Company of Heroes

Review

posted 10/23/2006 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
Relic Entertainment's a veteran of RTS games. With such hits as Homeworld and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War under their belt, they have the experience to deliver a winner. Their latest one is another feather in their cap of RTS games. While there's a crowded market of WWII games, you should check out Company of Heroes even if it's a familiar theme. The game's just spectacular and a very welcome addition to the RTS line.

Company of Heroes is an incredible looking RTS with some great features. There are two sides in this game: Axis and Allies. Each side does has some differences such as the building tree, vehicles, and soldier types. As with most games, you'll probably gravitate towards one side more than another when playing multiplayer games. In the single player game, you'll be commanding troops in Fox Company and Able Company. Intermixed into the missions will be cut scenes that tell the story of the two as you progress through the game. The cut scenes are done very well and will sometimes transition right into the game's traditional overhead view.

You command squads instead of individuals in this game. When you select one person, you're really selecting an entire squad of soldiers so you don't micromanage your troops as much in this game. Troops can gain experience if you keep them alive long enough and as time goes by, they will become more effective. Should troops perish in the squad, you can replenish them provided that you have enough resources. You can also upgrade some of the troops abilities and weapons. The AI in the game is well done so you won't have troops that just sit out on the open field. They'll run and take cover as well as return fire when need be. I've played plenty of games where I had to babysit a squad but I didn't need to do it as much in this game as they do well to take care of themselves. There are times where you'll need to tell them to retreat but for the most part the squad AI on both sides work out pretty well.

Cover is an important aspect in Company of Heroes if you want to stay alive. As you move your squads around, you'll see colored dots indicting where the soldier is going to station himself as well as how well they will be covered. Yellow dots are light cover while green dots are heavy cover. Different objects in the world offer different amounts of cover. When a red shield appears above them that means they are pinned down and under heavy fire. You can pretty much count them out at this point and don't expect them to return much fire. When you see this, you should probably tell them to retreat and watch them run back to the base and hope there aren't more casualties as they are retreating.

Relic has done a good job at balancing out the different types of units. Even tanks aren't going to have a cake walk over infantry as updated infantry can take them out as well. If you position them right such as the sides or rear of the tank, they'll be able to do heavy damage quickly. The way the machine gun squads work is pretty cool. These guys, when setup, have an arc that they can fire. Of course, they can't fire behind them but you can change that by holding down the right mouse button on them and dragging them to the direction you want them to face. You'll see an overlay of where the machine gun squad will cover so you can easily determine what area your guys will open fire on. This takes time so in the amount of time the squad dismantles and setup up again your enemy might be quick enough to flank you thereby rendering your new position useless.. Snipers can devastate ground troops if they're well covered but can do little against armored vehicles and aren't good at close combat. Each unit has their strengths and weaknesses and it's this combination of tactics and unit abilities that really make Company of Heroes a fun strategic game.

Besides soldiers, the game features a few vehicles as mentioned earlier. The Allies have a jeep, halftrack, armored car, a few tanks, and a calliope which is a rocket enabled tank. Tanks, like troops, can also be upgraded. For example, one of the tanks can be outfitted with a bulldozer to take out the dragon teeth that prevent them from advancing. There's also an upgrade to remove landmines. The Axis also have the same vehicle variety except that the jeep is replaced by a motorcycle. There aren't any air vehicles but the Allies can call in a P47 to bombard an area. The way you are facing with tanks is very important as your front armor on your tanks is the heaviest so you always want to face that forward towards enemy fire. If the enemy flanks around you, you can easily change the direction you are facing by using the same technique as changing the direction the machine gunners face. One of the strategies in the game is to fire upon enemy vehicles in the rear where the armor is weakest. By maneuvering around the enemy and changing direction, you can position yourself better in taking them out.

There are fifteen missions overall and they do take a bit of time to complete. With each mission are various sub-missions that once completed will move you onto the next. There are also some side missions that aren't vital to finishing the game but will help aide you. It's a gamble to see if you want to try and complete them and minimize the resources lost since they aren't required. The variety in the main missions are there including defending points, capturing areas, and annihilation of the enemy line. The missions can take a lot of time but and the break between sub-missions is nice to settle yourself down. There are plenty of times where things can get really hectic for long stretches and the difficulty does ramp up quickly. This game doesn't give you many breaks and so be prepared to be challenged even at the normal difficulty level.

Resources are a staple of all RTS games and Company of Heroes features three. First of all, there's manpower which lets you create more troops. The munitions resource determines whether you can do such things as throw grenades as well as upgrades. Finally, fuel is used to generate vehicles. All three regenerate over time and you can see the rate of regeneration based on certain factors in the game. Different aspects of the game generate different resources as well. Capturing ammunition points will bring you a steady supply of munitions. You can increase the amount of munitions that are given to you over time as well by building outposts. A very cool part of the game is that even if you do capture a resource point, you won't actually receive resources unless the region it is in is connected to your base. You must have a line of regions connected to the resource to receive the benefits, sort of like a supply line. One of the strategies, of course, is to cut off the supply line and you can be sure the enemy will find weak spots to exploit and diminish your returns.

