Reviewed: October 2, 2006
Released: September 11, 2006
THQ and Relic, the creative team behind Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War and The Outfit are back and better than ever as they breathe new life into the WWII RTS genre in Company of Heroes. Just when you thought this historic war and type of strategy game has been played out, Relic smacks you in the face with some of the most intense battles and amazing gameplay I have ever experienced in my 15 years of gaming.
I’m a huge fan of just about any genre of war game, but like any gamer I do have my preferences, and I tend to lean toward squad-based tactical games like Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six or the strategic Full Spectrum Warrior games; basically games that blend control and action. Typically, RTS games give you command over huge armies and spread your focus too thin for my taste, but Company of Heroes takes the genre down a notch by focusing on combat at a company level.
By reducing the scope of the gameplay, you will now find a whole new level of detail, allowing for more dynamic gameplay, situational awareness, and the ability to act and react much faster than any other RTS games and see the results of those actions almost immediately. That, combined with some of the best presentation values and gameplay elements ever seen in the genre puts Company of Heroes at the top of a very short list of personal RTS favorites.
Fans of the aforementioned Warhammer game will instantly feel right at home with the gameplay mechanics in Company of Heroes. Obviously a few things have changed as we are now rooted in historic warfare rather than science fiction, but the core rules are still present. For those who never played Warhammer or are relatively new to the RTS genre, the informative and intuitive tutorial is one of the best learning tools I’ve ever seen implemented in a game of this type. It's probably even a good idea for RTS veterans.
One of my pet peeves with the RTS genre in whole is the ritual of resource management - the collection and processing of raw materials to actually play the game. I realize it’s a necessary component of the genre but that doesn’t make me enjoy it any more. Warhammer took the focus off resource management and put it back on actual gameplay and Company of Heroes continues that tradition at an even greater level.
You only have to deal with three resources in Company of Heroes; Manpower, Munitions, and Fuel. All three of these are generated by Resource Points that you must capture and maintain control of during the missions. Manpower obviously dictates the number of units you can build and deploy, whereas fuel is required to build vehicles, buildings, and global upgrades. Munitions are used to upgrade your weapons and create special units with special abilities. All three of these resources are constantly on the rise as long as you control one or more resource points. The more points the greater the flow of resources allowing you to build more units and build them faster.
Rather than controlling entire armies, your base unit in Company of Heroes is a squad made up of several soldiers who all respond to your orders as a group. You can upgrade your squads mid-mission and reinforce them with new men if somebody gets killed in action. You can also create specialty units like the sniper that actually do exist as a lone entity on the battlefield.
Commanding your men is quite intuitive using a combination of mouse and keyboard inputs to scroll and zoom the map right down to action game closeness. The menu and mini-map on the bottom provide instant access to all information you need. Simple mouse input moves and positions your men or orders them to attack. There is also a new “facing” option that allows you to set your men, turrets, and even vehicles to face a certain direction. The resulting cone of awareness indicates what the units will see and react to.
Something seldom addressed in RTS games is the element of protective cover. In Company of Heroes you have light and heavy cover or your units can be totally exposed. Obviously, the amount of cover dictates how much damage your men will take, and you are free to build your own cover, such as sandbag walls, etc. Strategic use of cover as well as suppressive fire and flanking techniques are an important part of the gameplay.
Another interesting feature is the inclusion of territory. The overall mission map is broken up into various sizes and shapes, almost like a puzzle. You’ll want to capture and hold resource points in adjacent territories for valuable resource bonuses. Of course, the inverse of this is true as well, and you can strategically capture a middle-territory from the enemy to disrupt their supply lines. This feature comes into play more in multiplayer games than the solo campaign, but there are a few solo missions that focus on territory.
Company of Heroes rewards you for keeping your men alive. It’s all too easy in many of these RTS games to simply throw thousands of troops at the enemy like human bullets, building more when they die. In this game your men earn battle experience during combat and as they gain veterancy they become more effective in battle and gain access to improved weapons and abilities.
The Company Commander is yet another great feature. As you rack up XP by killing enemy troops, destroying structures, and capturing and holding territory, you can spend some of those points on special command actions. The Allies can upgrade infantry to Ranger status, or perform off-map artillery strikes, or you might want to upgrade your airborne division to include paratroopers, supply drops, or devastating air strikes. You can even upgrade your armor division gaining access to some of the most powerful tanks in WWII.
The Axis Company Commander has similar tech trees and upgrade structures allowing for improved artillery, reinforcement bonuses, and even an ingenious propaganda attack. If you can make it to the end of the Axis tech tree you will find a very lethal Tiger Ace Tank and the devastating VI Rocket waiting for you.
Looking at the bigger pictures, Company of Heroes offers a substantial and totally captivating campaign that follows Able and Fox Companies from the storming of the beaches in Normandy to the defeat of the Germans at the Falaise Gap, and numerous historic battles in-between. What stood out for me, beyond the historical accuracy that borders on being educational, was just how interesting it was to play missions that are quite similar to events in other games like Call of Duty 3, but playing them as an RTS rather than an FPS. Seeing these battles unfold from “above” gives you a much greater perspective and tactical awareness. After all, how many of us have stormed the beaches at Normandy at least 2-3 times in their lifetime, but I guarantee you’ve never done it like this.
The campaign is quite engaging thanks to wonderful cutscenes that bookend the missions as well as little moments within the game where the camera will zoom in for seamlessly transitioned scripted moments to further the story and gameplay. If nothing else, it gives you time to catch your breath. There are 15 missions in all, each with numerous objectives and fairly open-ended gameplay, allowing you some creative tactical freedom in figuring out how to approach each target.
