My dad isn’t really into computer games. They’re not his thing; something vital about them eludes him, and whatever it is that keeps me hooked to the PC for hour after hour is something that he just can’t approve of. It’s not the fact that they’re games – he likes games. He likes chess best of all. It’s a true match of skill, without any element of luck in it. Mind against mind, each struggling to use the tools to hand to best the other. In this, he’s quite right.
I’m not a good chess player, not by a long straw. I’m too impulsive and I don’t think my moves through well. But I still enjoy the game for the reasons my Dad loves it – it is a very pure form of strategic combat. There is little you can blame when you lose other than your own lack of forethought. It’s always different, every time. And each match has a sort of story behind it, as your every move must be attack and defence both at once. Do you see where I’m going with this review yet?
Company of Heroes might seem quite as original as it once was, as the formula has been much emulated. But today, five years after its launch, it’s still one of the most extraordinary strategy games around. Recently, it received a long-awaited balance patch, along with a levelling of the upper rungs of the multiplayer ladder. There are huge numbers of people still playing it, still getting heated over what needs nerfing or what constitutes unsporting play (anything that causes me to lose, in my book). Along with Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valour, the two expansions, this is one of the essential games of the last ten years, and now is a good time to be playing it.
It’s a second world war RTS that came hot on the heels of the equally successful Dawn of War game from Relic, and the formula from that game was honed and improved. Like most RTS games, it’s about base building and resource management. The simple twist that made the game something different enough to shine was that the resource you are fighting over here is essentially the map itself.
Each map is split into sections, controlled by a capture point. As long as the sector can trace a line through territory you control back to your HQ sector, it provides you with a steady flow of one of the three flavours of resource. Manpower buys you troops and reinforces wounded squads. Fuel buys you upgrades and vehicles. Ammunition powers the special abilities of your troops. If your income in any one of these three stalls, you’re at a disadvantage. For two reasons – firstly, you can’t keep your tech tree progressing. And second, if you’re not controlling the sector, your opponent probably is, so you just know he’ll be bringing the heat any minute.
The original game had the Americans and the German Wermacht factions, both utterly distinct yet capable of enormous flexibility. The USA are an offensive powerhouse, excellent at rushing out across the map and seizing land, but a little delicate compared to the heavy specialists of the Wermacht, who can build concrete bunker lines and bring on the game’s toughest tanks. Each side is made further individual by a choice of three optional Doctrines. These are ability trees, whose global abilities are bought by points earned as you beat your opponent. The USA, for example, could choose the Armour Command tree and opt for a vehicle-heavy approach with field-repairing tanks and heavy tank destroyers. Or it could go for the versatility of the Airbourne company, with paratroopers that can be dropped in wherever you need them, backed up by strafing and bombing runs from fighters. Or you could rely on the Infantry commander, and swamp your enemy with footsoldiers, including bazooka wielding Rangers. The Wermacht have similar options, between boosting their already impressive defenses, using the terror of V-1 rockets and super-heavy tanks or an overwhelming blitzkrieg assault.
And that’s before you add in the two other sides that come with expansion pack Opposing Fronts – the stiff upper lips and massive artillery of the British Commonwealth, or the ultra-fast and manoeuvrable light tanks of the Panzer Elite. Each with a choice of three alternatives, each of which grants unique abilities and units. Each faction plays so differently, feels so unlike the others, that there is a lot of playtime to be had just getting to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The graphics were future-proofed on release. Almost nobody had a computer that could even cope with the top graphics options back when this first shipped. Some computers couldn’t even show you the maximum setting in the options screen without bursting into inadequate tears. Drawing on the washed-out, dirty look of films like Saving Private Ryan or the TV series Band of Brothers, there’s a sense of quiet menace to each map that makes you feel almost sorry for your men. The voice acting is superb, my favourites being the filthy abuse that the British Tommies give each other when sitting about idle. They scream and die as you send them to the wrong capture point at the wrong moment. They panic when the enemy tanks turn up. They plead for your attention and help if you send them into a minefield, or if a sniper starts picking them off. It’s packed with character, so even though they are, at the end of the day, your lowly grunts, you still care about them. By god, you’re proud when they drive off a Volksgrenadier advance and keep your fuel point safe. And a little part of you dies inside when they’re torn up by mortar fire later on.
Attack and defend – you have to protect the land you capture. But you also have to deny your opponent the points he’ll otherwise use to beat you. Will you advance past his front line, drive deep and try and cut him off? Or will you fortify your gains with mines, wire, tank traps and machine gun nests? Personally, I usually go for neither. I flap about indecisively between the two, watching my heroic engineers being slaughtered by grenades and my anti-tank gun crews being flanked by flame-throwers. O, the humanity.
