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September 11, 2006



- Virtually everything



- Historical purists may dislike liberties taken with history

- Wargame purists may be bothered by RTS elements



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Company of Heroes

Score: 10 / 10

I’ll start with a few controversial statements. First, while I’m as tired as anyone of the flood of mediocre WWII games on the market, I personally don’t believe what many do, that this means there are too many WWII games. In fact, a game like Relic Entertainment and THQ’s Company of Heroes makes me suspect maybe there haven’t been enough -- or haven’t been enough of the right kind.

company of heroes          company of heroes

Second, writer Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam war collection The Things They Carried contains a piece entitled “How To Tell a True War Story,” the thesis of which is that a true war story is based in a metaphoric truth rather than factual truth and is one which accurately and unflinchingly depicts both the obscene ugliness and inexplicable beauty of war. According to this definition Company of Heroes is the “truest” war-based video game I’ve ever played.

This last sentiment won’t be popular with grognards who obsess over weapon penetration and tank markings, who complain about COH’s more “gamey” features such as capture points, unit spawning, untranslated German voiceovers, 




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inaccurate range limits and fog of war. But with all due respect, what these wargame purists seem to miss is that factual correctness and historical fidelity alone don’t create authenticity. And no game could hope to recreate authentic experience. In gaming, authenticity is an illusion, and the best war games are those that do the most cunning and artful job of sustaining that illusion.



Make no mistakes, Company of Heroes is a game made to entertain. The fact that it does so and still manages to teach something deeper about the nature of war, to present an unflinching glimpse of the ugliness and beauty that Tim O’Brien mentions, is admirable. It’s not just the ballyhooed graphics and physics (zoom in and count all the buttons and rivets you please), the excellent sound (try to keep your lower jaw securely in place the first time you hear an artillery barrage), the excellent AI, the fully destructible battlefield or the superb in-engine cut scenes. It’s some surplus value created by how well all these features and qualities combine. More than any game in memory, COH provides moments – of awe, dread, surprise, horror, confusion, exhilaration.


While Red Orchestra may have more accurate weapons and armor physics, while Combat Mission may better simulate authentic WWII tactics, more than any war game in recent memory, COH rewards players for effectively choosing their force composition and for using bread and butter combined arms tactics. While some RTS exploits (rifleman and engineer spamming) do work online, the most dependable strategy, especially in the campaign, is a carefully chosen, balanced force used correctly according to unit specializations. And while an element of rock / paper / scissors exists for the sake of balance (sure, grognards, those rifleman sticky bombs shouldn’t be able to take out that Tiger that easily) there is still a certain amount of surprise and room for skill or even luck. COH demands constant thought and improvisation. More than any game I’ve played, it demonstrates Field Marshall Moltke’s assertion that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.


company of heroes          company of heroes


A testament to the depth of this game and to the quality of the illusion it creates is the fact that, when playing skirmish and multiplayer, I routinely watch replays afterward, not just to gloat or brood, but to catch crucial details I’ve missed. In a recent game, I sent a lone squad of Rangers to a remote corner of the map to cap a resource point and promptly forgot about them. I became distracted (as happens in COH) by numerous other skirmishes, and by the time I returned the Ranger squad was reduced to two men, cowering behind a fence. I assumed they’d been ambushed or zeroed by artillery and ordered them, with annoyance, to retreat. When I viewed the replay though, I saw something amazing, this lone group of rangers singlehandledly holding off a column of Axis armor who, if they’d broken through, would have strolled right through my flank to my vulnerable base. And I felt a number of things, appreciation for the bravery and the sacrifice of this one unit, regret and maybe even shame that I’d forgotten about them, amazement that something so important had been invisible to me. And I felt all these things while playing a video game.


Even though many players will choose to focus on multiplayer and skirmish, I encourage players to not forget COH’s excellent campaign which, after a slow start, is exceptionally well-designed and enjoyable, with a range of goals (conquest, defense, encirclement, search and destroy) and available forces. While heavily scripted, it’s more open to innovation than it seems, especially in the final few missions, where there are more ways to skin a cat than there are cats. The best missions – the taking of Hill 317, the two-part defense of Mortain, and the final brawl in the Falaise pocket -- contain a number of surprises, all of which follow naturally from the course of battle. I’m not sure if it’s notable that myself and a number of other players whom I’ve spoken to all reported a harrowing finish to the capturing of Hill 317 with less than a minute left on the forty-minute timer. This could be pure coincidence, or it could also be evidence of an expertly crafted and tested game level. Even the campaign’s cut scenes, which I normally skip or use to take a break, were compelling and informative -- a storyline involving a laconic Lieutenant’s quest for vengeance against his slain superior’s killer is understated and powerful. Even more admirably, the campaign depicts the horrors and consequences of war in an evenhanded way. One scene shows an artillery barrage not just as a “stick-it-to-Fritz” moment of Allied triumph, but as a nightmarish tragedy for the German soldiers on the receiving end.


In short, Company of Heroes is an evolutionary leap not just in RTS, but for video games in general. Relic Entertainment (go, Canada!) and THQ should be exceedingly proud of what I hope will be a landmark in contemporary gaming.


- John Tait

(October 10, 2006)


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