PC Game Review: Company of Heroes
Relic is a developer with a reputation for making innovative, fun games. What happens when they set their sights on the Second World War? Jim Zabek shares his thoughts.
For the last several years the Second World War has been the most popular historical era for the general gaming public. Mainstream gamers “discovered” it with a series of great movies starting with Saving Private Ryan, but in the eyes of those same mainstream gamers the luster may be starting to fade. The reasons for making a game set during the Second World War are consistently good: the tactics and equipment are modern enough to be familiar to any contemporary gamer and you can’t make this kind of drama up – the fight really was for world domination. The contrast between The Good Guys and The Bad Guys was stark, there was a lot of technological innovation, which allows for a nice variety of tools and equipment, and the geography covered by the conflict covered all aspects of habitable land – vast empty deserts, steamy jungles, frozen steppes, and picturesque French countryside. It is in that last setting that Company of Heroes takes place.
Relic has established a reputation for developing high quality strategy games that offer innovation. Company of Heroes is no exception. Although it is an RTS, there are a number of design choices made by Relic that make it stand out from others in the crowd. I’ll get to those features in a bit, but suffice it to say that Relic has managed to incorporate classic RTS gaming with innovation and a high gloss finish that is a very solid combined offering.
Amateurs Talk Strategy – Professionals Talk Logistics
The invasion of Normandy was perhaps one of the high points for drama in the European Theater. After successfully making the largest amphibious landing in history and establishing a narrow beachhead, the Allies managed to best an already astonishing record. Additionally, their logistical accomplishments of moving men and materiel into France using artificial harbors was amazing. When one considers the major setbacks due to weather, it is nothing short of unbelievable. Yet, for all of this, the fight for the Western Front was only just beginning.
It has been observed of warfare that “amateurs talk about strategy, professionals discuss logistics.” There is real truth to that statement. It is all well and good to secure a beachhead with military force, but without being able to resupply units in combat – bullets, food, fuel – any military success achieved will be short lived. RTS games are well positioned to incorporate logistics into their combat models. Many lack a realistic feel, but most at least make the effort to incorporate resource gathering and upkeep costs into their gameplay.
Relic has taken a relatively innovative approach to the concept of logistics and supply. Rather than chopping down bocage hedgerows for an abstracted supply of wood-based products (shoulder stocks, perhaps?), Company of Heroes was designed to grant logistical bonuses to players when they captured territory. There are three resources: manpower, munitions, and fuel. A cap on manpower is increased by simply taking a territory sector. Within each sector is another resource, munitions or fuel. Munitions points are used to purchase equipment or upgrades for units. Fuel is needed to deploy heavy equipment, buildings, or global upgrades. At first this resource system might sound as though it is more of the standard RTS song and dance, but in practice it is a reasonably clever system designed to create incentives for taking objectives on the map. Manpower is constantly in demand, and this system establishes a logical incentive to continually expand. A rough military corollary is that the more ground taken, the more troops likely to be required to hold it.
More interesting are the other two resources, munitions and fuel. Munitions resources are the most common on the map; fuel is fairly rare. It follows logically that a premium will be placed on the value of the territories with fuel resources. Maps have been designed in a way that some territory sectors with fuel are placed in reasonably safe positions near the player’s rear, allowing for quick access to some fuel points. But inevitably some fuel resources have been placed in the middle of the map – and it is usually around those points that most firefights will break out.