Last time I wrote about Company of Heroes, all I had to go on was a personal demonstration given by a Relic designer on the E3 show floor. This time around, I’ve been happily clicking away at both the recently released single and multiplayer betas. It’s safe to say that the real-time strategy genre is back with a carpet-bombed sized vengeance.
Set in a gritty rendition of World War II, Company of Heroes is surprisingly fresh feeling. Why? Well, maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t feature generic sci-fi marines, glub cartoon orcs, or “race for the goldmine” gameplay. Instead, look forward to a cross between the small group management of WarCraft 3 and the explosion filled fun of Command & Conquer: Generals.
Fans of Relic’s Dawn of War will feel right at home with COH’s unique resource system. Gone are the days of peons digging shiny-stuff from the ground. Instead currency (ammunition, fuel, and strategic pts) is earned by command of key map points. This focuses combat around a rough “front” which will be new to those used to battling over scattered mineral deposits. Don’t worry you’ll grow to like it.
Things that impressed me at E3, like how soldiers automatically moved to cover, have proved instrumental to the “fun factor” of COH. For example, in other games, tanks can be defeated by infantry if you put enough of them in the line of fire, but in Company of Heroes tanks can’t be defeated with small arms. So when you see a Panzer tank roll into your territory… the little hairs on the back of your neck will be in full freak out mode.
Like C&C: Generals experience points earned on the battlefield is spent on unique on-demand special abilities. Both sides have three tech-trees to choose from. These break down into specialties for armor, infantry, and depending on which side you’re playing as either Allied Airborne or Axis Propaganda abilities. My personal favorite thus far has been the Allied infantry based specialty; mostly for the off-screen artillery barrage.
If you’re a fellow fan of big explosions, you’re going to love Company of Heroes almost as much as I do. Everything in the world is vulnerable to the long arm of Ross’ artillery… buildings crumble, mortars carve craters, fire burns snipers out of their nests, and walls flatten under the treads of Axis produced tanks.
After watching things go boom for a few weeks, I’ve started thinking not in terms of “these guys will protect me,” but rather “if I lure them down this alley he’ll be vulnerable to cross fire.” Ok, maybe this came after I boned up on WWII-era tactics by watching the History Channel.
Perhaps it was the first time I watched a shell from my Sherman tank bounce off an Axis tank like a rubber ball that I started to re-evaluate all the possible meanings of “no discernable effect.” Over several online matches, and numerous replays of the single-player beta I’ve found nothing but rock solid fun. The strategy that destructible cover, intelligent AI, and authentic-ish WWII settings brings to the RTS genre can’t be stressed enough.
Part of this is due to how maps are divided up into small sectors. Control is earned by capturing the resource point located within the sector. This is very similar to Relic’s Dawn of War, but for some reason it feels more natural when set in WWII than in Warhammer 40k. Supply lines force players to capture connecting sectors if they want to build a unit-producing barrack on the front lines. Again, this is just another gameplay mechanic that gives combat a sharp strategic focus not often seen in RTS games.
Everything I’ve been playing has been great, and I’m looking forward to the September 14th, 2006 release with a level of anticipation that’s been all to rare this last year. Is it too soon to start polishing up that “RTS Game of the Year Award?”
Last Update: 7/18/06
The Basics: From the studio that brought you PC Gamer's 1999 Game of the Year, Homeworld, the innovative Impossible Creatures, and the fanboy favorite Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War comes the culmination of almost a decade of RTS genre blending/innovating/redefining: Company of Heroes. Built from the ground up on Relic's next-gen "Essence" engine COH is set to feature real-world physics, completely destructible environments, advanced squad AI, and cut-throat multiplayer modes for up to eight of your friends.
Beyond all of these nifty buzzwords is a game world set NOT set in some former-utopia sci-fi realm, orc filled fantasy land, or even semi-futuristic real-world military conflicts. Instead the RTS genre is getting a solid game set during WWII. And it must be solid to garner the kind of critical praise it's been receiving.
What we think: From the start I couldn't help but feel like I was back at the Brothers in Arms booth except now viewing the action from an overhead perspective. This might have something to do with how impressive the squad AI was when moving through the environments was, taking care of itself under fire, and bringing the fight to our enemies. The little things like the way the soldiers move near cover automatically and dive out the line of fire, rather than stand still and return fire are why COH had me at, "Hello, Mr. Unfriendly German Soldier."
Once we got done being blown away by how smoothly the average grunt moves around the environments we were treated to an impressive demonstration of how much destruction you can unleash. While other RTS games I've seen lately promise the ability blow things up, only COH simulates these explosions down to the individual floors in a multi-story building. Watching grenades remove the floor under the feet of a sniper was certainly enough to get me onboard the COH hype train, but I was truly stunned when units then automatically moved into the remains of the building for cover.
On the non-pyrotechnic side were some interesting strategic elements. Maps are divided up into smaller sections. It reminded us at first of Dawn of War's command points, or even the recently released Star Wars: Empires at War. However, Relic has taken the gameplay mechanic a step forward by introducing the idea of "supply lines" into the mix. This encourages players to capture connecting pieces of the map in order to build reinforcements on the battlefield.
The way resources work resembles a mixture of other recent RTS games, and I'm the first to thank Relic for helping put another nail in the coffin of the resource-harvesting gameplay mechanic. The three resources (munitions, fuel, and command points) work in tandem to keep players from cranking out huge armies quickly, instead putting the focus on careful selection of units that work well together. In practice it feels a lot like Dawn of War only now it's easier to understand because it's based on real-world concepts.
Going into this year's E3 show, some of us at GotNext were starting to feel more than a little bummed by the continual stagnation of the real-time strategy genre, but we were all surprised by the strides being taken by THQ to move the genre forward. Along with Supreme Commander, we're now looking forward to Company of Heroes with great anticipation.
Online Playtest:Everything I've played has been great, and I'm looking forward to the September 11th, 2006 release with newly minted anticipation.