There's an increasing tendency in modern society to veer towards hyperbole when it's really not deserved. A sportsman like Andrew Flintoff can be labelled a "hero" because when he's in the England cricket team, they actually stand a chance of winning a Test match. The dictionary definition of a "hero" is "a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life" and I can't remember when our dear Freddie last fixed bayonets for a death or glory charge at enemy lines. So when I heard that Relic's latest game was an RTS called "Company of Heroes", the cynical hyperbole policeman in me woke up and had a good long rant.
"What's this, a World War 2 real-time strategy? That's so 2004, darling! And what have they called it? 'Company of Heroes'? Jeez, derivative, or what? Couldn't they afford the Band of Brothers license, or something?" he raved.
After he calmed down and took a break for a cup of tea and a doughnut, I remembered that this was a game from Relic. With a CV that includes the Homeworld games, Impossible Creatures and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Relic are quite rightly regarded as being a developer at the peak of the real-time strategy genre.
'Players are given the freedom to think laterally and find their own path, out-flanking and out-thinking enemies.'
Company of Heroes is a title that began its life almost simultaneously with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, around three and a half years ago. Like its sci-fi fantasy counterpart, it was a game borne out of everything Relic hated in the traditional RTS game, except that Company of Heroes deviates from the traditional RTS game model even further. Instead of starting missions needing to spend ten minutes simply gathering resources and building up a base, Company of Heroes instead uses cinematics rendered within the game engine to drop you directly into the action. This directness of approach is reflected in the philosophy of the whole game's design. Traditional resource gathering is ditched entirely, in favour of pursuing objectives on the battlefield. Similar to Dawn of War, strategic points are dotted over the maps and controlling them provides income for the three in-game resources. Controlling fuel depots allows you to call in vehicular reinforcements, such as tanks, whilst taking over munitions points gives your infantry squads access to heavier weapons, such as machine guns, mortars, satchel charges, and occasionally even anti-tank artillery guns. Weapons can even be salvaged from fallen Nazi troops, which gives you even more tactical options.
Unlike other RTS games, there is no linear critical path which you need to follow to complete missions. Given that the environment is completely destructible, players are given the freedom to think laterally and find their own path, out-flanking and out-thinking enemies - especially in the urban maps. This should make for an intriguing dynamic in multiplayer games, where the player that can utilise (or destroy) the environment most creatively will win. Also included are so-called Medal Opportunities, which are tertiary objectives that the player may discover as they play through a mission. An example of one of these Medal Opportunities would be scoring 30 sniper kills in a single mission. These have been added to prolong the longevity of the game for players with a completist mindset, and to also add replay value.
Using the highly-detailed Essence engine, Company of Heroes is graphically more akin to first or third-person action games than a real-time strategy. The graphics engine is fully scaleable and the 3D camera is fully mobile, providing you with a view of the action ranging from traditional isometric to up close and personal, where you can see the expressions on the faces of individual soldiers. Havok physics are fully incorporated into the game engine, making Company of Heroes the most visceral RTS game ever made. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are clear design influences to the visual feel of the game and their cinematic level of realism is present in the game's combat. Bodies hit by artillery or mortar fire will be catapulted dozens of feet into the air, shedding limbs as they arc back to the ground. Soldiers hit by snipers will not simply fall down - they will be thrown backwards by the force of the shot with proper rag-doll physics, blood spurting from their wounds. Satchel charges and sticky bombs can be used against tanks, causing them to explode spectacularly with a tinny thunder. Flamethrowers are brutally effective against infantry, causing immolated soldiers to run around in panic as they burn, waving their arms and screaming.
Such uncompromising visual presentation is designed not only to provide you with an unprecedented level of immersion, but is also there to try and provoke an emotional reaction from the player. One of key aims of the game stated by Design Lead Josh Mosqueira was that players should stop thinking of units as a collection of disposable automatons and try to form an emotional attachment to their troops, giving them more value. This is aided by the squad experience system, which allows units to gain combat veterancy, making them more effective in battle. Something else that adds to the level of attachment that forms between the player and their troops is the squad chatter. Each soldier has hundreds of lines of dialogue (rather than the stock half dozen for a traditional RTS unit), and the AI reacts to the ongoing battlefield situation, making for some very dynamic background babble. Throughout the five single-player missions (out of fifteen in the campaign) I played, I don't recall hearing a repeated line once. Even better news for machinima makers is that Company of Heroes will ship with a movie maker tool, which will no doubt lead to umpteen in-game re-enactments of Saving Private Ryan's battles.