Review by C-zom

"Its hard to summarize why this is the best RTS made."

Graphics:

From the start one of the first things you'll notice about playing Company of Heroes is that it has aged phenomenally for a game almost four years old. For its time it was advertised to sport the most versatile game engine in the RTS genre labeled as "Essence Engine", made by Relic after their enormous success with "Dawn of War". Essence was a beautiful piece of code, integrated fully into the Havok physics engine with real time lighting and shadows and its own ballistics model. In short it was what most FPS players are used to, but this time it was modeled around a mid to large scale RTS. Every soldier, every piece of litter, and every brick reacts to the battle as it unfolds.

Lets get the most exciting feature out of the way first before delving into the more technical side of Essence: the Physics in this game are extraordinary for a game of this type or, well, of any game. A grenade can dislodge objects and bricks from a wall or knock over a fence, and scorch some grass. Artillery can rocket through the roof of a building and blow the walls out but leave some rooms intact. A tank shell can tear through a wooden building and slam into the side of another tank on the other end, destroying its tread and damaging the engine. Mortars can dig holes in the ground... which you can use as cover for your troops. I could summarize the sheer scale and brilliance of the physics for a few more paragraphs: Everything on screen reacts to the battle, and the world is living and breathing. Its a compelling and sometimes unsettling experience to see howitzers smash into the side of a town and seeing the soldiers defending it gib and explode, and the buildings crumble into a pile of material.

The next thing that Essence sported to have is a ballistics model much like those located in modern FPS games, namely simulators. While it does not go into the sheer depth and challenge of simulators it still sports a hefty "cover' system as its called in game where bullets can penetrate some material. Just like every object in the game can react to the battle, every object can provide cover for your troops. You could, for instance, order a rifle squad of six to take shelter behind an assortment of barrels. The AI will then use this as cover, put their backs to it, blind fire, shift positions and use the barrels as cover. Bullets will bounce or deflect off of this cover as well. As logic would dictate bricks or stone is better cover, and as such many fences and walls can be used to completely cover your troop's and keep them out of harms way while being able to spray down on the enemy. This, too, is modeled perfectly around the animations and AI coding so nothing looks lurchy or out of place. The transition between cover's is seamless and makes battles so alive and fluid.

And finally Essence is also capable of rendering dense foliage, a hefty particles system for dust kick-up and fires/explosions as well as some authentic lighting from muzzle flash or dynamic lights around the map. Essence is also capable of real time camera movement. You can zoom in all the way behind the head of a soldier and view the battle as it rages on like it is an FPS. This obviously inhibits commanding, but it makes for some intense visuals.

Sound

Company of Heroes is still one of the loudest and most explosive games made, delivering an authentic feel to each gun and presenting some truly speaker-shattering explosions. Each soldier's rifle has a sound and is modeled in real time. No stock/group sounds exist for more than one rifle firing. No, you will hear a pair of Garand's firing out of sync independent of each other. Same goes for sixteen Garand's. You will hear the intimidating screaming of Nebelwerfer rockets over the thundering of tank turrets and the menacing fury of a MG42 in a window, and so much more. The soundscape is painstakingly varied with authenticity in mind the whole time. Each weapon, explosion, and static object has an authentic sound that truly keeps you immersed during the battles. But perhaps the most unexpected and drawing aspect of the sound department is not the battles, but the voice acting and unit chatter beforehand.

As your troops hang around with one another you will hear them talking, often exchanging jokes to brighten the mood right after a vicious battle, commenting on some soldiers that died in the battle/campaign as it goes along, and more. Tiger crews have a different voice and saying than the MG gunner, and engineers will often comment on how strenuous the work is and will crack jokes or puns to shoot the breeze. Its not all humor; you will hear soldiers screaming and crying during fights, anything from yelling about being suppressed to commenting on their missing leg. Each unit, no matter how basic, has *dozens* of lines to say during the whole game randomly generated based upon whats going on. If you are losing a battle their enthusiasm will drop. If you're outside their base maybe one or two soldiers will comment on how stupid it looks. It feels so authentic to be building up sandbags around a recently taken cache of oil only for your engineer to say "If I see one more bag of dirt, I'll lose it." and then three other guys agree and start laughing. Then maybe they'll switch subjects to a girl back home to pass the time. And then artillery will start smashing into your new defensive line...

Story

The story for Company of Heroes's campaign follows the 101st Airborne into Normandy to sabotage their AA defenses, radar, and to steal intelligence. The entire story is based upon ww2 history after the Normandy landings until, roughly, the Falaise Pocket battle that wiped Germany out of France. History buffs looking this way will cringe at the historical inaccuracy of the title, and of the story telling. But this is not a game devoted to accuracy or documentary style presentation. It is more akin to its spiritual brother in media, Brothers in Arms, or Saving Private Ryan. It is an action packed and lionized look at the war from the American perspective and its your job to use your suspension of disbelief and just enjoy the story for what it is: Action based, with lots of explosions. Do not expect any real emotional value in this at all besides for "soldiers" deaths in cutscenes, or for your *own* emotional input you give to your own troops. Its up to you to make this as sad, or as amusing, as you like.

