Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Archive Review: Company of Heroes

(PC review)

Flank that MG!

Another WW2 game... is that what we really need? With North Korea currently blowing up mountains with newly finessed nukes, China working hard to outnumber the Empire itself, and Bush clearly setting his Texan eyes on Iran. The world is a dangerous place. That's all I'm saying. So Company of Heroes certainly seems suited for this rock. We clearly all love a bit of war after all. CoH is Relic's latest creation, the studio that gave us the brilliant Dawn of War and even better Winter Assault expansion.

I never used to be into RTS games. For many years I refused to branch out of the world of FPS games. I would experiment, sure, with other genres but they never stuck (except for exceptional titles like Oblivion). However this all changed earlier this year when I got into Dawn of War. I became attracted to it because I used to collect Warhammer 40k. And no that doesn't mean I am a socially inept dice roller. It was just a childhood craze. I fell in love with DoW and WA. RTS games suddenly appealed.

There is little chance here of me comparing CoH to a string of other RTS titles from C&C to old school legends like Total Annihilation, like some RTS expert freak. I can only review CoH from the perspective of a guy who loved DoW and thinks he knows what constitutes a good game. Right, that's that clarified then.

CoH is an RTS game set in the Second World War. In the single player campaign you play as the US and take on the Axis forces from the beaches of D-Day to the outskirts of Germany. I'm going to sum the single player game up quickly here. In my opinion its a glorified set of training levels designed to get player familiarised with RTS elements and the units and command structures this game offers. The early few levels play out like this. Although they do get better it all feels very scripted and unnatural. It feels a bit like taking the pool game seriously in GTA: San Andreas. Sure its fun but just go out into the city, you moron! However lets be clear. The campaign is great fun. It's also very cliche'd. It is effectively another Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers hybrid of a loose storyline and inspired settings. All very American hegemonic too.

Expect sentimental drivel for dialogue in the cutscenes and a sense of ,"I've seen this all before, twice!" Anyway whiz through the campaign, its fun regardless, so you can then play CoH, because CoH is ALL about skirmish mode - like any RTS game. Here you can play against the very smart and challenging AI offline or go online and play with up to 8 players in standard one on one's or utterly chaotic team games! This is "potentially" great... if you could connect.

The online side to CoH has serious issues. It's all done through Relic's own server platform which is a very simple interface showing available games and lists some IRC rooms. There seems to be real problems here with ye old internet foe, lag. Also its just a challenge to get in a game, any game. The amount of times you try to connect to a server only for it to hang and fail to enter the lobby make the process of "having a quick game" an episode in striking it lucky and finding a good host. It's rare. I also find myself continually connecting into games, starting to play, and then getting kicked for lagging (I assume). This seems bizarre considering I only ever try to connect to European games and have a very fast connection. I get the impression that off the bat CoH will be a nightmare to play online for European players who don't have mates they can privately set up a game with. Most of the action seems to be happening in the US and I'm sure its some great action, just hardly that accessible for many.

So far I've shunned the single player and positively knocked down the multiplayer. So where does this leave CoH? I'll tell you where. In the skirmish mode, offline. Sound familiar? Playing an RTS in skirmish mode against the AI?

As soon as you get into a battle CoH hits you. This is the RTS many have been waiting years (a decade?) for. For a start we have the resource system. You need to take fuel and ammo points that must be linked to your HQ via a supply line, or a linkage of captured areas. If a point isn't linked it won't contribute towards your resources. Ammo and fuel also count for different things. Also victory and strategic points need to be captured but the nature of these depends on whether you are playing victory point control mode or my fav, annihilation.

CoH is effectively a standard RTS on paper in this regard. Resource gathering is only one factor though. Sure you also need to build stuff with the engineer/pioneer class and also upgrade units with eventual gains in HQ updates etc but these elements are really only the frameworks for the true experience CoH offers, the combat.

The feel of battle in this game is just stunning. It's cinematic and also realistic in many ways. You really get the sense of the true nature of combined arms battles here. The tactics and strategy required to win are unlike most other RTS games. They are more realistic. This isn't one of those games where bunkering in and building up an army will work that well. However it might work, depends on your skill. There is a requirement here for micro management of units too. Sometimes you will need to make sure tanks are facing forward so they are less exposed for example. Also it is common to direct infantry units to throw grenades, apply sticky bombs (yep they are in it), or fire a recoilless rifle at a tank. Anyone who has played DoW will feel at home with these factors.

