IGN Review of Company of Heroes
Company of Heroes is an excellent RTS. Relic is at the top of their game here and have set the bar high for any future World War II strategy titles and RTS games in general. Focusing on company level combat has allowed for lots of attention to detail, adaptable play, and fast action. Completely destructible environments are used to enhance gameplay and create some of the most satisfyingly war torn landscapes seen in video games. A fulfilling campaign, addictive gameplay, detailed visuals, and powerful use of sound make up a complete experience with very few problems. Real-time strategy fans would do well to pay attention to this game and, if they're not already, to the development house at Relic.
Anyone who has played Relic's most recent RTS hit Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War will understand the style of play here. The developers have simply improved on and adapted the rules of the previous game to fit the subject matter. Instead of simply grabbing generic resource points and constructing power generators, players will capture points (to raise their population cap and rate that manpower pours in), gather ammunition, and boost fuel supplies. Those three resources are what keep an army functioning. What's interesting is that the three resources can have pretty different applications: manpower is used in all unit and building construction, fuel is necessary to raise structures and purchase new vehicles, and ammunition is generally used to equip units with special weapons or activate special abilities on individual units like grenades or command tree abilities like air strikes. Maps often have larger amounts of certain types of resources making the way a mission progresses pretty unique.
Having three different capture points, all governing territories that are different shapes, creates a new level of strategy in all forms of the game. In order for one of these points to generate resources, it must be captured and connected back to the HQ territory via other friendly territories. If not, that resource is cut off and all benefits are denied. This gameplay mechanic comes into play more in skirmish and multiplayer, but does come into play in a few of the single player campaign missions.
The campaign in general is wonderfully designed and follows Able Company and Fox Company Paratroopers from the storming of Normandy to the defeat of the German 7th Army as Polish, Canadian, and US troops closed the Falaise Pocket. Fighting will take players from open roads and farming communities to the dangerous hedgerows of Hill 192 and tight city quarters of Cherbourg and St. Lo. Campaign missions are prefaced by excellent briefings that give a tiny history lesson and explain the situation using animatics and maps of France. Some striking in-engine cutscenes serve as bookends to most scenarios. The occasional mid-mission cut adds in extra detail. While usually unimportant to actual gameplay, they serve as exciting and rewarding intermissions mid-action.
Out of the 15 missions (which can take longer than you would imagine) there was only one I didn't particularly care for. Most of the missions are excellent and include objectives beyond the typical seek and destroy you find in so many RTS titles. Some missions will ask to capture and hold a road for a convoy while others charge with setting defenses against a German counterattack. Others still assign the duty of crushing lines of retreating Axis forces. Often times missions will begin with smaller objectives such as the capture of a forward base after which a mid-mission briefing will set up the action for the remainder of the scenario.
Maps are interesting, create real challenges for players (especially before tanks are available), and provide an amazing experience from start to finish. The difficulty of missions ramps up as some of the more complex gameplay mechanics are introduced piece by piece. Side objectives that aren't necessary to finish a mission also help to push the action forward by providing timed challenges or to kill a certain number of enemies (sometimes in a certain method). Completing these side missions provides medals that testify to your extreme bravery -- and your ability to use a keyboard and mouse effectively. By the end of the campaign, players should be ready to try their luck at some skirmish and multiplayer games.
Fans of multiplayer games will find Company of Heroes to be an exhilarating experience. The pace can be ruthless when battling against an aggressive opponent. Those interested in turtling behind stalwart defenses will soon have to consider other options. While defensive players aren't left behind, the style of defense is pretty different. Both the multiplayer and skirmish are all about fluidity and adaptability. While defensive play is an option, the idea of simply hunkering down and waiting out the storm just doesn't work. Resources are gathered by capturing points and are generally scarce enough towards the beginning of a game that stationary defenses only come late in the game when the attack really begins to push forward and some extra resources have been gathered to take advantage of that tactic. Instead, powerful mobile defenses such as anti-tank guns and heavy machine gun squads allow for fairly quick reaction to the ever-changing landscape of a Company of Heroes battle.
There's a couple of nice trade-offs to the high power of these mobile defense units. First, they have limited firing arcs so flanking maneuvers can be their undoing. They can be repositioned, but the time it takes the groups to pack up the weapon, move it to face a new direction, and set the weapon back up can be a killer against fast troops that can slip behind the firing arc yet again.
Players will also have to think in terms of where defenses are best used. Most maps have very few chokepoints once aggressive players with heavy armor start running through walls and clearing hedgerows. Picking and choosing the most important locations is important. Resource nodes with high production are important, as are the victory points that are used to decide winners and losers in the Battlefield 1942-like ticketed Victory Point Control mode. Players will also have to be careful to keep an eye on strategic points that the enemy could use to cut off resources from reaching the home base. Where resource and strategic points sit on the map and the shape of the territory they're in makes a big difference to which points are most important to claim victory.
