Call me jaded if you like, a megalomaniacal game reviewer with delusions of grandeur, or maybe a guy who has just played too many games in the past six years, but in most ways Company of Heroes is really just Warhammer 40K Dawn of War (also by Relic) with a new coat of paint. Certainly many of the most distinctive features of DoW can still be seen in the CoH gameplay. Squads, for example, work as a group of individual units, and when units die you can call in replacement members to bring the squad back up to full strength using the same click interface as DoW. The game also consists of capturing and holding strategic points on the map to gain resources. In DoW there were (I don't really remember it's been awhile since I've played it) command points and relic points. Here you're claiming fuel, ammunition, and manpower. Like Blizzard with the Warcraft series (up until WoW at any rate), Relic has found a formula for RTS games that works, and they're sticking with the horse that brung them with CoH. That's not a bad thing ‚Ä“ it's a very good thing in fact ‚Ä“ and they've clearly all put on their thinking caps and packed the game with a lot of features new or improved to the game mechanics.
The single player missions span an entertaining collection of capturing some area, holding off a counterattack, or protecting or assaulting some convoy, all of course within the structure of the allied invasion. You could argue, certainly, that the allied invasion of Europe during WWII is not an original plot, but tying the missions together from the storming of Omaha beach up into Carentan and down the road into Cherbourg and then inland has created a sort of seamless storytelling (with outstanding cutscenes tying it all together), like the videogame equivalent of Saving Private Ryan. A friend of mine says that the mission structures and locations are historically accurate, which I suppose is a plus to those who care about such things. The 15 single-player missions are of extremely variable length, some as short as 15 minutes and some taking a couple of hours with multiple main and side objectives. Throughout you play solely on the allied side of things, and only get a chance to try out the Axis side in skirmish and multiplayer.
The map terrain features buildings that units can hide in, stone walls and wrecked vehicles that units can hide behind, and in general a level of complexity that creates natural choke points and barriers and result in base and strategic point defense requiring a little more thought than usual, and it's just about all completely destructible. Here's a zany thought ‚Ä“ an infantry can blow a hole in the ground with a satchel charge, and then climb into the depression for additional cover. A well-balanced collection of unit skills and vulnerabilities forces you to plan out assaults carefully. Units are expensive, and early on before you have captured some strategic points you're going to have to keep every one you can alive. I always felt one of the peculiarities of DoW was just how disposable units were. That's not the case in CoH, especially once a unit has gained some experience, and veteran units can be carried from mission to mission. A single elite sniper unit can hold a roadway for hours as long as no armor comes rolling down the street.
Defensive structures have gotten much more interesting. DoW had, again as I recall, only a single type of machine gun emplacement. CoH has machinegun emplacements as well, but they have a specified field of fire, about 60 degrees, so you might need several to cover all the possible approaches. There are also landmines, barbed wire, sandbags, and tank traps. You can bolster those defenses with units manning heavy machineguns, howitzers, mortars and anti-tank weapons (all with particular fields of fire). The enemy of course gets to come at you with a selection of weaponized jeeps, heavy and light tanks, armored vehicles, minesweepers, satchel charges, grenades, and flamethrowers. It all looks great, and seems to all fall roughly in scale, which is a refreshing change to games that often have tanks as big as houses.
And speaking of tanks, a couple of nifty varieties are included that really expands their role and makes their use more than just the usual tank rush. Some tanks, for example, have a minesweeping capability (but at the expense of their main gun), while others have heavy machine guns or flamethrowers for use on infantry and structures. You can also use the minesweeper threshing capability on infantry, which makes an entertaining pink mist. Tanks have more armor in the front than the rear, making flanking assaults against them very effective, and it is possible to damage a tank's engine or main gun, requiring a quick field repair before moving on.
The units are drawn in great detail with tanks driving along trailing smoke and explosions hurling bodies into the air. When a unit garrisons a building you can see their little rifles sticking out the windows. The scenery really looks intricate and war-torn with broken stone walls and abandoned buildings ‚Ä“ some as small as outhouses with others as grand as cathedrals.. All of this probably comes at a pretty high system requirement, but I wouldn't know as I've got the √ľber-computer. For those of you who haven't spent the GNP of a small South American nation on your computer, you might see some slowdowns or be forced to run at lower detail levels.
Multiplayer has essentially only a single mode similar to skirmish mode. The map area contains the usual ammo, manpower, and fuel zones, but now also has the addition of victory zones. Holding a victory zone causes your opponent's number of victory points to fall. The first team to hit zero loses. There is a secondary mode that is very similar, only without the victory points and involves simply annihilating the enemy to win. One interesting point about multiplayer is that the game has only two playable sides: Axis or Allies. In a more than two player multiplayer game, the players are split into two teams. In comparison to many other recent RTS games that have three (or sometimes four or five or six) different ‚Äúraces‚ÄĚ to choose from, just two does feel like something of a step down. CoH tries to expand this by including different schools of specialization. Each side has three schools: armor, infantry, and airborne for the Allies; defensive, blitzkrieg and terror for the Axis. The Allies, for example, can specialize in paratrooper groups that can be dropped on any revealed map terrain or can call in air support, while the Axis can call in V-2 rocket attacks or use tanks in blitzkrieg attacks. While the various schools are distinctly different, they don't play anywhere near as differently as the multiple races in DoW, for example.
The greatest problem in CoH is that old bugaboo the AI, which seems by turns clever and then incredibly stupid. I've been in a position where I'm methodically marching the front forward capturing ground, and the enemy somehow sneaks a unit into my backfield and starts taking undefended or moderately defended territory. But the AI doesn't seem to try and consolidate these gains or even hold onto them, as if it is more interested in simply sowing chaos without any real plan to win. He's not beating me, he's harassing me. In fact, throughout the entire single player campaign (normal difficulty setting) I was never in serious danger of losing on any of the missions, and I'm by no means an RTS or military genius. The enemy also tends to move tanks around singly, meaning that if you run tanks in pairs his armor rarely poses a threat. On the other hand I've seen the enemy probe and then defeat what I felt were pretty comprehensive defensive structures. If I had the time I'd play it again in hard mode and let you know if that is better, but I'm going to have to leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Company of Heroes is a good game, but not a great game. It's not the second coming; depending on your personal spin it's probably not the best RTS ever; it's not the game that is going to re-energize the RTS genre. I keep coming back in my mind to the phrase ‚Äúevolutionary not revolutionary‚ÄĚ no matter how overused and hackneyed it sounds. I'm impressed with the number of brainy adjustments made to the usual Relic formula, a whole lot of which I haven't even covered in here, but if you didn't like DoW, CoH is unlikely to draw you into Relic's fan club. Of course if you liked DoW, CoH is like that, only more so.