RTS style into the future.
Company of Heroes
sports an impressive and historically accurate campaign focusing on the events following D-Day. As Able and Fox companies, you’ll storm through Saint-Lo
, capture Hill 192
, and close the Falaise pocket
as you outwit Jerry
at every turn. Besides great initial briefings (some containing as much carnage as information), most of the missions are segmented, with your initial objectives building out to larger goals.
Although there are only fifteen missions, these are some burly fights that you will not burn through on your first shot. On the other hand, since the campaign is so heavily scripted, you won’t fail a mission twice, either. Some of the challenging ‘medal’ objectives might bring back the hardcore commanders, but the majority will probably hang it up after one tour of duty.
Scripted or not, at a glance it’s apparent that this is a different type of RTS, but those familiar with Relic’s style should feel at home. The game uses Dawn of War-style squad and resource point systems, albeit with many adjustments. Resources are divided into manpower, fuel, and ammo, but what’s really interesting is how much more involved resource management is than ordering a peon to a gold mine.
Each map in the game is divided up into zones, and each has either a command point or a resource point, which, if captured, will win you the entire zone and provide a boon to one of your resources. The trick is, all territory must be directly linked to your base through friendly zones (supply lines, anyone?). With a well-placed strike, even a small force can potentially cut off an entire supply route, so it pays to be attentive as well as sneaky. The type of resources available can also dictate your progress heavily, as tanks and vehicles require more fuel, but in order to call in a strafing run or throw grenades, you’re going to need ammo.
Battles can change very quickly if supply points are lost, so the game’s mechanics facilitate lightning quick tactical changes. From your basic rifleman squad, you can set a portion of the team to pick up heavy weapons left strewn about, instantly transforming your troop’s peashooters into mortars, heavy tank guns, rocket launchers, or a tripod machine gun at the cost of some mobility.
Many upgrades can be purchased on a per-squad basis anywhere in the field, quickly giving your boys armor-piercing rounds to deal with vehicles, for example. Different upgrades exist for nearly every unit, giving you myriad ways to discover what works for your personal war machine. Furthermore, each mission offers two skill trees unique to each mission, allowing you to choose between things like rapid infantry deployment or bombing strikes. This is no simple war of attrition.
The multiplayer and skirmish modes expand these choices, offering three different trees that are unique to either faction. Online matches aren’t as free form as they could be, but the three-man teams for each faction fit the skill tree design perfectly. In addition to good ol’ Annihilation rules, you can also play under Victory Point conditions, where control of certain points on a map ticks away at your opponent’s counter until it runs out. Small issues arise due to the fact that you can’t distinguish your allies or enemies from other members of their teams, but it’s not a deal breaker. The factions themselves vary nicely, as the Axis forces offer generally stronger units in a totally different building arrangement, but at a higher cost.
The campaign gradually fills you in on the various unit types, but controlling those units effectively is what really provides you with a challenge. Inherently, each unit has its particular weaknesses, like tanks having weak rear armor, and infantry being easily ‘pinned’ by machine-gun fire, which causes them to hit the dirt, losing movement capabilities. It’s far more complex than the rock-paper-scissors of Advance Wars
and necessitates some wicked flanking and long-range strategies, but not entirely without problems.
Tanks aren’t usually smart enough to keep their armored ends facing enemy fire, and sometimes it’s all you can do just to get the thing pointed in the right direction. Also, the towns and plains of France are littered with bottlenecks, which can simply stop an armor advance in its tracks. I remember screaming at siege tanks in StarCraft
eight years ago for the same stupid behavior, and it’s a bummer to have to scream the same old obscenities at these beautiful Sherman Tanks now.
I repeat: beautiful tanks. When you roll through the completely destructible environment and blow up the entire block those foolish Nazis were hanging around, you’ll love them too. Company of Heroes looks tip-top nearly everywhere, but you’ll need a hefty rig to do it justice. Even on the GR hot rod I experienced a good deal of chop when things got too busy, which in this game can cost you dearly. Considering the high detail level right down to the troop-level camera, it’s not surprising. This is a graphical monster.
And it screams like a monster too. The sound is done extremely well, and is probably the most engrossing part of the game. Your troops respond to every situation, even exclaiming what type of unit is attacking them, in between the cursing. Colorful doesn’t begin to describe it, from hushed whispers to terrifying screams, it sounds as close to battle as you’d ever want to be. Combine that with deafening artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, and a nice background score, and things start to sound as good as they look.
While it sports some classic RTS flaws, the speedy gameplay and dynamic strategy really push things forward. With Company of Heroes, Relic shows us once again that war is hell, but it makes for gaming heaven.