Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Release Date: September 25, 2007
Company of Heroes was a strange beast. By rights, I should have hated it or at least disliked it far more than I actually do because it was Yet Another World War II game, in an entertainment medium that at times appears to be comprised of nothing but WWII games. Scientists have proven that for every game released that takes place in any other setting, there are exactly 23.5 World War II-based games released.
Okay, so I made that up, but it's still a bit of a crowded setting.
Sadly for everyone who enjoys reading reviews of bad games, Company of Heroes was devised by Relic Entertainment, who created Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War — one of the most brutal, visceral, tactical, but, above all, fun RTS games released in recent years. As such, it was somewhat improbable for it to be bad, and sure enough it wasn't, managing to improve on its predecessor in almost every conceivable way and becoming widely acclaimed as one of the greatest RTS games ever created. CoH's expansion pack, Opposing Fronts, promises more of the same, and being that the Dawn of War expansions tended to add entire new sides and once an entirely new Risk-like campaign mode, expectations were high.
The meat of Opposing Fronts lies in its two new sides: the British 2nd Army and the German Panzer Elite. The two forces in the first games — the Americans and the German Wehrmacht — were functionally fairly similar, but the new pair is not. They stretch the general mechanics of the gameplay in strange and imaginative ways, playing very, very differently to the original sides.
The original "vanilla" game had only one campaign, focusing on the Americans and the actions of Dog Company during WW2, relegating the Germans to the role of antagonists who were only playable in either Skirmish mode or multiplayer. Opposing Fronts rectifies this with an extra campaign for each of its two new fighting forces. The first new campaign is for the Panzer Elite, focusing on the German defense against Operation Market Garden — a disastrous Allied attempt over Holland to end the war quickly by launching the single largest paratroop operation in history. The second campaign focuses on the British forces after D-Day and their attempts to liberate and hold the French city of Caen. Both are considerably shorter than the original campaign but still provide a surprising amount of entertainment. The campaigns start off with what are essentially tutorial missions, but they quickly ramp up in difficulty.
The lovely new weather effects in this expansion are used to some effect in the campaign, too, with the game going through day and night and weather striking up and abating. The third Panzer Elite mission sticks specifically in mind for this, starting off as a bright day and gradually darkening with heavy rain as the British assault presses on. The weather actually has no impact on the game, so sight ranges are just as long in daylight as at night, but it's a nice effect in the context of the level.
Chances are that you're not overly interested in the campaigns, though, but rather the previous tantalizing aside that the new sides are very, very different. Yes, it's true. It seems rather like the developers thought of ways to create sides which played completely contrary to the established mechanics of the game, and on that, they succeeded.
The British, for instance, are pretty much a "turtle" faction, capable of barricading themselves in with remarkable success — in a game which generally relies on rushing out and capturing points. They have only three buildings, all of which are actually mobile trucks, and all of which are also the only way they can secure sectors and gather additional resources from them. Other sides can build Observation Points, but the British have to drive their headquarters to the area in question and set it up there, placing it in the middle of the battlefield. Fortunately, they command a larger number of static defenses than any of the other factions, including massively ranged artillery, and their command doctrines largely rely upon intelligence, remote strikes or entrenchment. A personal favorite ability is the Creeping Barrage, which orders any selected piece of artillery to fire continually along a path, ravaging whatever lies along that route. Another doctrine's ability to drop gliders containing powerful commando units, tanks or additional headquarters is equally devastating in the right hands. And that's only the start.
So, the British focus largely on entrenching themselves and then striking from a distance while their opponents futilely attempt to break through their defenses. The Panzer Elite are almost entirely the opposite. They rely entirely on mobility and flexibility and have absolutely no static defenses unless you choose a particular doctrine. They form the most varied side in the game, with exceptional infantry and tanks, and further specializing based upon your choice of doctrine. One allows the player to booby-trap buildings and strategic points, another grants the ability to call in some elite infantry units from absolutely any unoccupied building on the map and the third grants some of the most powerful tanks and anti-tank abilities in the game. Combine this with their unit carriers allowing the infantry squads to fire any upgraded weapons (like Panzerschrecks) out of the top, and their infantry half-tracks being able to reinforce nearby infantry just like a headquarters does, and you have a versatile and dangerous force.
Such varied sides raise the question of balance, and it's certainly something that's going to come up a lot in the future. Honestly, I have no idea whether it's perfectly balanced or not, as that seems like something that should be discussed by serious-looking men with serious-looking beards rather than just me. I can say that it feels fairly balanced from my play experience, but as ever, tactics win the day. Whether or not there will be serious balance changes remains to be seen, but there doesn't seem to be anything that screams of huge imbalance (although, let's face it, since the wide acceptance of the Internet, almost every single RTS has had at least one balance patch).
So! Opposing Fronts is varied, fun, as gloriously beautiful as ever in its visual and audible depictions of war-torn Europe and many other sugary, shiny, positive things.
Sadly, there's always a "but." In this case, there are a few.
First is something that won't bother anyone who plays Company of Heroes online — at least, it won't make any difference to purchasing Opposing Fronts, because it was added into the 2.101 patch. This problem is additional copy protection and a rewrite of the main menu interface. Essentially, every single time you run the game, you log into Relic Online (the game's online host) to authenticate that you legally own the game. This can be circumvented if you buy Opposing Fronts in a store, as it can also authenticate from the game's disk if you're not connected to the Internet, but if you buy it from Steam or Direct2Drive, then the authentication servers being down means that you can't play. At all. Not single-player, not skirmish, not multiplayer. This may not be such an issue in the future, but right now the servers are down with alarming regularity.
The second major issue is related to the above: The game has more bugs than an anthill. This isn't entirely unexpected, as Company of Heroes had what we'll generously call some teething problems, but it's still a little heartbreaking to upgrade from the now largely bug-free Company of Heroes only to have the game crash every couple of hours. Some of the abilities for the various doctrines don't seem to work as intended, and there are a few issues with units. I have no doubt that there'll be a patch along shortly which will fix most of these, but early adopters should heed this warning.
The third and final issue is that the game is standalone. At first glance this is a good thing, as it means that people who don't have Company of Heroes can buy Opposing Fronts and play that by itself (and the 2.101 patch means that Company of Heroes players can fight against the new sides in multiplayer matches). In fact, it is a good thing, but the problem is that the new sides play in such a specialized way that no new player should really attempt to use one of them. The need for micromanagement is vastly increased over the original two sides, and despite the presence of a tutorial explaining how each side works, a lot of trial and error and familiarity with how the games works is really required.
Even with all of these issues, though, I can't treat Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts too harshly. I have no doubt that the issues with the servers and the bugs will be fixed before too long, and when it does work, it's utterly sublime. As an expansion pack, it injects a huge amount of new life into its still-brilliant predecessor and will provide a good amount of entertainment for a long time to come. If you're new to the series, you should really pick up the original first, but if you're already a dedicated fan of the game and can put up with bugs, or are willing to wait a little while, then it's a must.
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