The single player campaigns take you from D-day to the Battle of the Bulge, or across the bridges of Arnhem. Tales of Valour adds a couple of shorter escapades that focus on just a handful of units, and they’re not quite as much to my liking. Although they’re still good, the feeling of controlling a few super-powered units rather than a likeable but all-too-fallible platoon of soldiers takes something away from the game. Battles vary between ambushing supply trains, knocking out artillery posts and my favourites, capturing heavily defended positions and then holding their ruined barricades against the inevitable counter-assaults. Some add in extra capture points, strategic ones, which you must hold more of on a map to diminish your opponent’s victory counters. Furious disputes will be fought over these vital areas. The maps are packed with terrain that is first battered, then obliterated during the course of a battle. Every shell fired leaves its mark somewhere, and by the end of a game, large parts of a map can be reduced to cratered mud and flattened buildings.
Multiplayer focuses heavily on these strategic points. But everything about the game is strategic. Push ahead or sit tight? Where has your devilish enemy strewn mines? Has he gone for heavy armour or elite infantry? Every unit has a counter, every gambit a foil. Keeping an eye on what Jerry is up to can win you the game, if you plan ahead for what he brings to the front. There are common build lists and tactical ploys on lively websites like http://www.gamereplays.org/companyofheroes/ that can improve your grasp of the game no end. Or ruin it when you discover your mate has already read it first and memorised the counters.
But even a good drubbing remains entertaining. One of my favourite moments in a game ever was building up a fast strike force of Panzer Elite halftracks, ready to baserush the enemy, then sending them out in a long and deadly wagon train. I knew the foe had nothing to counter them at that point, thanks to a sneaky camouflaged kettenkrad watching his HQ. When that armoured column hit home, I’d win hands down. It never did, of course, because my kettenkrad hadn’t scouted the roads properly, and the entire troop ran foul of a massive minefield. Eighty percent of my troops flew around in the air dying for a while, and those who crawled out of the blazing wreckage were mown down by machine guns from a nearby windmill. I’d been utterly crushed. But I loved every minute. God help you if I’m your general.
It’s a deep, rich strategy game. It needs thought and planning. Huge reversals of fortune often happen in CoH, and you can even plan on how to sucker your enemy into traps or heavily fortified positions. Its like a dialogue, an elegant dance even, of lead and cordite based death. For almost a year, I’ve been locked in a fluid back-and-forth with my arch-nemesis Fyrdracca. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins. Neither of us has ever forgiven the other for the many widows our war has left in its wake, and neither of us will give up until the other finally steps down. He claimed in a bragging text a few days ago that our ceaseless struggle has given us an intimate knowledge of one another that’s almost sexual. That’s what arch-nemeses tend to do, though, get in your head and make unpleasant insinuations. Next time we meet up on the fields of Angoville, I fully intend to show him how an angry wall of Panzer IVs makes love.
Even now, the game looks as gorgeous as it did five years ago, and plays like a dream. Okay, it’s a bit daunting, especially playing online against people with five years of experience you don’t have. There are so many options it’s easy to get lost, or to focus on something you’re comfortable with and feel really cheated when your enemy thwarts you effortlessly. But there are mentors and videos aplenty to help, and a very welcoming community. If you somehow get tired of the vanilla game, Opposing Fronts adds two immense single player campaigns and new factions to fiddle with, as mentioned. Tales of Valour is less worthwhile, with just a few new units that you can swap out for old favourites, and some new styles of multiplayer combat that personally I find of limited value. But even after all that, mods abound, adding Russians or Modern battlefields or all kinds of other gimmickry. Rumours are out of a sequel (please Relic, please let it have the Pacific and naval combat). There is no WWII war film moment you can’t live for yourself in some way with this game. With the possible exception of that Oliver Reed one with the elephants. That’s another one for the sequel, Relic, elephants please.
It’s chesslike in the rigour it demands to play very well. Games don’t always thrive on intelligent players these days, I think. There’s too much out there that’s too easy and too determined to show you a good time, leaving a squalid feeling once you’ve exhausted the initial thrill. Like several of the relationships I had in my twenties. But it’s also chesslike in that it’s fairly quick to pick up the basics, and it will never cease surprising you or rewarding the time you spend developing your understanding of it. Like none of the relationships I had in my twenties.
Of all the computer games my Dad has ever squinted at with distrust verging on hostility, this is the only one to keep him watching for almost an hour (before he realised how long he’d been watching, shook his head at me disappointedly and went out to improve the lot of our fellow men or some other nobly doomed endeavour). For that alone, this game deserves some form of gaming Oscar. Go and play it. There really aren’t any good reasons not to.