Company of Heroes  

Game Name:  Company of Heroes
Developer:  Relic Entertainment
Publisher:  THQ
PC Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  December 21, 2017

It has been quite some time since I attended a LAN party.  Thinking back, my bachelor party was probably the final time my friends and I collectively lugged our computers out of basements and home offices for a night of cooperative gaming fun.  Technology like high speed internet and VoIP have long since relegated these gatherings to the dustbin of history, but I must admit that chatting with a buddy over a headset pales in comparison to staring them in the eye as we crush an anonymous internet foe together. This nostalgia for what used to be has a few of us planning just such a get-together after holiday commitments have ended and the short, cold days of winter shutter us all indoors.  Consider this retrospective’s playthrough practice, because the only game worthy of bringing my friends and our PCs back together is Company of Heroes.  Despite all of those tank battles, bunker buildups, and air raids that I experienced between college classes, a bug early on in my single player campaign prevented me from ever seeing what happened to Able Company’s salty crew of soldiers.  With the game long ago patched into its final state, though, now seemed like the perfect opportunity to see the end of that story, dust off the cobwebs for the LAN battles to come, and get a post for the site done at the same time.  Is it as good as I remember it? Yes, although it comes with a caveat for anyone like me who exclusively played skirmish matches and multiplayer.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, and a better start would be just explaining why Company of Heroes has such a broad appeal to this day.  A big part of it is that while the gaming industry has largely turned away from World War II settings, to the point where it is now considered novel for Activision to return its flagship Call of Duty franchise back to 1940s Europe, Relic’s masterpiece RTS has carried on that torch for gamers fascinated by the Greatest Generation’s crusade against a very clear form of evil in Nazi Germany.  Part of this interest is born from the stories of grandparents who have long since passed on, and part of it is born from the visual spectacle of mass entertainment like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers which are still watched by viewers today.  But it would be unfair to underestimate the impact, for folks my age at least, of those summer days spent building and painting model tanks and planes in a time before the internet dominated everyday life.  Seeing virtual dioramas spring to life in a giant destructible sandbox is the childhood dream made real that Company of Heroes offers, which cannot be matched by the slew of modern combat titles that have filled the market space over the last decade.

Of course, there is a reason most RTS developers eschew World War II as the setting for their games, and it is because that conflict, and the tactical complexity of its battles, do not mesh well with a genre defined by unit queues, resource collection, and mindlessly smashing one large army into another.  Relic upended this paradigm on its head by making the skirmishes at the front, rather than the supply lines at the rear, the centerpiece of their title.  Resources like manpower, ammunition, and fuel are passively generated based on the control of territory, which occurs the same way it does in Battlefield 1942; by sending a unit out to raise a flag over some strategic location on the map.  With players both required to focus on the battle and given the time to do so, a satisfying level of complexity and depth is afforded to prospective commanders as a unit’s directional facing can be controlled, cover can be sought, and special abilities can be toggled.  Rather than seeing something like pikemen beating cavalry, as happens in Age of Empires II because of a mathematical bonus that hides in the code of the game, there are few hard unit counters because they have been replaced by tactical weaknesses that are designed to be exploited.  A machine gun will lock down everything ahead of it in a frontal cone, so it’s best to attack from the flank.  A sniper will pick off enemy infantry, so it’s best to bring up a recon vehicle to ferret them out.  11 years ago, it seemed like this type of engaging back-and-forth was the future for the genre, but seeing as the only serious attempt to replicate these advancements was made by Relic with their own sequel, it has cemented for them a place as one of the best developers in the industry.

Fortunately for Company of Heroes, that sequel has not made its predecessor any less relevant on today’s gaming stage.  Part of this boils down to theme, as that newer franchise entry focuses on the Eastern Front battles between Germany and Russia, which immediately diminishes the interest of American gamers who want to see GI Joe front and center because they are operating under the delusion that the United States won the war singlehandedly.  As far as the campaign game goes, though, particularly when comparing the first game against the Ardennes Forest Expansion for the second, players quickly realize the scale of battle is different between the two titles.  Whereas the latter presents the kind of large, open-map engagements focused on victory points that multiplayer gamers will be used to, the former presents combat on a more intimate scale.  At the start of a new level, players may only be given a mortar squad, a jeep, and a group of rifleman before being asked to start going building by building and block by block to recapture a crumbling city.  This forces a level of micromanagement and puzzle solving from one firefight to the next that is incredibly engaging; especially when paired with cut scenes and narration that make gamers feel like they are experiencing the first few episodes from Band of Brothers.

There is so much more that can be said about Company of Heroes, but it all roundaboutly gets at the same basic fact.  Everyone who considers themselves a gamer and even those who are only passingly interested in the hobby should play this title; it is as simple as that.  This is the game that Kotaku writers said killed the RTS, and with good reason.  It so perfected the real-time strategy formula, which PC-gaming enthusiasts grew up with, that it is impossible to imagine Blizzard or anyone else surpassing Relic’s magnum opus.  Some may chafe at the campaign game’s limited focus, and if that is not the level of combat players want, then I would normally say that they have a legitimate complaint.  But for them, there are the extremely customizable skirmish matches which were my own primary method for experiencing this game, before sitting down to do this post.  While they may eliminate a lot of the unique gameplay scenarios and decouple the action from any sense of narrative, they still exhibit some of the very best gaming that money can buy.

Verdict:  Recommended