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But the thing that really impresses – and that will keep you coming back for more – is the core gameplay itself. By now we all know the RTS drill. 1. Build base, 2. Defend base, 3. Expand territories and harvest resources 4. Build strike force 5. Attack enemy base. Now, in truth, Company of Heroes doesn’t throw this entirely out of the window. There is still some degree of base building and base fortification, and the game uses a system of control points to stock up on fuel, munitions and manpower – the three resources in the game. However, you can easily forget this, because Relic isn’t playing by the normal boring RTS rules.
For a start, the campaign missions are heavily cinematic, with opening and concluding cut-scenes in the Call of Duty 2 style, plus linking scenes that play out as each mission progresses. You may begin a mission with simple objectives, but these can change radically halfway through, as the fiendish German forces attack or counter-attack, or as Allied defences crumble. You may start missions without a base and have to set one up, or not have one the whole way through, forcing you to call in paratroops when you need new reinforcements. And best of all, there’s a surprising amount of variety. You get search and destroy missions, missions where you must capture and hold particular control points, and missions where you must just defend for a specific amount of time, as Kapitan Kraut throws wave after wave of axis terror at you. You get frantic assaults where you send the tanks in, then follow up with troops, mortars and heavy machine guns, and equally frantic defences where you employ what resources you have and make Fritz the Hun work for each and every house, street or bridge.
The great thing is that it never feels fake or abstract. Instead, you feel part of the overall picture, and that your actions have real consequences, both for your men and the battle for Europe. It’s the first RTS that has ever made me feel guilty about the senseless waste of men. And this immersive, emotional, cinematic feel is maintained by the soundtrack, with music kicking in at appropriate moments of high drama, and awesome multi-channel sound effects that dish out ear-ringing quantities of blood and thunder.
And that’s not all. I’ve already mentioned how important cover is, but probably not emphasised enough how much Company of Heroes makes you think about the map and where you can shelter, sneak or snipe from. Even the facing of troops is vitally important. For instance, Germans machine-gun emplacement will be absolutely lethal from one direction, making a head-on assault suicide, but they are vulnerable from the side or the rear. Sneak in a trooper with a timely grenade, and you can clear it out with minimal casualties. What’s more, both you and the enemy can deploy troops inside buildings, firing out from windows to defend a public square or strategically positioned farmhouse. Again, this makes it hard to deploy a headlong assault, but if you can’t shoot them out, why not blast them to smithereens? Bring in the tanks or mortars, and those snipers or machine-guns no longer look so deadly. After all, they can’t hide behind walls if the walls have been pounded to dust.