Company of Heroes was released in 2006, and even if you missed it, the rest of the world took note. It pocketed Game of the Year awards from many respected sources and left fans wanting more. Relic and THQ responded and produced two expansion packs. Here we are four years later, sitting at the brink of the impending launch of Company of Heroes Online. How does it match up against the original titles as well as the rest of the free to play titles on the market?
Let’s start by picturing Company of Heroes as lemonade. Everyone likes it, but what if that‘s all you drank for a few years? It would get old. After looking around for an ingredient to spice it up, you find some tequila. Now you’ve got a hard lemonade; it maintains the essence of the original but adds an extra kick. That’s what THQ has done by creating Company of Heroes Online.
Players that download COHO are in for a treat: the entire single-player campaign from the original game is included and playable. All of the cut scenes and all of the missions are available. There doesn’t appear to be a quick save option, but I still lost an entire evening (and part of the morning) on the first few levels. The cinematic and emotional experience surprised me and made me want to find out what happened next. However, this preview isn’t about the lemonade in my illustration! So, how did COHO “kick it up a notch“?
They infused RPG elements into the multiplayer experience resulting in a complete overhaul of the core experience. Upon first loading COHO, you must create a commander. Choose between Axis and Allie, then decide on a specialty of infantry, air, or armor. It’s possible to have up to four different commanders so feel free to play around with what suits your style.
COHO holds your hand through the entire process, explaining each decision. It even advises you to play through the tutorial to gain familiarity with its mechanics. Don’t be fooled by it’s fast-paced action; this is a strategy game at heart and it’s surprisingly complex underneath the surface. That being said, I was extremely impressed with the tutorial levels. Each mission has a clear objective in mind and teaches at a comfortable pace.
Playing through the tutorials awards experience to your commander based on your performance. You’ll also unlock Heroes and Army Items. Heroes are unique in-game squads that possess a special set of abilities, whether it be a more effective attack or defense bonus (among other things). Army Items provide a special bonus to specific units. Did you think you’d be able to unlock special Heroes of each unit type and carry them all into a match? Think again and plan ahead because each mission only allows you to select a few Heroes and Army Items. Upon earning enough experience, your commander’s level will increase. Gaining levels increases not only your choice of Heroes but also the total number of Heroes and Army Items you can bring into a match. Don’t use them too fast, though. All Heroes and Army Items have charges that are used each time they are played in a match. Every time they are used in a match, the total number of charges available is reduced. Thankfully, using all of the charges doesn’t take the hero or item away only to force you to unlock them again. Rather, it just becomes unavailable until you’ve recharged the supply.
Earn enough in-game “Supply” and you’ll be able to use it as currency to recharge your items and heroes. COHO does have micro transactions so it’s possible to recharge them by purchasing THQ bucks with real-world money. THQ has promised to do everything to make it impossible to “purchase a win” so don’t expect massive game changers in the store. It will present time-savers and other bonuses, though, that will certainly prove helpful.
I haven’t even touched on the Commander Tree. In addition to Heroes and Army Items, your commander will gain abilities points to spend each time he gains a level. These abilities include artillery strikes, forward barracks (allowing you to recruit new squads closer to the battle), and more. Using ability points allows you to unlock new abilities as well as upgrading them to increase effectiveness and decrease cool-down times.
It sounds like a lot to leverage when planning an attack, right? To be frank, it is but a lot of help is provided along the way. COHO even encourages playing some skirmishes against AI opponents to sharpen your skills before jumping online. Finding an online game took no time at all with the automatic matchmaking. Players are encouraged to create a friends list and setup custom games by the easy-to-use tools available to do so. Matches range from one-on-one all the way up to four-on-four battles.
The core mechanics of COH havn’t changed, so expect to fight for control over key locations while earning three types of resources (manpower, fuel, munitions). It provides fast-paced action while not sacrificing any of the strategy. It also looks beautiful, too. With destructible buildings, vehicles and terrain and realistic physics, I couldn’t believe the graphics were four years old. However, I would expect nothing less from an almost 7 GB download.
I could write a novella about my delightful experience with Company of Heroes Online. THQ knows that the core game is solid. So, they’ve started with a firm foundation and have built an impressive online counterpart that mixes in RPG aspects with a stronger dose of overarching strategy. I can’t overstate how much fun I had with Company of Heroes Online. It made me want to keep playing, and it even made me want to purchase the original games. If the closed beta is any indication of the final product then wargamers, RTS-fans, and even the uninitiated have good reason to be anxious for its full release.