Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Company of Heroes Review

Company of Heroes, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ.
The Good: Top-notch graphics and sound (particularly infantry animations), intelligent tactical and responsive AI means almost no micromanagement, encourages effective flanking maneuvers and realistic use of cover, excellent skirmish AI opponent
The Not So Good: Some might want larger battles, slight learning curve for RTS novices, units lack realistic morale
What say you? A remarkable mix of realism, tactical positioning, and overall strategy: 8/8

A movie once said, “If you build it, they will come” (I think it was called The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down). The reason why we have so many World War II real time strategy games is because people keep buying World War II real time strategy games. Most of these games are absolute rubbish, but every once in a while a quality title makes it way through the darkness (see Rush for Berlin as a prime example). Relic Entertainment has been known for their strong pedigree of real time strategy games, from Homeworld to Dawn of War. Will Company of Heroes be a company of heroes, or just a smelly stack of corpses, baking in the sun as the buzzards fly overhead? And why did it take me so long to review this game (answer: a recently fixed BSOD)?

The graphics and sound in Company of Heroes is some of the best seen in any real time strategy game. While the overall presentation is similar to games like Rush for Berlin and Spellforce 2, the attention to detail in Company of Heroes sets it above the rest. While the environments are pretty typical and compare well with the games mentioned above (which were Rush for Berlin and Spellforce 2; repeating this makes my review appear longer), the unit animations, specifically infantry, are very well done. The infantry in the game (which is the focus of the title) show a range of motion not exhibited in a real time strategy game up to this point, and it’s quite impressive to look at. The characters are entertaining to view up close, and their overall appearance is on par with a first person shooter, which is saying something when numerous soldiers are shown on screen at once in large battles. The second area that receives a lot of attention in Company of Heroes is bullet hits, which are generally ignored in other strategy games. Company of Heroes shows realistic placement of misses, especially with machine gun fire (the primary role of which is suppression rather than fatalities). The serves in creating a very believable game environment and goes a long way in providing a convincing experience. The sound is much like the graphics: high attention to detail. The soldier voices in the game, although they tend to repeat after long periods of play, are effective and numerous and they are more realistic (and sound less “acted”) than most strategy games. This is probably the most impressive aspect of the sound, as the rest of the effects are pretty standard fare (weapon and battle sounds, background music). The chaos of war is clearly relayed through the sound. The graphics and the sound come together quite well in Company of Heroes and, assuming you have the system to run it, you will enjoy the realistic atmosphere presented by the game.

Company of Heroes is a real time strategy game that involves base construction, limited resource management, and strategic placement and use of troops. The game includes a fine tutorial that explains all of the gameplay features of the game, and it’s recommended to every player (including strategy game veterans) due to the number of gameplay hints provided and special functions not described in the manual. Company of Heroes also features a fifteen-mission campaign, where you lead Able Company through Normandy, skirmish matches against the AI, and multiplayer. The campaign is well done, and closely emulates movies (you know the ones) that covered the allied invasion of Normandy. The missions feature clear objectives with some strategy hints along the way. Normally, more objectives are added as you progress through the mission, and scripted events can change the action quickly. Company of Heroes mostly avoids the generic base build-up scenarios, offering more realistic combat in strategic locations. The unit mix is also kept small, keeping the focus on smaller skirmishes rather than grand strategy (the game is called Company of Heroes, after all). I feel that the campaign presents just the right amount of difficulty: the game doesn’t overwhelm with enemy numbers, but offers enough surprises to keep you interested in what’s coming next. Once you complete the campaign, the skirmish and multiplayer modes are there for you to enjoy. You’ll be constructing a limited number of buildings, concentrating on small numbers of units and defensive structures are key locations. You can play for a victory location victory (the suggested method) or outright eradication. There is a decent learning curve involved with skirmish games in Company of Heroes, because you can’t just sit back and crank out units like in other RTS games. You actually have to plan your attacks and movements ahead of time and produce appropriate counters for the enemy; you’re never given enough units (through slow resource rates) to cover all of your territory, which makes constructive defenses very important. The enemy AI in the skirmish battles is very good: they go after undefended victory locations, produce proper counters to your units, and try to flank your position. They certainly provide good opposition. Multiplayer is done through the game’s matchmaking service