Game Play:

What differentiates Company of Heroes from the rest of the market is also what makes it one of the best games made, and the best in the genre. Company of Heroes takes the metaphorical idea of a persistent battlefield and turns it on its head... and makes it reality. Maps in Company of Heroes are divided into sectors. A portion of the map, maybe a building and some field around it, could have a Munitions dump sector. Its your job to grab this sector by moving your troops in to "capture' this point for 30-60 seconds to give your side munitions so you can have more grenades/abilities to use. During these precious seconds your side is vulnerable to being attacked, or another side of the map could be hit by the enemy.

So basically the map's are split into pieces. Lots, and lots, of pieces. Say there's 30 sectors on a map. Ten could be Fuel points, where when captured you will gain fuel to build vehicles. Another fifteen could be "strategic" points which will increase the amount of money you make per second. The last five could be munitions points. So, basically, you will *constantly* need to adjust your meta game and strategy to take these sectors--some more important than others--from the enemy, and vice versa. You will need to be fluid and mobile and take the enemy's territory, defend your own, and ensure that all of these points of yours are connected to your base. The enemy could go behind your lines and cut off your men and resources from headquarters, severing your bloodline until retaken.

Authentic is the best way to describe it. Storming into a town that has two fuel points, vicing into it and wheeling vehicles behind it to ensure the enemy you are fighting cannot escape. You'll find that some streets will be cut off with barbed wire and tank traps so you'll be funneled into an ambush. Flamethrowers will rain down on you from some windows, and you'll hit some land mines. Detonation packs of TNT will crash the gates into the town down--You won't be able to escape. Dozens and dozens of battles like that are to be had here. They are not scripted, it is not based around thin rules. You are free to be the best armchair general you can be. Experts can master the balances of each faction and exploit them, newcomers can rely on hearty elite infantry and learn the ropes fast with the lengthy single player campaign. No one is left out but there is no extreme for each side to enjoy: This game can be arcadey at times with squads taking dozens and dozens of bullets before dying, and it can also be too difficult at times for newcomers to even learn.

I wish there was a middle ground to enjoy and luckily most of the time there is. But there were times where I wondered how the hell the enemy could live through a barrage of howitzers and run away untouched, but a sniper could never possibly miss and ripped apart three of my whole squads. This is a minor gripe though, there's enough room in the sandbox for both sides and most of the time you won't run into problems like this as you frantically try to win.

The Essence Engine (And Havok) on top of this "territorial" game play style make Company of Heroes one of the most addicting and explosive RTS games ever made. Difficulty hitches aside, you will be immersed in the experience as you fight for a munitions point and watch firestorms rain down and rockets barrage your troops. Craters being dug into the earth, buildings collapsing and cover you were just using lighting on fire or just vanishing--It feels like you're right in the war when in a battle like this. No more lining up troops to fight each other on static terrain, no more wheeling out one elite unit to clear the map and best of all--no peasants or miners to kill. Company of Heroes does away with resources of old RTS games and introduces the above territory resource system to make the battlefield feel truly alive.

The AI thinks for themselves here, this is the next point I need to stress. I mean micro-micro AI--The individual soldier. If a riflemen is getting personally shot at, the squad will mold and react as he verbally tells them this. He might go prone behind a barrel, or roll out of the way as an HMG lights up on him. His weapon could jam and he'll reload it only to take cover and dive behind a sandbag once he gets shot at. If a mortar lands next to a soldier, he could get shellshock and stumble around only to follow his comrades to safety. The AI is so smart its sometimes odd to see them react to enemy fire without you even telling them. You don't need to babysit your troops all the time, but micromanagement is still a severe importance. If you cannot control two or more fronts at once on a large map, *do not* play this game online. Lets talk about that feature next...

Company of Heroes also features a truly robust multiplayer mode with player ranks, stats tracking, a leader board, auto-matching and clan support and an extensive chat room feature and, lastly, a buddy list option. You can add friends and join the game they're in with the click of a button or invite them to yours. You can hop onto the automatch service and simply wait for an opponent to fight as Relic's Automatcher picks the best opponent for you. You'll rarely fight someone drastically better than you, and rarely someone completely new. New guys fight new guys, pros fight pros. This is not a picture perfect system however. The less players, the less accurate it gets. If four guys are online and one is new and three are pro, you'll see where this is going. As such its best to play online with 15-20 people using the automatching service. The more people, the more accurate.

