Opinion Piece

Random Loot: Company of Heroes, A Game of Brilliance

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Random Loot is a series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews or even standard opinion pieces. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views or ideas in a quick, easy format. You’ve been warned.

Back in the day many people, myself full included in those numbers, were leaning toward the idea that the future of the RTS genre was all about size and scope. I didn’t want to worry about the small details. I didn’t want to focus on maximizing the usage of a singe troop or unit, I wanted to command entire armies and construct vast bases. I wanted huge artillery batteries and defenses that were ludicrous in scope.

And that’s probably why I have a deep and abiding love for Total Annihilation and its spiritual successor Supreme Commander, a game which featured gargantuan maps and massive armies. A match could take hours and hours to complete, and by the end my base would feature numerous reactors, shields, construct factories and more. The map would be replete with my mini-bases, some designed to simply pump at troops closer to the enemy and others focused on delivering constant artillery fire. I still love these kind of games, the ones that are about strategy, not tactics, which is to say focused on the big picture rather than the details. It’s why I was so excited by the idea of Planetary Annihilation, a game where you fought across entire planets. Sadly Planetary Annihilation struggles to live up to its own promise, as I discussed in a review a while back.

So when I was younger I was sure that no RTS would be better unless it was bigger. By Zeus’ underpants was I stupid. In 2006 Company of Heroes was released by Relic and THQ and it was a revelation to little old me and many others. Here was a game where the focus was on making split-second decisions and never having enough forces. Expanding to conquer another piece of the map wasn’t about just throwing down a lot of static defenses because you could, it was about trying to decide if you could really spread your troops out even further. An enemy attack is terrifying and often leaves you scurrying to redeploy troops from another part of the front line. A sudden appearance of a tank, an expensive unit and therefore rare, usually meant panic as you frantically try to fend it off.

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Company of Heroes isn’t about armies, it’s about squads, fragile squads who must be put into cover and used carefully lest they be ripped out by machine guns or blown apart by mortars. Positioning is key and thus you must consider every aspect of the battlefield, eyeing up flanking opportunities, chances to push forward and weaknesses in the enemy lines. A squad in cover can hold out for a long time, but if they get flanked they are dead, and may the Gods help them if they are ever caught out in the open by a machine gun crew. Individual abilities also kept you focused entirely on the battlefield.

It wasn’t about just commanding a huge array of units to just sort of pile into the enemy base, perhaps stopping just long enough to put the long-range stuff toward the back, the most complex piece of thinking you’d likely need to do outside of resource management. No, it was about getting a machine gun crew to lay down fire as a squad of troops of flanked the enemy so that you could capture that nice piece of land and field a mortar crew, or gain enough resources to call a tank into the action. And that flanking move was infinitely more intense than anything I’d ever done in an RTS before. I held my breath, hoping every second that the enemy didn’t have reinforcements waiting or that there wasn’t troops hiding in a building. Every command was thought-out and calculated because it had to be. With so few resources and troops mistakes were costly, and potentially fatal.

This had the added benefit of humanizing the game, of making you strangely care for the soldiers under your command. Squads were valuable, and so when one got blown to pieces by a mortar or decimated by a tank it felt like a real blow. Watching a lone soldier attempt to struggle through the mud and dirt and blood of his old comrades was sad, a reflective moment amidst the carnage. Other games are about armies, but Company of Heroes is about people.

The focus was also taken away from building a base, one of the core tenants of my RTS style games. Company of Heroes had only a few buildings and a small amount of units to choose from, and defensive choices weren’t varied. What defenses you did have had to be deployed near the front line, and rarely did you had enough to fortify home-base with. As somebody who loves constructing a complex and sprawling base this was the only aspect of the game that I mildly disliked, but it wasn’t a big problem because the front line required so much attention there was never time to dote on a base. Before line thoughts of base plans faded from my mind as planning out a new attack or reacting to an assault consumed me. A second of inattention was failure.

Borrowing an idea from their other title Dawn of War, a stellar RTS in its own right, Relic also tied the acquisition of resources into conquering and holding parts of the map, with supply lines being able to be broken by a crafty enemy. One could argue that this gives too much of an advantage to the aggressive players and makes it hard to counter attack, and in some ways it’s true. Losing sectors can be a hefty blow to your war efforts, but good use of your remaining forces can still win back the day. In most RTS games a lot of resources are tucked neatly into the players territory, and thus we see the first two-thirds of the game often being about mining and building with small skirmishes, before the final third which sees the big armies collide. Perhaps some expansion takes place, but usually without bumping into the enemy. With resources spread out and demanding that you capture and hold them Company of Heroes, like Dawn of War, forced players into immediate attack, defend and repel cycles. There’s no rest for the wicked.

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We’re now eight years or so on since the game’s release and it still holds up beautifully. The mechanics are just sublime in the truest sense of the word, every aspect of the gameplay wonderfully linked to the next. Even the graphics still hold up quite well. And finally there came a sequel back in 2013, although it got somewhat mixed response, some citing a lack of change as a major problem, a legitimate criticism given not only the huge gap in time but also the fact that the original Company of Heroes was a big step forward for the genre. I’ve got a copy sitting on my shelf, and all I need to do is grab the idiotic 7gb update. To this day, though, I’ve only played something like 15-minutes of the game. I don’t know why. In comparison I played another hour of the original last week, bringing my total play time up into scary figures. Some part of me feels that a sequel didn’t need to happen, that the game was perfect as it was, and while future RTS titles should take notes and carefully examine what Company of Heroes did right an actual sequel wasn’t needed. But I’ll get round to playing it at some point I’m sure. I’ll have some spare time over the next month or so since releases this early in the year are rare and often naff, so now is the time to get started, assuming I can drag myself away from Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Of course Company of Heroes does owe a lot to Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, a truly brilliant game as well. And in some ways Dawn of War gets overlooked in favor of Company of Heroes. Dawn of War brought in the control points and the fantastic idea of replenishing squads in the field and giving them upgrades that could make them more effective. It deserves a lot of credit for helping advance the RTS formula as well, but Company of Heroes took it further and created a hugely tense game where every moment counted. No RTS makes me feeling as on edge, tense and excited as Company of Heroes.

Somehow developers Relic took a huge step forward by going small and more focused, creating a tight and strategic RTS, the impact of which should  never be underestimated. The real-time strategy genre can often feel like it isn’t evolving, a style of game stuck in an infinite loop.  Go back to 1997 and Total Annihilation, one of my favorite games of all time, was released, and yet when compared to a modern RTS title very little has changed. The game still stands strong, which is both testament to the quality of Total Annihilation and the slowly evolving nature of the genre. Company of Heroes, though, was something different, something powerful and brilliant.

Now, eight years later it seems almost harsh to say that the game hasn’t left much of legacy. The genre hasn’t learned that much from Relic’s masterpiece, thus it’s hard to say that Company of Heroes was truly influential on the industry. However, it has been influential on me and so many other strategy lovers who opened the box back in 2006 and installed the game and have just kept on playing.

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1 reply »

  1. This is the game that got me back into PC gaming for good. Boy, that transition from cinematic to gameplay on the 1st level of the campaign blew my mind at the time. Still play it on occasion with the new Steam version. Classic for sure. Thanks for the article. I’ll be playing a few 1v1 skirmishes now.

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