Recently, we were fortunate enough to try out the upcoming World War II real-time strategy game Company of Heroes, from developer Relic Entertainment and publisher THQ. Relic, which has created games like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and the Homeworld series, is no stranger to real-time strategy, and from what we've seen from the first few levels of the Allied campaign in Company of Heroes, fans of Dawn of War should be in for a treat when the game is released.
One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the game's single-player campaign is the way it tends to get you right into the action. There are cinematic scenes before each mission, but instead of Dawn of War's long-winded conversations, the cutscenes serve to drive the action, and they bear the cinematic stamp of films like Saving Private Ryan or the TV series Band of Brothers. Speaking of those two hallmarks of World War II storytelling, Company of Heroes wastes no time in referencing them. In the first two missions of the game, you'll storm the beaches of Normandy and attempt to guide a group of paratroopers through the backwaters of France in support of the D-Day invasion. In subsequent missions, you'll take the infamous town of Carentan and defend it against a German counterattack. If you've played action games like Call of Duty or Brothers in Arms, you should find many of the plot elements here to be very familiar. But that's not necessarily bad. The early story of Company of Heroes merely acts to establish the action, and the game offers plenty of it, even within the first few missions.
The version of Company of Heroes we played gives the impression that it will make Dawn of War fans feel right at home, since it offers similar interface features and a similar resource model. Your resources here revolve around manpower, munitions, and fuel. Like in Relic's previous game, in Company of Heroes there are resource nodes scattered around the map that can be captured by your infantry units. When you do so, you'll gain a steady stream of whatever resource is supplied there. What's more, resource nodes come in three different levels, so if you capture a small munitions resource point, you'll get a small stream of munitions flowing into your coffers, while a larger munitions resource point will give you a proportionally larger supply. You're not limited in the amount of resources you can hold, so the more resource points you control, the bigger your war chest becomes. Even if you lose some of your resource points later on, hanging onto them for as long as possible will let you build up a large stash of resources for your counterattack.
Another twist to the gameplay formula comes in the form of supply lines. You can capture any resource point on the map, but to gain the resources bottled up there, that node has to be part of an unbroken chain of nodes stretching back to your headquarters. If you rush out with an infantry unit and try to capture a high-value resource in the middle of a map, you'll be free to do so, but it won't do you any good; you won't gain the resources from it or be able to claim it as your territory--and claiming territory is important for reinforcing your units and for gaining experience points that grant you special abilities.
Each node comes with a piece of territory around it, and each territory has to link back up with your headquarters for you to gain benefits from claiming it. It'll be interesting to see how this affects multiplayer games, but in the single-player game, it serves to reinforce a methodical approach to the action, where you overrun and capture enemy territories and slowly expand outward from your base. This also serves to naturally focus the battles on a constantly moving front, although your computer-controlled opponent will definitely try to disrupt your supply lines by sending soldiers to your rear territories in an attempt to capture them.
And the actual battles are shaping up very well. One of Company of Heroes' selling points is its destructible buildings and terrain, and for the most part, it's easy to see why Relic is proud of how physics are being used in the game. Tanks, especially, are a blast to take control of, since they're capable of smashing through trees and walls in their hunt for enemies to take out. Infantry units can also make great use of the game's environments. For instance, if your foot soldiers' path is blocked, you can order them to use mortars or rocket launchers to attempt to destroy whatever's standing in their way.
Good Work, Soldier
This environmental action comes into play when you have units holed up in a building. Like the units in Command & Conquer: Generals or last year's underappreciated Act of War, Company of Heroes' infantry units can inhabit most of the buildings on the map and fire from the windows. They gain a good amount of protection from small-arms fire when garrisoned, but if you shell a house with mortars, or send your tanks up to destroy the building, bits and pieces will be torn off (and the bodies of any troops caught inside will be sent flying) until the building collapses in on itself.
While we're on the subject of tanks, let's discuss the intriguing combat systems that Relic has put into place to make tank combat a risky, but worthwhile, proposition. If you've played other strategy games, then you might expect tanks to take up more space in your army than foot soldiers. This is represented in Company of Heroes by the population cap--the upper limit of how many troops you can have at any given time. As you might expect, tanks take up more of your population cap than a few infantry units, but they can stand up to a lot more punishment. However, when you do put your tank in danger, you may not be able to anticipate what will happen to it. Tanks have a modular damage model in Company of Heroes and will lose functionality based on how and where they're hit. If you hit a tank from behind, you'll not only deal more damage to it because of its weaker rear armor, but you'll also stand a chance of damaging or disabling the engine, making it impossible for the tank to retreat. Powerful shots to the front of the tank will sometimes shear off its main gun, leaving it incapable of counterattacking. But our favorite way to bust a tank so far, though it's only possible when a tank is severely damaged, is to kill off its crew, which causes the vehicle to fly out of control, often driving in circles and crashing through walls and buildings, before you deliver the finishing blow.
If you think you'll pull off these feats of derring-do with ease, you'll find that the artificial intelligence in Company of Heroes will do its best to give you a challenge. We've seen some instances where enemy soldiers have a tendency to stay inside a building while it's being shelled to smithereens, but in general, your opponents in the single-player game are quite capable of running away when the going gets tough. This is especially true of enemy armor. If you happen to stumble across an enemy tank and overwhelm it with armor of your own, it'll rarely stand still to take the beating; instead, it'll back up and try to lure you into enemy territory, where you'll be incapable of resupplying your units. Enemy infantry will act similarly, using the game's built-in retreat command to escape dangerous situations and attempt to return behind the lines to safety.
The last major addition to the gameplay formula that caught our eye was the inclusion of a command system that seems similar to the overarching hero powers you may have seen in other strategy games. When you kill enemies or capture resource points, you'll gain experience points, and after gaining enough experience, you'll earn a command point. When you have a command point, you can choose your command from either airborne, infantry, or armor specializations. You can only have one command per battle, though, so choosing wisely is key.
As you continue to earn experience, you can unlock more powerful abilities that wreak havoc with on the battlefield. For instance, the armor command starts with some useful abilities, such as letting your light vehicles capture resource points (normally, only infantry can do this), while the most powerful upgrade will let you deploy an M26 Pershing Heavy Tank. The airborne command path, on the other hand, will initially let you airdrop infantry reinforcements, but if you continue to build up experience, you'll eventually be able to call in strafing runs or even bombing runs.
All things considered, Company of Heroes looks to be a very promising game for both real-time strategy fans and World War II buffs. The game's new strategic elements build on the features that Relic devised for its previous games and should make for some interesting new gameplay, especially in online multiplayer. The game is scheduled to ship in September.