Company of Heroes Review
While intimidating, this visceral real-time strategy reenactment of World War II's Western Front showcases just how far RTS game design and presentation quality have come.
- Amazing, cutting-edge graphics and remarkable audio bring the battlefield to life
- Complex, inventive gameplay gives you a ton of interesting things to do
- Fully interactive, destructible maps add depth and variety
- Slick online player-matching system makes it easy to get into a multiplayer match.
- Long loading times
- Only two different factions.
Company of Heroes is a visually stunning real-time strategy game that depicts all the violent chaos of World War II with uncommon intensity. Set during the invasion of Normandy toward the end of the war, Company of Heroes takes its cues from Saving Private Ryan, by portraying both the sheer brutality of the war as well as the humanity of its combatants. Many other recent WWII games have also drawn influence from Steven Spielberg's landmark film, but Company of Heroes is even more graphic. This and the game's highly authentic-looking presentation are its distinguishing features, and it boasts some frantic, well-designed strategic and tactical combat to match. Company of Heroes trades a wide breadth of content for an extremely detailed look at WWII-era ground combat, and its action is so fast paced that it's best suited for the reflexes of an experienced RTS player. So if you're unfazed by any of that, you'll find that this latest real-time strategy game from the developers of Homeworld and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War is one of the best, most dramatic and exciting examples in years.
Provided you have a powerful-enough system and graphics card to fully appreciate the visuals in Company of Heroes, you'll quickly be struck by the level of detail depicted in the game. Infantry move in teams, darting from cover to cover. They may be ordered to occupy any building on the map, and you'll see them shutter the doors and take aim out the windows. Vehicles are shown to scale, so tanks and other armored vehicles look big and imposing, and, indeed, they are. Infantry seem almost helpless against tanks, and you'll hear the men screaming as tank shells explode around them, sending bodies flying, while lucky survivors dive out of the way. Yet by attacking a tank's vulnerable sides and rear armor with explosives, it's possible to turn the tables on these lumbering threats...turning one of the most basic confrontations in Company of Heroes into a thrilling cat-and-mouse game, much more than a typical clash between a couple of RTS units. What's more, the battlefields themselves have at least as much character to them as the various infantry squads and vehicles as your disposal. The quaint French towns that are the set pieces of many of the game's skirmishes truly look as if a war was waged there once the battle is done, since buildings will catch fire and collapse, telephone lines will topple, blackened craters will appear in the wake of artillery blasts, and more. These changes aren't just cosmetic, either. Those blast craters provide cover for your infantry, while the ruined husks of blown-up tanks might interfere with a machine gunner's line of fire.
The game focuses on the Allies' invasion of German-occupied Normandy in 1944, specifically on close-quarters skirmishes between infantry and armor. Company of Heroes presents a number of novel twists to real-time strategy conventions, but at heart this game works like other RTS games do, by putting you in charge of base construction, resource gathering, and tactical command of various military forces in an effort to defeat the opposition. The game includes a good-sized single-player campaign spanning more than a dozen missions, in which Able Company lands on Omaha Beach on D-Day, liberates a number of key towns and strategic points, disrupts German supply lines and secret weapons, and finally helps crush the remnants of the Nazi war machine in France. It's an exciting campaign, tied together with cutscenes and mission briefings coming from a variety of voices, which creates a few threads that help tie the missions together. In addition to the campaign, you can play skirmish matches with up to seven computer-controlled players on a series of different maps, and you can also jump online into the proprietary Relic Online service to challenge other players in ranked and unranked matches. The Relic Online service is a cut above most similar offerings, and lets you easily find a ranked match against players of similar skill or host a match with your own custom settings.
Because of its limited scope of the Second World War, Company of Heroes has only the two playable factions, which it calls the Allies and the Axis--but really they're the Americans and the Germans. In the campaign, you always play as forces from Able Company and you're always fighting the Germans. There isn't a separate campaign from the German perspective, though the Axis faction is fully playable in skirmish matches and online, and turns out to be fairly different from the Allies despite the basic similarities between the two sides' weaponry. In fact, in a strange departure from similar games, Company of Heroes always forces you to play Allies versus Axis, even in multiplayer matches. Matches with more than two players are always team-based, with one side as the Allies and the other as the Axis, and so forth. While the game's units and battlefields are unusually detailed, it's hard not to wish for additional playable factions and a greater variety of settings, especially given how well Company of Heroes handles the American and German sides.
The gameplay in Company of Heroes is all about frontline combat, and forces you to quickly explore the map. You typically start out with a headquarters and a squad of engineers, who can build structures and setup defenses. Maps are divided up into territories that all have a resource point in them, and the resources you'll need are manpower, munitions, and fuel. Infantry may capture neutral or enemy resource points, causing them to indefinitely contribute a flow of the given resource to your military efforts while also increasing the total number of units you can have in your army. However, all your territories must be connected for the resource flow to continue unabated; if an enemy takes a key territory, this may cut off your supply lines. All resources are used for building more-advanced structures and vehicles, but you only need manpower for basic infantry, who may use special abilities like hand grenades or armor-piercing machine gun rounds for a one-time cost of munitions. Munitions may also be spent to upgrade individual squads with special weapons, like recoilless rifles useful against enemy armor, or Browning automatic rifles that can suppress opposing squads. Your infantry squads are highly resourceful, acting as single units that can be effective down to the last man. They'll last much longer when attacking from behind cover, such as a row of sandbags or the bell tower of an abandoned church.
If you've played Relic's last real-time strategy game, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, you'll note that many of these conventions were derived and extended from that game. However, Company of Heroes still plays quite differently from Dawn of War because of the nature of its densely packed battlefields and its even greater focus on unit tactics. You have some very interesting options to consider, such as how, when faced with an antitank gun manned by a squad of three, you may attempt to destroy the thing altogether with heavy weapons, or flank the gun and kill its squad, taking the artillery piece for your own. Heavy machine guns and other special weapons work much the same way. One of the great things about Company of Heroes is that, in spite of its somewhat glamorized portrayal of World War II, the game looks and behaves realistically, in how the sorts of tactical maneuvers that are central to the gameplay feel intuitive in practice. For example, you'll naturally want to avoid making your infantry rush a machine gun nest head-on, especially since the withering fire from a German MG42 will force your squad to drop prone, pinned down.