In which I review an acclaimed WWII themed strategy title.
Company of Heroes, as those who follow the movements of video game publication more closely than I almost certainly know, was released back in 2006 to wide critical acclaim. Indeed, the game currently enjoys a 93/100 rating on the review aggregation site Metacritic.
While such glowing praise did play a role in my deciding to purchase the anthology, things are not always as they seem when it comes to well reviewed games. I remember getting the complete edition of Empire Earth II several years ago, largely on the basis of its favorable reception (79/100 on Metacritic) and found the game incredibly underwhelming. In short there were too many things the player was asked to do, and the package was not tied up together well enough. This does not even account for the fact that computer players seemed to do everything ten steps faster, even on lower difficulty levels. That game ended up being a more complex, less well executed Rise of Nations.
But I digress. The first hing you notice is that the initial mission of the Normandy campaign, the one from the original game, is on the beaches of D-Day. What I find unusual about this is that the D-Day invasion is typically portrayed as a climax to the European theater, the crescendo rather than the start of the story.
That first mission does provide a good enough introduction to the game but is also fairly passive. Sure, you have to dodge howitzer fire and MG bunkers, but the path of attack is pretty well defined, plus the mission is broken down into very obvious objectives (get X number of riflemen on the beach! Get some engineers to cut the barbed wire!). If you look closely enough at the above picture, you’ll notice the first of those mini-objectives.
The overall game mechanics are as fluid and realistic as promised. Unlike many older RTS games, gone—for the most part—are the unrealistic abstractions that older graphics/physics systems demanded. Playing Rise of Nations in the modern era made these problems clear; troops will stand and fire as if nothing’s happening in the face of machine gun fire, while howitzer shots would explode on top of infantry and the fireball would be accompanied by a simple drop in the health bar.
Those small touches are not neglected here. Machine gun fire affects infantry movement, making them crawl more slowly along the terrain or retreat to the safety of a sandbag. Artillery and bomb fire also are rendered in a manner closer to the real world. First of all, they have a reasonable degree of inaccuracy that depends on distance from the target, and second of all, direct hits from these bombs actually eliminate units, who in turn are tossed about the landscape in motions realistic and disconcerting alike. One quickly notices how the game earned its “M for Mature” rating. The other change is in resource acquisition. Instead of hurriedly building farms and dispatching civilians to chop down forests and operate oil rigs, resources accrue from resource points, different sectors of the map that infantry can secure.
The other part of that are the cut scenes, which are a typical mix of choreographed game play and separately drawn sequences. While far from a cinematic experience inanof themselves, the cut scenes do immerse the player in the missions, creating the feel of an interactive episode of Band of Brothers at times. For the record, the first campaign does cover some of the same ground as the TV-adapted book.
The skirmish modes I actually have not played frequently, mostly because the campaign missions are engaging but also because an RTS that is solely combat based, like Company of Heroes, for some reason loses a bit of its “kick” of excitement without a clearly defined set of objectives to defeat the enemy. This is as opposed to the older Rise of Nations, which spans a wide breadth of history and gives the player other things to do aside from capturing territory points. This will likely change as I actually finish the campaigns.
That one quibble aside, Company of Heroes is as good as previously told. It is a fast, fluid, and free flowing RTS that you probably already have if you follow the genre closely.
Graphics: 8/10- even 6 years later (in fairness, 3 years since the last expansion) Company of Heroes manages to strike a great balance between high performance and high detail graphics. One can spot slight flaws in the drawings of troops and armor, but one won’t dwell on them. Explosions are well detailed and shaded, and buildings are destroyed almost brick by brick, not with artificial animations.
Gameplay 7.5/10- the resource points concept is a smart way to alter the paradigm of RTS games, and it is actually executed well. Too often games are filled with smart ideas that are fouled up at some point. This is not one of them.
Replay Value: 8.5/10- the anthology is jam-packed with the content of the original game and its two standalone expansion, from campaigns to factions. I expect to spend at least another few months on fresh content in the game, and this is before accounting mods.
Overall: 8/10- Good game, even if it treads on the well worn tracks of the World War II theme. What it lacks in the originality of subject matter is quickly made up with the originality of gameplay execution.