Company of Heroes is lucky to sport some of the best post-support any game has received. The base game alone has over a dozen patches, all from community feedback or developer support, to fix balance/bugs/optimization problems. If you are competitive in the slightest this is where you will spend most of your time, climbing up the 1v1 ladder for each faction until you are satisfied. The amount of strategies and tactics to use in Company of Heroes is mind boggling and you will put most of them to good use online. You will pick between two factions to fight online. America cannot fight America, and Wehrmacht (Germany) cannot fight Wehrmacht. This might disappoint fans moving over from Dawn of War who were used to having eight factions to toy with.

Unfortunately this is the greatest weakness of Company of Heroes: it only sports two factions. The Americans and the Wehrmacht. This is made more bearable by the fact that each side has dozens and dozens of strategies and unit combos at their disposal, and also three "tech trees" each. For example, the Wehrmacht's Defensive Doctrine has unlocks that will outfit your HQ with MG's, will make your line of sight farther on captured territory, and will call in morale boosting area of effect abilities such as "For the Fatherland". Each tree has roughly nine tech's to unlock and will be the backbone of your strategy when playing as either side. These tech's can be anything from out of map artillery barrages, elite units or tanks, and other beneficial abilities. You gain "Experience" points to unlock these perks. Similar, in this regard, to Battle for Middle Earth. One hundred XP means one point. Techs are usually split into three tiers. The first tier abilities cost one point, the second tier abilities 3-4, and the end game tier abilities 5 and up. What techs you pick is entirely up to you and is balanced around this idea.

Although there are only two factions, each one is completely different and designed from top to bottom to compete with each other fluidly without making it a rock/paper/scissors game. None of that is present in company of heroes in the same degree as, say, Dawn of War. In Company of Heroes most counters are logical and also each counter has a counter of its own, or each unit will have 2-3 counters each to make variation as possible as the player allows. You could hit a half track full of troops with a bazooka and light up the retreating troops with an MG, or put a land mine in front of it and then burn it out with a flamethrower. Alternately you could blow the whole thing up with an AT gun and focus on storming a defensive bunker line somewhere else. How you deal with each battle is up to you, and not up to static x beats y rules.

Both sides have an extensive amount of units too which are split into tiers. Each building represents a tier, and each building costs a bit more money over the last. Americans only have three "buildings" whereas Wehrmacht technically has five, which means America can get tanks quicker from their third building. However, Wehrmacht can get AT guns quicker than america and they can also cloak in foliage. Wehrmacht can buy heavy machine guns right away, but America gets snipers before Wehrmacht does. See what I'm getting at? Each side is balanced with not *one* thing left out. Each side has its advantages and disadvantages, and even each advantage has a logical counter thrown in. I couldn't say each faction represents a general idea either. (America defense, Germany offense)--Its not like that at all. For example, American riflemen are more numerous but the Garand is an inaccurate weapon--at least when compared to the mighty K98 rifle which will out snipe any American basic infantry. The American HMG is flimsy and inaccurate but the MG42 is a beast of a weapon but its range is terrible and is prone to overheat and longer reloading times to switch out the barrel. Its the same story down the unit ladder. Nothing does its "role" perfectly while being immuene to some sort of scrutiny or balance testing.

Enough about balance, its time to bring this lengthy review to a close. All the toys you could want are present in Company of Heroes, and even some left out entirely from RTS games or even FPS games in the era. Mortars are here and are as deadly as their real life counterparts. Flamethrowers make a show as an engineer upgrade. Nebelwerfer rocket batteries are here, and every tank you could want is modeled realistically with Essence's fantastic ballistics system. Each side has about twenty or so units, not counting the tech trees, at their disposal. How you fight on this persistent battlefield is up to you. There are enough units for any strategy to unfold from your mind fluidly without basic restrictions. Maps are big enough to get lulls in the battle before the action begins again, meaning you will not always have to fight. The territory system makes for some truly remarkable online battles as mind battles mind over a piece of fictional ww2 history.

Verdict

Company of Heroes is a painstakingly balanced RTS which delivers the most explosive and stunning RTS experience to any armchair general or casual gamer. It as as in depth and strategic as you are, not limiting you to rock/paper/scissors rules but rather allowing you to adjust your own play style. It is like water, and forms to you. That is... hot, boiling, explosive water with plenty of gore.

Company of Heroes is an accomplishment in the genre and is landmark. Relic has proven themselves to be some of the best in the business with the Dawn of War series, and now Company of Heroes.

Pros:

-Excelling Graphics and Physics, even three years later
-Top tier sound department
-Painstaking and almost flawless balance between factions
-Addicting and in depth multiplayer function
-Lengthy campaign
-Lots of units to play with

Cons:

-Only two factions
-Weak, inaccurate story
-A little arcadey for RTS buffs
-Steep learning curve for newcomers
-Massive amount of patches to download to even play (Bad for people w/DSL or dial up)


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/16/09

Game Release: Company of Heroes (US, 09/13/06)


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