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/em>" 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.
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.
Of course, fabulous presentation is all well and good, but doesn't matter a jot if the level design and AI sucks. Thankfully, Relic have exceeded their usual high standards. The missions re-enact actual battles fought in Normandy, with real-world locations being meticulously recreated using historical reference material. The urban maps are probably the most fun, as they allow you to employ the full range of battle tactics - everything from laying minefields or garrisoning buildings to set up ambushes, to using mortar fire to soften up enemy positions, while using snipers to cover the mortar teams from counter-attack. With Relic giving the player the freedom to roam around the map as they choose, using explosives to create their own path if necessary, the AI has, by necessity, been given the adaptability to make decisions on its own, so that it can react to the tactics employed by the player. An impressive level of autonomy has also been implemented for the troops on both sides: squads will automatically dive out of the way if threatened with being run over by a vehicle - without you needing to issue a movement order. When under fire, infantry will also seek the best cover available to them, going prone if necessary. The enemy AI's no pushover, either: it won't sit still waiting for you to come to them. Enemy squads will actively seek out your forces and will try to dominate the map, fortifying control points and using their full range of weaponry - everything from mortars and heavy machine guns to the fearsome Tiger tanks.
Even though the build I was playing was around six weeks short of Gold standard, and therefore had the odd visual or sound synchronisation bug, the potential of the game shone through. Missions vary in intensity from commando strikes behind enemy lines (such as destroying a V2 rocket factory) to defensive battles (where you need to hold objectives for a set amount of time), and all-out combined-arms assaults on cities. One particularly memorable mission I played was the Carentan counter-attack mission. Having secured the town of Carentan in the previous mission, you're tasked now to hold the town against a German counter-attack until you can be reinforced by Able Company. This is the first mission in which you really get to employ Engineers to their full potential. You're given ten minutes to fortify your positions within the town, and secure the three bridges spanning the river, over which the Germans will come.
Minefields, barbed wire and heavy machine gun emplacements can all be used to form choke points at the bridges, and your infantry squads can take positions garrisoning buildings on the streets leading into the town square. There's a tense wait once your preparation time has run out, and gradually, the enemy filters through the outskirts of the town on the other side of the river. Mortar teams can be employed to stall the infantry as they approach the bridges, making life difficult for the Nazi Engineers defusing your minefields. As they creep closer to your side of the river, the staccato chatter of .30 calibre machine guns echoes through the streets, the canvas flaps of the emplacement tent fluttering as they fire.
As soon as the German Engineers have cleared enough of the mines, tanks are deployed, rumbling menacingly across the river, bringing their cannons to bear on your machine gun fortifications. With an inexorable tide of troops flowing over the bridges, your garrisoned infantrymen take advantage of the high ground, catching the German troops in crossfire as they fight their way towards the town square. The tanks inevitably breach your perimeter as well, charging for the centre of town, where anti-tank teams are waiting for them with 105mm guns. A brave infantry squad exits the building it had been guarding to engage the tanks with recoilless rifles and satchel charges. The streets are littered with bodies and the steel carcasses of expired tanks, yet still the battle rages on, seemingly endlessly.
Just when you think that things can't get any worse, suddenly a message crackles over the radio: you're ordered to fall back immediately to the secondary command post. Jerry has artillery on the way. You engage in a frantic fighting retreat, as the artillery shells start to rain down, levelling the town square in a cacophony of thunder and smoke. As another wave of German tanks rolls over the river, the reinforcements from Able Company arrive, with the welcome sight of a platoon of Sherman tanks, at last allowing you to fight back on an even footing. It's a stunning level, and one that will test your ability to apply what you've learnt about true Second World War combat tactics in the previous missions.
Company of Heroes is a game destined to push back the boundaries of what is thought to be possible in the RTS genre. Whilst it may not completely revolutionise the genre, Company of Heroes does represent the next great evolutionary step. It uses realistic tactics and damage models to add to the atmosphere of authenticity, but doesn't foul itself on the tank trap of realism for realism's sake. It uses unprecedented levels of graphical fidelity and physics modelling to create a wholly immersive environment, but the level of violence never feels gratuitous - it's simply a representation of how things actually were.
Yet having toured the some of the D-Day battlefields on the day prior to the hands-on, it was a little unnerving to find how a virtual recreation of death and violence on such a grand scale could be so big a thrill and so much fun to play. No doubt the US Army Rangers landing at Omaha Beach didn't have very much fun on D-Day - it's hard to reconcile how the sacrifice of so many courageous men - genuine, true heroes - could become the throwaway entertainment for today's youth. Perhaps it's because we're lucky enough never to have had to fight against such a clear-cut evil to guarantee the freedoms we take for granted today. Perhaps it's because that when we play a game like Company of Heroes, we know that no matter how visceral, how realistic or how harrowing it may seem; nothing is truly at stake.
Maybe that's why we're so quick to label sportsmen as "heroes" - because we all need something, someone, to look up to and in this world of shades of grey, there's very little left to idolise. So if Company of Heroes goes some small way in helping remind us of the true values of sacrifice, honour and heroism shown by all the soldiers that fought over sixty years ago, maybe it's not such a bad thing after all...
For more details on our trip to France to see Company of Heroes, check out our travelogue, which goes into detail on the whole event.