CoH is not one of those games where you can just build five AT guns, send them into a field, and expect that to act as a powerful deterrent against tanks. This is because of the combined arms element. Those AT guns will pwn advancing tanks for sure but they will also get easily flanked by infantry. The AI will flawlessly do this too, flank you and poke your defenses for weak points. So you need to think more here. If you send two MG squads to cover those flanks the AT guns will instantly be less vulnerable to assault in this manner. But then there comes the artillery factor, and enemy mortar fire. It might just be best to place those AT guns in separate, hidden, and inconspicuous positions after all. This all depends on the ebb and flow of any particular battle.

This brings me to a vital factor when deploying AT guns and MG squads. They have an arc of fire which you must set. If an enemy flanks them they will have to re position first and this arc must be reset if they are to survive. They are vulnerable so infantry must often back them up as well. Every unit compensates another in this manner. Tanks are simply superb in CoH too. They are tough and won't easily blow up. They realistically turn the tide of battle and often force retreats.

I tend to play Axis more than Allies so have been having fetishistic drooling sessions over the German armour here. It's kind of like Red Orchestra done really well. The armour is sloped and shells often bounce off. You've got all the usual killing machines here. Name the WW2 era tank and its likely in CoH - unless you want to get real geeky. The German Panther and Tiger tanks are particularly powerful and sometimes will prove indestructible if the battles play out accordingly. The allied Sherman's rarely stand a chance but, like in the real war, their advantage is often in the numbers. You can build more for less resources. Also the allied M26 Pershing can be called in for the armour commander (I'll get to that) and this tank tends to stand it's ground against Axis armour but, still, without being truly superior.

A nice touch to CoH also comes with the doctrine/command system. For either side you can play (Axis/Allied) you effectively get a three way split. You earn command points for various reasons and these give you access to special powers, like a tech tree, in one of three commands/doctrines. You must chose one of the three before spending the points and they all effectively cater for a certain style of player. For example the Allies have an Airborne command which gives you access to paratroops, airdrops, and P-47 strafing/bombing runs. I love this command myself as it suites my run and gun, ambush the bastards, style when allied. However this command won't give you access to the better allied tanks (part of the Armour command) or the heavy artillery support of the Infantry command. The Axis system is rather more sophisticated still. The Defensive doctrine is for those of us who just love bunkering in. You get access to the formidable Flak 88. This is a powerful big gun that once deployed by a pioneer cannot be moved. It will take out tanks from across half the map and bring down P-47s. The Allies have an equivalent in the Infantry doctrine, the 105 Howitzer, which is more an all round artillery piece that can barrage an area. If you prefer the more traditional conception of the German tactics of WW2 then the Blitzkrieg doctrine is for you. Think quick mobile assault teams backed up by powerful tanks. Lastly there is the Terror doctrine. This is like the alternative style if you will. It's more about abilities than units. For example you can target an area of the battlefield to receive a blast of propaganda which will terrify the enemy units and force them to retreat back to HQ. This is not my style, personally, but what I love about this doctrine is the fact is gives you access to the V1 rocket. This is essentially the ub3r weapon of CoH. In a huge explosion it will end an enemy base or lay waste to an assault.

At first I wasn't sure about the three way split deal but after playing CoH a heck of a lot I love it. It's a great way of making two sides seem like more. CoH is one awesome game. It's the kind of battlefield experience I've wanted for a long time and never found with any FPS. It is in this RTS game that my search has come to an end. There is so much about this game I never even mentioned too. The totally destructible environments are just a thing to behold, like some piece of programming beauty. This is no half-assed destruction either (like many games). This is the works. Buildings topple into rubble and block roads, houses catch fire, explosions create craters which can then be used for light cover, and in a nice touch destroyed tanks etc won't vanish. This means they themselves can in turn be used for cover and slowly start scattering all over the mostly vast maps. Maps! I never mentioned how great they are. Everything from bombed up cities like Lyon to do CQB in to hedgerow infested farmland. CoH is just one hell of an addictive, intense, and downright fun experience and for all us war game obsessive's this one is something special. My only gripes come with things like the fact this is another American made product that simply fails to acknowledge that the US was just one of the nations that made up the Allies. I think its bordering on irresponsible to see this so often in games such as this and movies alike. But then again I'm sure expansions will see more of everything CoH related. This is likely just the start.


+ Very realistic RTS experience

+ Totally destructible world

+ Very good AI for offline action

- Lag/connection issues

9.4 / 10

RTS at its finest

by The Critical Alien
© 2006