Company of Heroes
Company of Heroes is at first inspection quite a traditional, over-head view real-time strategy game, without any particular novelty in control, goal or unit generation. The campaign follows a US Army Company from the bloody shores of Normandy to the cracking open of Fortress Europe, and so certainly doesn't push any envelopes or break any moulds when it comes to story or character driven plots. What Company of Heroes does do, however, is set the gold standard for RTS gameplay and is likely to continue to do so for some time.
Company of Heroes does not sound like a winner in concept. A great deal of the actual nuts and bolts of the game is directly transported from the excellent Warhammer: Dawn of War. Many of the basic concepts such as each infantry unit being comprised of a squad, strategic location derived resources, and the take-and-hold tactics required for victory will be immediately familiar to anyone who played through Dawn of War, to the point I was able to completely skip the tutorial stages. Now seeing as how DoW was itself very good, this wasn't a bad sign, but probably meant that the game was going to be little more than a fancy modification with a cosmetic overhaul. This, I am very pleased to say, is defiantly not the case - THQ and Relic have indeed borrowed much of the mechanics of their previous titles, but have expanded the scope and tactical involvement to far surpass its progenitor and arguably every other RTS available to date.
Earlier RTS titles tended towards being quite antiseptic when it came to action, despite their essential theme being of armed forces bent on each others murder. Command and Conquer, for instance, had the occasional brief explosion, troops would lie down a second before disappearing, and maybe a building would crumble a little. Most times a player would be easily able to identify the forgone conclusion of a skirmish long before shooting started, just by looking at the collections of units going into the fray to the point where you could practically see the dry maths of the games engine behind the tiny tanks.
Later developments tried to deal with this in various ways, such as the rock-paper-scissors approach, which usually led to drawbacks of tanks being inexplicably unable to kill infantry, platoons of infantry curiously annihilated by a lone guard dog, etc. Until now no other title has had the mechanics, the attention to detail, and the fine balancing to make it the actual players' tactical decisions that will make the difference on the field and carry the day.
Company of Heroes manages to incorporate into its gameplay both the subtitles of tactical play and the earthshaking devastation of modern warfare. Involving and brilliantly executed, its unusually lengthy missions requiring a sometimes exhausting level of constant consideration and planning that I cannot remember previously giving to an RTS. It used to be a case of close ranks, throw up a tall wall, collect and research until you could build the Imperial Bitchslapper Tank Mk. II and then roll over the bones of the bad guys all the way to tea and medals. With the action coming thick and fast in CoH, sitting on ones collective behind will get you shot in it, so the player will find themselves improvising with the units they have, using every inch of cover and terrain, and really not just trying to muscle through any given situation. Every unit has a chance of killing every other - the player is just going to have to be very sneaky about it if the scales are not tipped his way. Tactical manoeuvres such as flanking, fire traps, pinning down pesky units, etc, are not only possible here, but actually integral to winning. Throwing troops at a situation after spending a quiet first half playing the capitalist will not work - just ask half the poor buggers buried in The Somme. Company of Heroes is a war game (the morals of enjoying which are on shaky grounds indeed, but that's a bleeding heart moan for another day) which means that there are no ineffectual basic troops, and the weapons at your command are absolutely murderous in what they can and will do to an exposed enemy target. The very first level set on the Normandy beaches will quickly disabuse the player of ideas of just storming the defences with enough man power, as clumsy open approaches will result in your troops being reduced to piles of bloody red ruin.
Company of Heroes is crunchy, in the way its predecessor showed us RTS could be. Weapons fire is frighteningly fast and devastating; cannons will fillet buildings and blow the unlucky inhabitants out the back windows like rag dolls, explosions flatten and deform terrain and anyone unlucky to be standing on it, and machine-guns fill streets and fields with genuinely intimidating roaring fire. This tactility and visceral response makes the plight of the little guys being sent into harms way much more real to the player than awkward hero or promotion systems such as attempted by Joint Task Force. Whereas Warhammer used the ability of making RTS truly thunderous into an over-the-top romp of cartoonish carnage, Company of Heroes uses it to make each unit precious and the battlefield quite a scary place indeed.
An important part of making the battle vibrant and terrible is of course the graphics, which are excellently implemented. There are quite a few degrees of detail you can have, dependant on how ninja your system is, but even on the etch-a-sketch settings in 800x600 resolution, it still looks fantastic. This is due in part to the intelligently implemented physics, the balance, and the attention to detail of every single units' every single animation, which - should it have been lacking - all the fancy textures in the world will not make up for. The sound too is carefully crafted, dynamically altering to terrain and surroundings, walking the line between the realistic and the stylised to deliver maximum impact. Company of Heroes just demands you go out and buy it a giant monitor and some really shiny surround speakers because, although it will not punish the modest, it will reward you for your system like few other games will.
'Attention to Detail' is extremely difficult to actually quantify when considering a game, and extremely boring to read about, because its...well, details. THQ and Relic have however polished their product until it shines, and the player will frequently notice new and deeply satisfying touches that allow the whole to really come together. If a unit is reporting to you its readiness or status whilst on-screen at the time, it will come through as normal speech, but pan away during and the voice will fuzz into tinny walkie-talkie distortion. I know - alone it wouldn't have exactly made my millennium either, but its safe to assume every nut, bolt and Nazi has been carefully considered before being put into operation.
Company of Heroes arguably shows off even more of its brilliant design in multiplayer than it does in the single player format. Whilst on-line play obviously does not have the carefully crafted set-pieces or tactical puzzles laid out by Relic, the computer AI rarely implements the excellent moves that the player will to gain victory. It's always more satisfying to make a fellow human suffer than your own PC, but its even better to successfully perpetrate sneaky distractions and pincer movements when your opponent is trying to do the same to you.
Company of Heroes is excellent; the best World War RTS ever made, and in many respects the best RTS in general. The only thing that stops me from unconditionally recommending it is that some folk still do like their RTS a little less intense, or with a bit more frivolity to the violence, and may still want to go for titles like Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends or Earth 2160. For the same reason Saving Private Ryan's battle scenes didn't make it an 'action movie' you can't really delight in the slaughter as much as you might want to in Company of Heroes, but you certainly can marvel at the carnage. One very surprising defect in the game that I can only assume will be addressed by the next patch is the AI of the tank drivers. The automatic responses of the ground troops are marvellous - hitting cover when drawing fire, adopting appropriate stances and arranging themselves around the terrain frequently in ways better than you could have done yourself. Behind the wheel, however, your troopers are immediately reduced to a level of idiocy not seen since the days of the Tiberium Harvester driver: entire planned blitzkriegs stalled because three truck drivers go for the same one-width opening at the same time and apparently then decided it a point of pride not to reverse when stuck. Additionally, the plot strung between missions is fairly inconsequential. Any other defects to be found are minute, and certainly disappear in comparison to the uniformly excellent quality of the game. Company of Heroes is superb; a perfect blend of intelligent strategy and powerful visceral action, delivering such a natural World War II experience you'll be left wondering if you're even allowed to enjoy it as much as you do.