While the user interface is pretty typical for a strategy game, Company of Heroes does take the best aspects of other RTS games and combines them into an effective presentation. First, all of your units are listed in a small, collapsible list on the right of the screen; this makes finding units extremely straightforward. Also, the tactical map makes coordination and scouting the enemy a lot easier than staring at the miniscule minimap. All of the infantry units are organized into squads, so you are controlling several individual troops at once instead of solitary soldiers (which is a more realistic approach). This makes managing the battles much easier than some real time strategy games and lets you concentrate on the overall objective rather than micromanaging tens to hundreds of soldiers on the map at once. Company of Heroes features pretty typical units for a World War II real time strategy game. While engineers can build structures in addition to defending themselves (unlike typical worker units), the rest of the units are pretty standard: infantry, snipers, machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns. Vehicles also involve the usual array of jeeps, tanks, and plane, although there are some special modes available (such as flamethrowers and bulldozers). The collection of unit-producing and defensive structures is also typical: barracks, gun emplacements, obstacles, and motor pools. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so Company of Heroes offers nothing new in terms of units, featuring a conventional list seen in other titles.

The first thing that struck me about the gameplay of Company of Heroes is how similar it is to Dawn of War. Of course, since both games are developed by the same company, this is not surprising, and since Dawn of War is an acclaimed title, this is doubly not surprising. The main goal of the game is to control a majority of the map’s territories; strategic points are secured in a similar fashion to the Battlefield series, as positioning your troops near a strategic point will lower an enemy flag and raise your own, transferring control of the sector. Strategic points can be defended by observation points (like Dawn of War), which must be destroyed before ownership can be shifted. All territories give manpower, which is used to create and deploy units. Special resource sectors can also supply munitions (for upgrades and special abilities) or fuel (for structures and large vehicles). Civilian buildings can be occupied by engineer units, converting the building to a barracks and providing a forward base; this is a good (and plausible) addition to the game, since you can’t build structures away from your main base. Company of Heroes is very much an offensively oriented game, as you’re required to keep moving forward, capturing bases so that you can produce more units to capture more bases, until you encounter the enemy and the fun begins.

Company of Heroes has a strong emphasis on the use of cover and flanking, something that gets a passing interest in most real time strategy games. These two realistic components of military warfare are really just ignored in most games, as you’ll just throw together two sets of troops and see who has the most. Each object in the game provides some amount of cover, from none to high. Positioning your troops adjacent to walls and buildings and moving from cover to cover is important for longevity on the battlefield. Company of Heroes makes this extremely easy as the game features some of the best tactical AI for friendly units I’ve seen in a real time strategy game. Units will automatically find cover when engaging enemy units, unless they are in the middle of an open field, and then it’s your fault. It helps to place the units manually, especially when advancing as they tend to stay in the same spot while under fire, but the game makes it as easy as possible on you to command large numbers of units effectively. Flanking is also very important in the game, particularly against enemy gun emplacements and vehicles. Most machine guns in the game have a firing arc, so you’ll want to attack these structures from locations where they cannot return fire. Gun emplacements have realistic rotation properties, as they must be picked up and moved: this makes them extremely vulnerable to fire, so scouting ahead of time and coming from an unanticipated angle provides a good way of taking out normally almost invincible foes. Units will receive promotions based on experience that will make them more effective units and grant you additional commander abilities, such as off-map artillery or improved unit performance. This lets you customize your strategy either in the campaign or in a skirmish match, focusing on infantry, armored, or air attacks. I'd like to see morale introduced into the game, adapted from Close Combat, where units will panic on occasion and automatically retreat back to base instead of needing micromanagement from the player. As it stands, infantry will just keep fighting until they are eliminated. The company may be made of heroes, but I doubt they are stupid and wouldn't retreat if they were severely beaten.

Company of Heroes is (hopefully) the zenith of World War II real time strategy games. Everything about the title is very polished and the result is a great mix of tactical and strategic gameplay. The straightforward resource collection, done by capturing territory, eliminates exploits that can be used in the game and results in more intense gameplay. The wonderful use of cover is quite fun: moving between fences, bunkers, sandbags, and buildings is more realistic and subsequently more satisfying than just throwing a bunch of units at the enemy, as is the case in most RTS games. Company of Heroes has some of the most realistic gameplay of any real time strategy game, and this is its finest point. Everything just seems to come together in Company of Heroes, resulting in a great real time strategy title. The great tactical and enemy AI and superb graphics and sound complete the package. I doubt you could honestly call yourself a strategy gamer without owning a copy of Company of Heroes (picking up Europa Universalis III will satisfy your small and large scale killing needs). There’s a reason I spent five months trying to get the game to work: Company of Heroes is a must-have strategy title.