Company of Heroes is a game that I've had marked down as "a bit special" since I got to play the preview code at the end of July. So it's fair to say that I've been rather looking forward to this. Which, considering that I'm hardly the world's biggest RTS fan, is really saying something. One of the signs that you're playing a genuinely great game is that it can induce even the most hardened critics of the genre to put aside their prejudices and simply sit down, play the game and enjoy it. It was somewhat of a shock just how well I took to Company of Heroes and also a sign that this was a title not just content to be a first among equals, but instead be a title that would redefine people's expectations of exactly what an RTS should be.
I'm going to assume at this point that you've read our preview because this covers the vast majority of what you need to know, and will save us wasting time re-treading ground that's already been covered. Instead, I'm going to tell you why Company of Heroes can even make a self-avowed RTS-hater feel like a drooling fanboy when they play it.
What makes this game so good? Primarily, it's down to the tightness of the game design, which is firmer than a Scotsman's grip on his final fiver when he's at the pub on Friday night (and I should know - I'm Glaswegian). Maps are uniformly excellent: the ability to exploit or destroy cover allows you to adapt your tactics during the course of a level; frontal assaults, flanking manoeuvres and ambushes are all viable options, and the game gives you the freedom to approach battles with a defensive or offensive mindset. Traditional resource gathering (probably my biggest gripe with the genre) has been ditched entirely in favour of a system that Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War veterans should be familiar with. Command, Munitions and Fuel control points are laid out at strategic points on the map. Control of Command points builds up your ability to call in reinforcements. Munitions points build up your ammunition reserves, allowing you to use explosives (such as sticky bombs or satchel charges) more frequently, or upgrade your squads with heavier weapons, such as machine guns or recoilless rifles. Finally, Fuel points dictate your ability to call in armoured reinforcements, plus upgrade your Engineer units with flamethrowers. The key to this resourcing model is that if you're running short on any particular resource, you're going to have to take a risk and fight to gain access to it. This adds an extra dimension to the game, as strikes against your enemy's supply lines can be more effective than attacking their forces directly (as it impairs their ability to reinforce). It's a tactic that can be used to devastating effect during multiplayer games in particular, and encourages players to be more innovative than the traditional tank rush and meat grinder approaches to playing an RTS.
The other major thing that makes Company of Heroes stand out is the level of consistency in the game world. Thanks to the physics and damage modelling, everything acts as you'd expect it to. Tanks can drive through buildings to demolish them, forming impromptu highways that your infantry can use to flank garrisoned troops. Mortar shells arc gracefully through the air in precisely calculated parabolas. Wooden cover is less protective than brick or rock. Infantrymen get blown off their feet by grenades. All these little details help the game feel more real and immersive, and by dropping you immediately into the action at the beginning of each campaign mission, the game has a sense of focus unmatched by any of its peers - almost as if no second playing the game is wasted.
Best of all, though, is that Company of Heroes isn't about the technology rush to the most powerful unit on the tech tree. The balance of power between vehicles and infantry very much depends upon the map you are playing on. In the heavily urbanised maps, such as Cherbourg, the mobility of tanks is limited, leaving them vulnerable to infantry attack with sticky bombs and satchel charges: simply having the most powerful units is no guarantee of victory. Instead, you need to be able to use the appropriate units at the right time and in the right place. Being able to out-think, rather than simply out-muscle your opponent is an infinitely more satisfying way of playing the game, and the use of combined arms tactics (using infantry, vehicles, snipers and artillery, all in concert) is the most rewarding of all.
Once the campaign is done and dusted, you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time playing the game in online multiplayer or offline against the AI in skirmish mode. As with most games, the multiplayer is only as good as your opposition - varying from mediocre to fantastic, depending as much upon where your standard as a player sits within that spectrum as the opposition's. The online game browser perhaps isn't as stable as it could be, but the netcode is solid and shouldn't pose as an impediment to your enjoyment, provided you aren't sitting too close to the minimum spec. In skirmish mode, the CPU AI is agreeably vicious and will give even the most hardened of RTS junkies a run for their money on the smaller maps. Less experienced players will want to stick to the larger skirmish maps, where the bigger area gives you more tactical flexibility and time to plan, but don't expect an easy ride. Overall, I personally found the single-player campaign more compelling than the skirmish modes, but they should still provide a lot of enjoyment for players that have extracted all they can from the campaign mode.
Before this sounds like too much of a love-in... a few minor niggles did manifest themselves upon extended play: The learning curve is a little erratic and the jump in difficulty between a few levels of the campaign (most notably between levels 4 and 5) is a little too large. Relic also stated at the preview event that they wanted to get the player to really get attached to their units and treat them more like people than robots. Despite the cutscenes that draw you into action immediately, the luscious 3D engine that allows you to view the chaos from up close, the boisterous chatter from your soldiers and the squad experience system, it never really happens, and given how easy it is to replace troops, there's really very little in the way of incentive to make the player think that way, either. Despite the good length of the campaign (fifteen missions, taking a good 15-20 hours or so), it's a shame that an Axis counterpart campaign wasn't provided, though at least you are able to play as the Axis in the multiplayer and skirmish modes.
However, these gripes are easily forgiven when taken in the context of the game as a whole. Company of Heroes reinvigorates the sub-genre of the World War II real-time strategy game, and its confidence in its own excellence is aptly demonstrated in the very first few minutes of play. Most World War II games place the fabled Omaha Beach assault as the centrepiece of the title - here it's merely the opening gambit, tempting you with the delights to come. With game mechanics that have been pared and honed almost to perfection, plus arguably the most accessible of game settings, Company of Heroes' combination of heart-pounding action, visceral presentation and emergent tactics not so much raises the bar for RTS games but twists it into knots and blasts it into orbit. And coming from someone who'd rather pay a visit to the dentist than play another RTS, that's quite a compliment - so what are you waiting for? Join Able Company today!