Year of Release: 2006, 2007, 2009
I’m not that good at games. Seriously I’m not. Despite spending ~70% of my life taking part in virtual conflicts, I’m very rarely at the top (or above the middle) of the leaderboards in anything. This is one exception to this which is the Strategy genre and though I try to say this is due purely to my own skill and hours spent poring over military history books, it could be more that I played a lot of strategy games over the years. And the king of RTS for me is the World War 2 game from Relic (aka the King of RTS), Company of Heroes.
Company of Heroes is the World War 2 we know from history, film and nearly every other game ever made – that is to say, Allies invade Normandy (cue much running up beaches), Germans are quite good but lacking in numbers, Germans retreat back to their homeland, Allies win. All three of the games feature a small amount of story but its nothing more in depth than than some of the side stories in Band of Brothers to add a bit of reason behind your war. However these sequences are in a combination of ingame engine and some beautiful hand drawn painted scenes which are rather striking. The missions in the campaign are all pretty good, but I have a slight issue with them. The better missions are the earlier ones that feature no base building and are all about micromanaging the units under your control. It feels more like the war films its trying to emulate rather than just another RTS.
Of course, you aren’t buying CoH for the story or even the singleplayer, you’re buying it for the multiplayer (or skirmish) explosions and things. The basic concepts are simple - you build a base, tech up to buy better units before crushing your opponents. However, there are subtle differences to other, earlier RTS games. Instead of mining ore or cutting down trees, you instead capture various manpower, munitions and fuel points to gain the associated resources rate. This can be increased by securing them which also makes it a pain for the enemy to capture. The way of doing this depends on the army (see below) and this variation leads varying tactics depending on your opponent. This capture points also play a part in one of the modes know as Victory Points, which plays a bit like Battlefield with the two sides fighting over the flags as the side with the most points in their control starting to erode the opponent’s points count. It leads to excellent moments as you frantically hold of the enemy for the last few seconds as the points enter single figures. As well as the resources to buy units and buildings, you also gain experience to unlock various abilities. These vary depending on army and chosen command tree but include such things as calling in Tiger tanks, dropping bombing runs on your opponent or even just making your artillery guns fire a tiny bit further. As you’d expect, the more powerful ones appear later in the tree so don’t expect the big guns at the start of the game. Similarly the call ins and powers cost a load in all the resources leading to players bankrupting themselves by calling in a literal army of Paratroopers (annoying but stick in a load of machine guns and bye bye Captain Winters)
The armies that came with the original game (USA and Wehrmacht) are almost mirror images of each other. They share a similar model for building (apart from one or two differing requirements), unit production and resource securing making them good for a game focused more on skill than using the army differences. That said though the differences are apparent. The US Army looks like its on the move with all the buildings looking like they are put up in a hurry and based around tents mainly as opposed to the concrete armoured structure of the Wehrmacht. Every infantry unit has more members than their Germany counterparts but are also cheaper – however each trooper is slightly less effective. German tanks are also more expensive but better out the gate. Each side also gets its experience and improves slightly differently – The Americans gain experience through combat with each level improving them little by little while the Germans research it to represent Eastern Front veterans being moved to counter the Allied assault just like in real history. Overall this balancing act of keeping the two sides equal has done well, leading to games requiring skill rather than just spamming one unit.
However, in Opposing Fronts, Relic added 2 sides that slightly pushed the balance out of alignment by adding two asymmetrical sides. The British have only three base buildings, but they are all moveable trucks. These are the only buildings that can secure resource points so they are constantly moving to find the high value points in order to get the most resources. This is both a blessing and a curse to the player as you troops are produced closer to the fight but leaves you more vulnerable should the Germans break through. The Brits also rely on their officers. For infantry, these is felt in two ways; without an officer they can’t move at full speed and fight less effectively when attacking. Officers correct both these problems and grant bonus to offensive (if its lieutenant) or defensive (if its a captain). The British guys can also build trenches which help your defence but can be a right pain to shift guys out if your plucky Tommies get overrun by the Hun.
The Panzer Elite are all about speed and capturing points quickly. They have little variety in the infantry department, so much of what you are building is simply tons of vehicles. Most of them hit like a ton of bricks but are actually quite weak, mainly because most are halftracks with various guns on them. This makes the PE the side than need the most micromanagement. They also have a difference in the way experience is gained, as at each level you choose whether to focus on attack of defence. The panzer elite also get some pretty cool call in units like the German paratroopers who carry machine guns, can camouflage and can appear from any building on the map.
