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The importance of facing extends to the heavy artillery. Big guns only work in an arc of fire, while tanks are more vulnerable at the sides or the rear, making anti-tank actions not a question of firepower but a case of outflanking and outmanoeuvring, or just simply ganging up from all sides. Satisfyingly, even the weakest troops can help here. Most have additional weaponry, grenades, satchel bombs, sticky bombs or optional flamethrowers, that can be put to good use against harder units or installations, and many maps have bigger guns or machine guns that can be captured and utilised by your most basic soldiers. In this game, a squad can take out a tank if they’re moved rapidly and intelligently, and this makes for a wide variety of shifting tactics. And the AI is perfectly capable of employing these as well. In other words, Company of Heroes keeps you constantly on your toes.
A lot of these changes may seem initially like tweaks rather than radical transformations of the RTS game mechanics, but the cumulative effect is to make the game feel new and unpredictable. You’re not just doing what you’ve done a million times before; you’re actually thinking on your feet. You need to. The enemy AI is merciless, and even in Easy mode, it’s constantly probing your defences and finding new ways to keep your troops pinned down, halt your ill-planned advances or batter your base from an angle you haven’t thought of. In Medium mode, it needs real judgement and determination to get through later missions, and – personally – I don’t even want to know how hard it plays in Hard mode. There’s a long single-player campaign and a clutch of single or multiplayer skirmish missions, and while there are only two factions to play with, I can’t imagine anyone getting through Company of Heroes too speedily.
Any gripes at all? Well, I wish that a) the game would make it clearer when your base was being attacked and b) that anti-tank batteries and troops would be a little more responsive when units or installations nearby were being attacked. Just because your anti-tank unit is pointing North, it shouldn’t be beyond them to haul their lazy asses around and tackle the Panzers obliterating your HQ from the West. Trust me – they would notice what was going on. It’s just that the average Company of Heroes mission gives you so much to do, that unless you’re a master multitasker, you can easily get caught up in an offensive, only to return and find that a single tank and two scrawny guys armed with flamethrowers have wandered in and practically wiped out your HQ.
Still, this isn’t a disaster. It just makes you work harder for the win. Forget all the underwhelming RTS games to have emerged so far this year – Company of Heroes makes you wonder how we’ve put up with such meagre rations for so long. It throws mediocre games like Rise & Fall and Star Wars: Empire at War into harsh perspective, and even embarrasses games of the quality of Rise of Legends or Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2. In other words, it’s utterly unmissable. So don’t.
A game that established new benchmarks for the small-scale RTS, and one of the few classic PC games to emerge this year. Sign up for this company as soon as you can.