That simply means players have to balance heavy weapons and tanks against the more defensive options. Company of Heroes really is about pushing into the enemy and moving the frontline forward and there are tons of awesome weapons to use, including some of the awesome Command Tree powers that include artillery strikes, immediate off-field troop deployments, fast attack bonuses, defensive bonuses, and so on.
Multiplayer is a natural team game that should develop into a hardcore competitive experience for those willing to put the time into mastering every detail. One on one can be a harrying experience right from the beginning, but Company of Heroes is built brilliantly as a team based experience. Three different command pathways on both the Axis and Allied sides allow organized teams to really begin considering all of the options available for attack, defense, and build order. Devoting players to different combinations of Command Trees can make a huge impact on gameplay.
It's likely that players will also develop a fondness for either the Axis or Allies because of their differences in build order, research, units, and Command Tree options. There are likely to be some balancing issues that come out after players have found and exploited holes that weren't totally noticeable (it always seems to happen) but for the most part the sides seem to be evenly stacked with cost opposing more power.
Skirmish runs on the same rules as multiplayer and the computer opponents (AI players are available for multiplayer matches as well) will provide all but the best of players with at least a decent challenge. The normal AI in Company of Heroes is significantly more dangerous than most RTSs in recent memory. Some of the difficulty lies in some of the micro-managing aspects where the AI is simply more efficient at keeping track of all of the intricacies of an ever-changing battlefield -- things like environment awareness and weapon assignment, for instance.
There's a lot to think about in this game and little time to do it. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the entire game is the necessary micromanagement of vehicle movement. While it's not always the case, moving two or more vehicles at the same time to a new location usually creates one hell of a traffic jam. Vehicles don't seem to have the AI routines that allow them to say "please, you first" so they all simply try to go to the same place all at once. It can be in an open field and they'll still just run into each other and get stuck, which you can imagine causes some serious problems in a massive tank brawl.
Similarly, tanks seem to have some problems understanding when to back up and when to turn around and drive away forward. They'll only back up over very small distances, even if you give them a facing direction when moving them, meaning they have to managed with care when under fire from tanks that can do more damage to rear armor than front armor. A toggle key that could make vehicles go in reverse to wherever they're assigned over any distance would be key. I'd like to be able to reverse a tank all the way from one end of the map to the other if necessary. It's curious that this should happen considering the impressive work done with infantry AI.
While the overall skirmish and multiplayer experiences are definitely fun, there are some things missing that would have been nice to see. Options for different player colors is chief among them. Knowing which of your teammates is off in the corner diddling themselves is impossible since all allied players are yellow. All enemy forces in one color isn't as bothersome, but it really would have been nice to be able to distinguish allies. It also would have been nice to have some more gameplay options such as removal of certain weapons for infantry-only experiences. It's also notable, though understandable, that there is no option for a free-for-all melee. It's strictly an Axis vs. Allies experience among any number of players.
Outside of gameplay mechanics, there's very little to say that's remotely negative. Aside from a framerate that could pose a potential problem for gamers without the best rig (and sometimes for those with a very powerful rig), the game is a visual spectacle. The detail that went into everything on the battlefield is extreme, especially when taking the massive destruction into account. Infantry units are brilliantly detailed and wonderfully animated. Vehicles are powerful and have great attention to detail as well. Explosions, dust clouds, flamethrower streams and all other battlefield effects are incredibly effective in conveying the craziness of battle and provide an insanely frantic environment to play in that looks strikingly different at the end of a battle than it did at the beginning.
While sound is often the last thing that RTS players will notice to rave about, Relic has made it an integral part of their version of frontline warfare. It's loud and frantic and anyone with a great audio system or headphones capable of delivering some power should plan to lock themselves in a room and let the sounds of battle surround them. There's something really exciting about hearing the first crack of gunfire in the distance during a multiplayer game after the initial quiet on the battlefield. Once artillery, machine gun troops, and especially tanks make it out onto the turf, the sound gets serious. There's not any easy way to describe the powerful sound of a line of Stugs, Panzers, and Panthers laying into an equally strong group of Wolverines, Shermans, and Pershings. Unit acknowledgements are lively as well, with no holds barred on the language used. The chatter never becomes old or annoying and actually helps identify different situations in a game.
Outside of the battlefield, voice work is all solid in cutscenes and wonderful in the pre-mission briefings. Likewise, the musical score put together by industry veteran Jeremy Soule is fitting on all occasions.
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