The gameplay evolves with the campaign, so you are introduced to more interesting (and powerful) units as the game progresses. Missions also include secondary goals that, while not necessary for completing the main missions, will earn you valuable medals and extreme bragging rights. These side missions are often timed challenges and are extremely difficult. All of these missions and challenging objectives are placed on some extremely complex and totally destructible maps that are so captivating you will become totally immersed in the entire WWII experience.
Company of Heroes delivers a solid multiplayer experience for up to 8 players, either online or LAN. Again, I’m not as fluent in online RTS games as other genres, but I have played my share and the one major thing I did notice (and appreciate) was that the core design of this game encourages players to actually fight. In past games I’ve seen too many people take the defensive posture, build up their walls and turrets and armies and wait for somebody to strike first. In this game your resources are determined by your territory and the number of captured resource points, so you will have to crawl out of your cave eventually if you hope to compete.
Another interesting dynamic is just how different the Axis and Allies play from each other. Normally you get a visual facelift and some weapon tradeoffs but in Company of Heroes the differences are much greater and go deep into the gameplay, right down to build order, research, and the tech trees. The two sides are still remarkably balanced, so there is no advantage to playing one over the other, but there is a substantial time investment required to get proficient with any one side, making it harder to switch between the two on a whim.
Company of Heroes will certainly reward those gamers who have invested in a superior video card. My GeForce 7800 card managed to provide an suitable gameplay experience, but it was only after I upgraded to a 7950GX2 that the game really shined. At high resolutions and high detail, this game blasts off the screen, and you can take the camera in so close you’ll think you are playing an action title.
In fact, if I had any complaint about this game it would be that it is so good looking you tend to play it from a camera angle that is too close. I was constantly taking hits from off-screen enemies not realizing that my camera was pushed in. The game is simply stunning with so many WOW moments, I wish there was a mission replay mode so I could watch the game over again and choose my camera angles.
The level of architectural and texture detail combine to bring the maps to uncanny life, and everything in this game is destructible so the maps change often and in some disturbing ways. The ground scars from battle and the artillery strike effect will leave your jaw hanging. Dirt and rubble are everywhere and the ground is frequently stained with the blood of fallen soldiers.
The men are extremely detailed and carefully animated so when you do dip that camera in for a close-up view you will see all their gear, wrinkled uniforms, dirty helmets, and lifelike movement. Vehicles share the same level of detail, out of the garage and in various stages of smoking destruction. Buildings catch on fire, crumble into bricks and splintered wood, or turn into smoking shells with enough firepower.
Destruction is only half the game and the build animations for many of the units are extremely fun and detailed – not that you should spend much time watching them. Once these structures are completed there are all sorts of nice details and animations that bring them to life, and even more animation when you upgrade or reinforce them.
The HUD is large, but no pixel is wasted on needless information. The mini-map, command points, resource management, troop selectors, and ability icons are all intuitive, colorful, and fit with the military theme of the game. On-screen indicators, shaded visions cones, selection circles, and objective indicators all look great and overlay nicely with the realistic environments.
Special effects are in full force with amazing particle explosions, volumetric dust and smoke, and some red hot fire effects for the flamethrower and resulting burning buildings. Lighting is outstanding, creating realistic shadows and moody nighttime situations, and there is some amazing fabric effects on flags and especially the fluttering parachutes when reinforcements drop in.
Company of Heroes delivers a solid musical score during the opening movie, as well as menus, mission briefings, and other cutscenes. Once you get into the thick of battle though, Jeremy Soule’s stirring music gets traded in for some of the best audio effects this side of Call of Duty.
Those of you with a high-end audio system (Audigy, X-Fi) are going to literally be blown away by the all-encompassing surround sound that puts you in the middle of some of the most intense battles you might ever experience. The realism of the gunfire, powerful explosions, the throaty rumble of tanks, the hum of a plane overhead, and countless other subtle noises bring this game to all new levels of audio excellence. I actually had to back my sub-woofer down a notch after the artillery strike in the tutorial.
There is some quality dialogue added to the presentation, both in the cutscenes and narration as well as mid-mission yelling (what Call of Duty calls “battle chatter”). It’s an odd yet realistic mix of English and German shouts mixed with periods of silence followed by sustained bursts of gunfire. Take it from somebody who has been in real combat, this is just how it sounds.
The 15 campaign missions will take at least 20-25 hours to complete, and if you plan on tackling all those side missions and earning all the medals you can probably double that estimate. The campaign is good enough and with the non-linear gameplay you can easily play this game a second or even third time through, possibly on a higher difficulty setting.
By the time you finish the campaign you should be ready to compete with the online community in some highly competitive team and skirmish modes. The online element of Company of Heroes takes this game to a whole new level, and you can find thousands of people playing daily. And judging from the success of this title, even after only a month on shelves, we can certainly expect an expansion down the road. Enlist now or get left behind.
Before playing Company of Heroes I was pretty much a weekend warrior when it came to RTS games, but thanks to Relic’s wonderful attention to detail, the inclusion of so many subtle tactical nuances, and the non-invasive resource management I am a fully converted RTS junkie…at least when it comes to this game.
Building upon the impressive Warhammer engine and tweaking it for historic warfare, Company of Heroes is easily the best strategy game of 2006 and sets the bar extremely high for future RTS titles. If you are a gamer who enjoys history, WWII, strategy, or just quality gaming, then you’ll be in good company with Company of Heroes.