It’s always curious when the first game a new title brings to mind is something in a completely different genre, but if Relic’s new RTS has a comparison point, it’s last year’s Call of Duty 2. Like Infinity Ward’s WWII FPS, it uses new technology, cinematic techniques and great game design to persuade you to play a type of game you should be sick and tired of, and actually make it feel fresh and thrilling. Even if you never wanted to see another RTS or another WWII game in your life – and certainly not something that combined the two – you really should change your mind about this one. Company of Heroes is one of this year’s few bona fide classics.
What’s so great about it? Well, like Call of Duty 2, a lot of the appeal is initially visual, lying in the astonishing level of gritty detail, the realistic animation of the soldiers, the rich surface textures and dynamic particle effects. Zoom in close and watch engineers build a bunker or Nazi troops spitting fire from a machine gun, and it’s one of the few RTS games that can actually stand that sort of close inspection. Then, as your troops rush into action, the tanks roll into town and the masonry starts flying, it hits you how interactive and open to destruction this battlefield is. If you can see it, you can wreck it, and this makes for some truly spectacular scenes. Buildings shatter when wracked by tank or mortar fire, walls will be rent asunder by speeding armoured cars, and artillery strikes fill the ground with smoke and craters. In a genre that frequently struggles to make a strong visual impression, Company of Heroes smacks your gob so hard that after a few hours you might not have much of a gob left. Be warned.
Even before that happens, you might notice that your troops don’t behave like the usual mindless morons. In Company of Heroes, as in Call of Duty 2, position and cover are everything, and getting caught out in the open is frequently a fatal error, wiping out whole squadrons at a stroke. In a lesser game this would be a nightmare, but in Company of Heroes your guys on the ground seem aware of their own mortality. They will find their own cover as they advance towards an objective, stop to return fire when attacked, and attempt to break for shelter when pinned down. You can take detailed control, ordering them to move aggressively or rain grenades or satchel bombs on enemy positions, but you don’t have to constantly micro-manage them. What a refreshing idea!