If I had a pound coin for every World War 2 game I had ever played, I'd be a rich man. Between the Medal of Honour series, Call of Duty, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Day of Defeat, Brothers in Arms, Battlefield 1942, Commandos… the list of World War 2 inspired games could go on and on.
It would, therefore, take a truly great game to be able to justifiably call itself the very best World War 2 game. Well, that great game may have just appeared…
The developer behind the Homeworld series and more recently Warhammer: Dawn of War (the RTS game based on the Warhammer 40,000 franchise), Relic Entertainment has now turned its hand to World War 2 with this effort - Company of Heroes.
In this attempt Relic has tried to do what every other developer has attempted to do; a gritty, mud-in-yer-face, bullets-in-your-arse, recreation of the most devastating war in history. Read on to find out why this game succeeds in all of that and then goes further than any other game has ever done.
First things first then, officially this game is classified as an RTS (real time strategy for those of you not keen on your acronyms), however I feel it's far more than that. You take control of Able Company, and American paratrooper regiment following a storyline path remarkably similar to HBO's excellent television drama Band of Brothers. You begin the game in the beach landing of Normandy, playing through 15 campaign missions before ultimately toppling the Fuhrer in bombed out Berlin.
In essence this game is an improved version of the Warhammer games previously received with critical acclaim, obviously with a World War 2 makeover. You control a military force made up of soldiers and vehicles, which along with the traditional move and shoot options have certain special abilities.
You usually have a base HQ, which you supply with resources (catergorised as fuel, munitions and people) by capturing flags around the map, which can then be turned into new troops and resources. The difference between this game and Command & Conquer, however, is the amount of control you can exert over how you position your troops. Imagine Command & Conquer as a woman, Commandos as a man, and the resulting mating session spawning Company of Heroes.
Dodgy mental images aside, the point remains that this game is distinguished by the way you are able to control your troops. When you select a paratrooper group – made up of 6 guys – you can move them around as with every other RTS game. However, when you move them - and these chaps can be directed anywhere you would expect them to go in real life, no artificial limits here - a set of dots appears where you're planning on dropping them. No dots means no cover, so they will probably die pretty quick if anyone gets them in their sights; orange means they have a bit of cover and green means good cover suitable for launching fire from.
This is an exquisite system that is only pulled off by the game's great AI system. Your troops rarely suffer from that tragic condition found in many RTS games of running in circles, doing the chicken dance in front of the enemy. Instead they always seek the best cover possible, diving to the ground automatically if they get shot at too much, causing them to be 'pinned'. This whole process allows for a far more realistic, fulfilling war experience where you really feel you are commanding an intelligent, well-trained, military unit.
Of course what applies to you applies to the enemy too, and you'll spend most of the game up against Nazi troops that have taken up great defensive positions, holed up in buildings, hidden behind burnt out cars or in freshly made craters. Again the game excels in these situations, offering you multiple ways of overcoming the opposition.
You could flank them, pepper-potting your troops forward so that they cover one another through the bombed-out streets. Or you can take the patented, tried and tested American approach and just blow the crap out of everything in your way. Buildings topple when you chuck rockets, shells and C4 detonators into them. Defences, like burnt out cars and bits of rubble, can be exploded into the air as your tanks turn their attention that way. When you do get a direct hit, your weapons send Nazi enemies spiralling in beautifully fatal, ragdoll enabled arcs through the air.
The nitty-gritty of this game is that it feels like war. In one mission, you fight a long and hard battle to take the French town of Carentan. Once that mission is completed you are then informed that the Germans are preparing a counter-attack. A little timer pops up informing you that you have less than 10 minutes to prepare your defence of the town, blockading three bridges and keeping the Germans from reestablishing control. The ensuing battle is like nothing you will have experienced in a game before...