Ten-hut!

Wow, it is really hard to carry the force of character that R. Lee Ermey does on a daily basis for his show Mail Call. Heck, if I could, I would have him in here to read off this review, just on the basis that Company of Heroes is right up his alley. Either way, we will take a good close look at the various parts of this game from veteran design studio Relic Entertainment and THQ. First up, my review system stats:

  • Athlon 3000XP
  • 2 gigbytes of Corsair Value Select RAM
  • ASUS A8N-SLI Premium Motherboard
  • Nvidia Geforce 7900GT video card
  • AC97 Sound
  • Logitech MX 1000 mouse

The troops really hit the ground running for this title. This game would have your tabletop wargamers and modelers drooling over the little details that were put in it. The levels are very well rendered while still being completely destructable. Buildings splinter apart and men perform realistic ragdoll animations when hit or killed. This game brings a top-down view of the World War II battlefield, and it delivers on the detail. This same detail does require a sufficiently up to date video card to run. I ran the game on my ATI 9700mobility video card for my laptop, and I had to turn down every single slider just to make it out of the single digit framerates. On my main system though the game ran like a champ at full detail and 4x anti-aliasing. It is worth mentioning that the game has a bug with SLI systems out of the box, but a patch has already corrected this. The bug is circumvented by simply disabling SLI on the system. I’ll mention the music first for this section, as I am still conflicted. The music is orchestral pieces that are pretty standard for any war movie. They are also very low key for the most part and don’t affect the game very much. I really should not complain about it too much as it is some decent music, it just doesn’t stand out as amazing.

On the other hand, I would really like to shake the hands of the team that did the voice and foley (background sound) for this game. Simply based on the sound alone, I have not been able to watch a unit get slaughtered without feeling like they were real people. The voice clips for the game were well chosen and while they do repeat sometimes, after many hours of play I still hear items that manage to pull me back to the period and forget that I am sitting at a computer screen. ‘Good enough for Army work’ doesn’t define how much detail went into the surrounding combat noise. Because of the lack of advanced information technologies, this game relies on the noise of combat and good ‘ol Eyeball Mark I to let you know what is happening around the field. Even on headphones, I can quickly and easily determine where the combat is or the incoming mortar fire and issue orders to counter it. Relic has taken their knowledge gained from Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and produced a much refined interface for Company of Heroes. The game makes it very easy to access all of your unit producing buildings by adding a hotbar over the right-hand command panel. This lets you issue upgrade and new unit requests quickly and easily without having to look back at your base. In fact, the whole interface has been modified to support this, leaving you free to keep looking over the battlefield for the enemy. To add to that, they have added a tactical map view to the game that makes it very easy to reassign units to new areas as the battlefield changes. My only complaint is that when you use the tab key to select individual units in a group, you can’t shift-tab to cycle backwards.

Okay, so I’ve been pretty much gushing over this review so far, but now we’re down to your basic brass tacks. This game has it all up to this point with a refined interface, great sound, and amazing graphics. But at first glance, I found myself asking what the game brought to the table that made it more than your standard RTS? Amazingly enough, several things come to mind right away.

First up, Command XP allows you to spend points to customize your troop options to suit your play style. You have your choices of Infantry, Airborne, and Armor command trees, and each one provides special upgrades and units that you can use to crush the enemy. The Infantry tree, for example, provides you with Rangers, Off board artillery, 105mm Howitzers, and the ability to summon in a force of M-10 tank killers and support troops for them. One of the early Infantry choices gives your basic riflemen the ability to build defenses like combat engineers. This ability to customize while you play really meshes well with the overall flow of the game, without adding a bunch of research topics in a ‘Research Lab’ building.

Next, the tactical map really steps up into a primary role in the interface. I found that the mini-map in the game was good for locating those little red dots, but did little to help me know what unit was where, etc. The tactical map is so easy to pull up, scan, and click units to a new location that it became second nature for me to glance at it rather than use the mini-map. The only thing I had to get used to was the different unit symbols and that did not take long.

Finally, the use of cover and terrain for your units really makes this game a gem. Relic already had a small hand on this by indicating with your mouse cursor (and symbols over the unit) the level of cover in Dawn of War. With Company of Heroes, they have elevated this somewhat, going as far as showing where your men will be taking cover at. It is a beautiful thing to see two units of riflemen crouching at a wall and taking shots at passing infantry troops. (I might mention that crashing a tank through the aforementioned wall is also too much fun, but I digress.)

My favorite mode of most of the RTS games is the skirmish mode, and I found Company of Heroes to be just a little limited. There are fifteen maps available to skirmish on, the same maps that are used in Multiplayer. They aren’t bad, but I found myself wanting more. If Relic follows their usual design strategy, a map editor should be out sometime for the game.

On the same note, I found the skirmish AI to be both challenging and disappointing. The AI is very aggressive about capturing points and will keep you on your toes protecting your resources. On the other hand, the AI loves its tanks, and will have them walking all over you as soon as possible. From what I can tell, the AI doesn’t even make use of the other Command XP tracks at all, and focusses solely on tanks every time. I found this very limiting, because it means I have to focus on anti-tank tactics every time either and it reduces the effectiveness of the Command XP tracks outside of multiplayer and singleplayer.

I do believe Relic and THQ deserve a nod on their choice of copy protection for the game. As the game only provides you a way to play on LAN or through their online service (no direct connect), and signing up requires a CD key, they have put no copy protection on this title. Thank you for making the game easy to play!

All of the game’s elements come together to give you an amazing view of the battlefield of World War II. While I’m certain that battlefield commanders from that era didn’t have such instant information and control over the units under their command, the game does a wonderful job of limiting you to a WWII level of information. Combine that with the well thought out interface, and you have a winner!

n/a