Any game based on WWII is always going to find it tough. Firstly, it is hard to stand out from the pack as there are so many WWII-based titles on the market today - both good and not so good. Secondly, any game based on historical events needs to be careful it does not sacrifice too much history in the name of gameplay. Company of Heroes manages to score on all fronts and is truly an outstanding game.
The game is fought on two levels. The first is strategic: you need to capture territories to slowly take over the map. This is done by raising your flag on the territory marker. Some of these points are mere territory while others contain vital supply points. Some contain munitions, while others contain fuel. This is effectively the currency of the game. The more you have of each the more units you can purchase. You only gain benefits from them, however, if you have a direct line of supply from your base to the supply point (a continuous line of territory). The strategic game is based on capturing these areas as quickly as you can, defending them while you build units and structures.
On a tactical level, you command various troop types including infantry, airborne troops, mortars, machine gunners, engineers and snipers. You also have command of heavier weapons such as AT guns, jeeps, armoured cars and tanks. Each unit has been faithfully reproduced in terms of uniform and abilities, however in the interest of game balance the disparity in armour quality between the Allies and Axis has been evened out.
You can manoeuvre your units around in squads. These units perform with a reasonable degree of AI, seeking cover and going to ground when fired upon. They will shoot when a target is presented and use heavier weapons when needed. You can command the unit to use grenades and satchel charges. A handy feature is the ability to take over weapons that are discarded or captured. This effectively splits your squad into two with the new weapons squad being able to act independently from its parent squad.
The squads also can build structures. The engineers are required to build barracks and supply tents where both men and vehicles are generated, while they and general infantry can build sand bag barriers for heavy cover, barbed wire fences, and lay mine fields. You can also build structures to defend your strategic points to prevent their recapture.
As your troops progress in battle they also progress in ability. Through various stages, your veteran troops shoot more accurately and tend to react more effectively in combat. This makes you less likely to charge in, but rather husband your units so they become more effective over time. If in contact with your supply point you can also upgrade your units with additional weapons such as bazookas and low-recoil rifles. If you do lose some of the men in your unit you can also call reinforcements to beef up your numbers.
To be successful in the game - whether it be in single play, skirmish or online, care must be taken to use supportive arms. Combining heavy weapons such as machine guns and mortars in your assault units ensures that you can pin your enemy and take them out without too much damage to yourself. Creating crossing fields of fire can be very devastating and whole units can be quickly taken out this way. Be careful though, as the enemy can create a similar situation in its favour.
Defence creates similar challenges. Careful placement of mines, tank obstacles and barbed wire can create some devastating killing grounds to trap the unwary enemy. These obstacles will require your enemy to waste precious time blowing them up or trying to bypass them.
The game graphics are 3D, allowing you to zoom right into the action, and are also utilised in the campaign for the FMV sequences between battles. What lifts the graphics from merely good to fantastic is the fact that nearly all the elements on the battlefield are destructible. If you see enemy troops duck behind some drums, these can be blown apart by heavy machine gun fire. Snipers in a house? A satchel charge can deliver some very effective urban renewal. The battle feels very realistic because of this, and lends itself to a more tactical style of gameplay.
As a commander of units, when you gain territories and win skirmishes you also gain command points. These can be used to acquire special abilities or doctrines that allow you differing upgrades and benefits such as artillery strikes.
Where the graphics do fall down a bit is in how elevation is portrayed: not very well, unfortunately. Most battlefields are flat, however slight undulations abound and it can be difficult to site your AT gun so it has a clear field of fire. Sometimes you can find your AT gun farrowing the earth directly in front of it rather than dealing to the oncoming Tiger Tank. This a small gripe and so is the occasional tracking problem (evident with mortar team packing and unpacking when all you want them to do is fire). Overall, though, the graphics are excellent.
The game comes with a campaign, and this is loosely based on the events of the invasion of Normandy... or rather, the events based on the American view of WWII. Yes, you get to fight once again on the beaches of Omaha where human courage seems to overcome impossible odds. All the battles you fight are vital to the war effort and ultimately the winning of the war itself. Somehow the naval effort of pounding the guns on Omaha Beach is forgotten, as is the Germans running out of artillery shells, or on the wider scale that two thirds of the invasion was made up of Commonwealth troops. You need to take the historical message in the game with a few grains of salt.
Where the game really excels is in multiplayer mode. Playing either the Germans or the Americans, the game is a mad rush of capturing territories, small unit battles and lightning strikes by armoured units. It's a lot of fun and probably the best RTS game on the market today in this regard.
Company of Heroes is a fabulous game which offers hours of entertainment. The campaign is an exercise of patience and tactical skill: the skirmish game hones these skills, while online play challenges you against the best in the world. If you have an interest in RTS games then this one is a must-have, and we are willing to bet that this will be a front runner for RTS game of the year.