Company of Heroes feels at its most pure in multiplayer. Rather than extra rules, the game either focuses on simple annihilation or the more popular Victory Point modes which require a bit more planning. The ebb and flow of a Victory Point game leads to sudden crescendos of action as you suddenly have to shift from defending one point to trying to break through a sudden frontline. The back end server stuff (called Relic Online) seems to work rather well with the full set of ranking features. However, the automatch is full of people using some of the cheapest tricks available so it is best to just play with friends or take a look through the game list. Also many players unfortunately pump the detail up, which can lead to some performance related lag.
Company of Heroes is still a very good looking game four years after release. The level of detail present of the characters is astonishing for a game of it scale, with each tank having most of the rivets on display. It also was one of the first games to take full advantage of DX10, with its soft explosions and dynamic lighting making it look even better. Some of the best parts comes from the environmental effects such as the raging storm used on some maps with its crashes of thunder outlining your troops as they move around. I should point out the game isn’t above using gore with certain weapons (such as the Mine Flail) ripping bodies apart, sending arms, legs and torsos flying. The game does have a remarkably filled out physics engine for a strategy game, with ragdolls for the troops and obstacles scattering as tanks drive through piles of rubble. It really adds to the immersion when a Tiger tank comes round a corner and proceeds to barrel through a wall, a fountain and then a small wooden house. Add to this a stellar soundtrack and a set of really good sound effects and this is one of the best overall World War 2 experiences available to those not interested in the gameplay of a first person shooter.
As well as adding two armies, Opposing Fronts also added in two short campaigns. These are half the length of the original game’s 12 mission single player but make up for in in their mission design. The British one takes place around Caen and requires you to do a range of tasks with a selection of skills, from infiltrating a German Airbase to defending a foothold in Caen itself from wave after wave of Germans. The German tale is slightly more emotional, focusing on two brothers during Operation Market Garden. I don’t think they are quite as enjoyable as the original game, but act as a good introduction to the new sides for online players.
Tales of Valour didn’t add any new sides but it did add 3 mini-campaigns, several new game modes and some optional units for multiplayer. These new units replace existing units and give them slightly different abilities but for a similar role. For example, the M17 is a faster and more heavily armoured version of the M10 but it mounts a less powerful gun. Each side gets two and get mix up multiplayer, adding an element of surprise to see what the enemy wheels out, especially with the British armoured transports as they completely change the British style of play. The new campaigns are all based on hero play with only one or two units under your control at a time. The Tiger Ace is the best, with the slow increase of your tanks power by levelling up each crewman until you have a truly elite crew capable of crashing through buildings and firing 88mm rounds at super speed. Causeway has two teams of Airborne and is pretty fun too. The final campaign set in the Falaise Pocket is my least favourite as it just seems rather boring. The new multiplayer modes are also a great introduction – Assault is a Defence of The Ancients (or DOTA) style game mode where each player controls a single hero character and fight their way through hordes of enemy troops and bunkers to destroy the enemy base. Panzerkrieg has each player control a single tank before dropping them into the map to battle it out with the help of direct control. The final mode is Stonewall, an idea that players were wanting since release. A team of four have to defend a town from steadily increasing numbers of enemies by holding different buildings for different benefits. It is really hard, requires a good team and is I think the best addition of this expansion.
I think Company of Heroes is a landmark RTS. It is without doubt the best mainstream RTS even today, providing ideas for countless other games. It has a compelling singleplayer, enjoyable competitive multiplayer and an excellent co-operative mode. If you have never played an RTS before, I recommend you to try it. Actually if you have never played it before it is very, very cheap from most shops now. So buy it. Now.
Or you could wait for the release of Company of Heroes Online later this year. It is going to be a free to play version of the multiplayer featuring some of the hero units from Tales of Valour. Most of your army units carry over from game to game alongside the “Company Commander” abilities meaning there is a bit more persistence than in the normal game. The way it makes money is through buying extra powerful hero units which add some benefits to your force. I’m looking forward to the sudden influx of new players which will be pretty good.