The battlefield contains the usual obstacles such as foliage, fences, and buildings. The buildings aren't worthless though and like in the Command & Conquer: Generals, you can garrison some buildings giving your troops better cover. Garrisoned buildings can really provide some great defenses and be equally deadly to foot soldiers. The engine does a nice job at showing soldiers opening windows and opening fire on the troops below from garrisoned buildings. You can setup sandbags and land mines to fortify your positions but expect the enemy to take them down. The dynamically changing battlefield helps give some variety in the missions if you replay over them and it does a good job in changing the way the game plays each time even if it's very little. What you see on the field though can instantly be gone as the war progresses. You can literally level everything to the ground once it's all said and done.

Since this is an RTS, things can get hectic and this is where the left side of the screen comes in handy. When events such as one of your squads taking fire happen, it appears on the left side and events can queue up there if they happen within a quick time frame of each other. You can easily get to the action by clicking on the icon associated with said event. Trust me, you'll want to keep an eye on the left side when you hear the audible cues so that you can help take care of business.

If you're a veteran of RTS games, you'll easily become accustomed to the controls. I haven't really been into RTS games in quite some time, since Command & Conquer: Generals to be exact. It's nice to be able to dive into the game and have familiar control schemes such as setting squads to be a certain number key and using the keyboard to navigate the build menus. It's this familiarity that enabled me to jump into the game quickly and be comfortable controlling it. Mastering the build keys is a must as with most RTS games, you have to be efficient and quick to achieve success.

The game does feature a very nice tutorial spread out in four subjects that gets you up to speed in the nuances of Company of Heroes. You'll learn various basic commands from controlling your squad to building various structures and commanding vehicles. The instructions were presented in a very easy to follow fashion and fun as well. If you aren't that familiar with RTS games or want to play without reading the manual, the tutorial does a great job getting you up to speed.

The graphics in Company of Heroes are top notch for an RTS game. The level of detail in the characters, vehicles, and environment really breath life into the game. Watching the soldiers run, dive, and open fire is a visual treat. The models are equally as impressive as the animation and the textures are of high quality. The war torn field can change as well with destructible environments and deformable terrain. The changing of the terrain can add some variety to replayed missions as the battlefield will most likely not be the same if you replay the mission a few times. Explosions finish with a nice cloud of dust. Watch as buildings come crumbling down as you put a few shells into it. Since it's a 3D engine, you'll get the great visuals as you pan the camera around. The designs and architecture throughout the game look very authentic. The amount of detail in Company of Heroes really catches your eye and it does provide some of the most impressive visuals for an RTS game out there currently.

Physics are in play and you'll see it a lot throughout the game. One of the great moments I had was shooting a mortar shell into a building and seeing a Nazi soldier slide out of the window and fall down the side of the building. Soldiers will flip in the air from large artillery striking them. Vehicles will slide out of control and crash with great veracity flinging soldiers out the sides. Combined with the impressive graphics, you get some great eye candy for Company of Heroes.

Sound for Company of Heroes are really well done. Gunfire, explosions, and vehicle movement contain the "punch" that's needed to enhance what's on screen. When things heat up, you'll feel like you're right in the middle of the fight with all the great sounds coming from your speakers. Those with 5.1 surround sound are in for a treat. The voice acting isn't too bad as well with the soldiers shouting at each other with what's going on. One nice little touch is when troops are sneaking around, they'll acknowledge you with a whisper. This is one game you want to crank your speakers up to experience the high quality sound.

There are aspects of the game that I do find annoying. For starters the vehicle pathfinding needs some work. I've had a few instances where one of my squadmates was standing in front of the tank and the tank just sat there even though I was giving them a move order. A move of the squad a little bit freed up the tank. When commanding a few vehicles at a time, this can get rather frustrating. Now imagine you're in a middle of a firefight and need to quickly position your vehicles only to see them stand still blocking each others path. That's when you really see the problem and in RTS games, you can't spend time micro-managing vehicles and look to win. Hopefully a patch can be issued soon to upgrade the vehicle AI.

If you want to play online with your friends, make sure you guys aren't using a router. Each person will need their own IP address as the way the multiplayer component is designed in Company of Heroes doesn't support multiplayer gaming via NAT. Given today's networking environment, I found this decision to be pretty poor. If you got a few roommates with the game and they want to play online together, you're going to be sorely disappointed. I certainly hope that a patch comes out so that NAT users are able to enjoy the game online as a group. Until then you're pretty much stuck at LAN as the only option to play with your buddies.

You'll need a beefy machine to run this game though and even the most powerful machines can slow down with all the graphics turned on high. On my AMD64 4000+ with 2 gig of ram and a WinFast PX7900 GS card, the game ran very well with moderate to high settings. The minimum requirements dictate a 2GHz CPU so that in turn should tell you you'll need something with some horsepower if the minimum, not recommended, is 2GHz. If you do have the machine to run the game with a lot of settings, you'll be treated to some great graphics.

I'll admit, I was surprised at how great a game Company of Heroes is. Having not been to a few trade shows and only really reading about the game a few weeks prior to launch, I was delighted at how much fun I had with the game. Besides the incredible looking engine, the gameplay offers some great control over your squads and the action is fast and furious. Company of Heroes is a great pickup and if they can get the NAT issue fixed as well as the vehicle path finding issues, you got an almost instant classic in the RTS line here. I'm really psyched to see if they continue expanding the series in adding sea and air vehicles to control so let's hope this game does well and we see more Company of Heroes in the future.




A
Simply an awesome game that really takes the WWII RTS to a new standard. Just make sure you have a nice machine to run the game.