For years, PC gaming has been trying to capture the cinematic quality of Hollywood movies to enhance the plot and bolster the in-game storytelling experience. First-person shooters have been able to pull this off with great success using scripted cutscenes, but RTS games typically lack the powerful graphics engines required to convey a visually convincing narrative. This shortcoming is nullified in Company of Heroes, which not only is the best-looking strategy game to date, but also has the most engrossing real-time strategy campaign we’ve ever played.
Developed by Relic (the makers of Homeworld and Warhammer: Mark of Chaos), CoH tells the story of Able Company’s battle through World War II, as Allied forces wrested control of Europe from the Axis. The 15-mission single-player campaign stretches from the beaches of Normandy deep into German territory as you liberate and defend important towns, secure roads for convoys, and destroy hidden Axis weapon depots.
All of this is presented with a combination of animated intro movies and stunning in-game cutscenes. The proprietary Essence engine is able to render character models and animations with a truly astonishing level of detail, which Relic combines with Spielberg-worthy cinematography to create degree of empathy for the characters that we’ve never felt in an RTS. Seeing the terrified looks on your men’s faces when they’re ambushed by a sniper really adds to your emotional investment in the game.
Individual maps are divided into many territory fragments. Capturing each one accelerates resource accumulation and expands your front lines. While this may sound simple on paper, the execution allows for an incredibly complex array of strategies and combat approaches. Taking control of roads can effectively split an enemy’s resource input in half, and garrisoning riflemen and heavy infantry in buildings provides ample support for key control points.
We were most impressed by how dynamic battles were ingame. The rock-paper-scissors method of combat is still in play, but players can turn the tide at any time with creative use of the battlefield. Tanks will devastate buildings and foot soldiers, but well-placed mortars, mobile artillery, and mine fields will halt any armor advance. Units can also pick up any weapon dropped by enemies, or alternatively upgrade to higher classes of munitions with experience. We had a blast lobbing grenades into windows, throwing sticky bombs on tire treads, and dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines. The fighting never lets up, and there are plenty of ways to send Nazis screaming home to their mommies.
CoH also employs the Havok 3 physics engine to ensure that bodies and buildings blow up as nature intended. Almost every vehicle, building, and tree is destructible with realistic damage modeling—we love watching trucks spin out of control and smash fiery holes in city walls. Other little nuances such as a diverse range of verbal taunts and dramatic death animations augment the gritty war setting.
Only in multiplayer can you fight as the Axis, as the game lacks an Axis campaign or any tutorial for that side. Relic’s online matchmaking system is smooth and easy to use, but we would’ve appreciated more setting options when hosting multiplayer rounds. CoH is also very technically demanding, so it’s a great excuse to upgrade your system. For SLI users, be sure to install the latest patch to fix a performance problem with dual videocards.
Even if you’re tired of WWII games, Company of Heroes is worth playing. It’s undoubtedly one of the best strategy games ever released. There are few better ways to spend 50 dollars.
Unrelenting combat, nailbiting strategic missions, and brilliant visuals and physics effects.