Company of Heroes Online is approaching, bringing us frantic infantry skirmishes, devastating air raids, fast, explosive strategy and, most importantly of all, shopping. It's a free-to-play version of one of our favourite strategy games. I've infiltrated the Korean beta of the game and had a good trawl through the store. Read on for an overview of how it all works, and my pick of the most powerful items on offer.
Whatever you do in Company of Heroes Online, whether it be a tutorial, a single player mission or a multiplayer battle, you'll earn a small amount of Supply. If you want to save yourself a bit of time, you'll have the option of buying them with cash. There's no news yet on how much any of these items will cost, the prices have yet to be announced.
There are two types of item on offer, Army items and Hero units. Army items can be slotted into one of 8 HQ slots before a battle, and grant general bonuses to certain types of unit. For example, there's one that increases the speed of your tanks, and there's another that increases the sight range of your Riflemen, giving them a better chance of spotting those pesky Snipers.
Army items are useful, but the Hero units are much more interesting. They're special varieties of ordinary units that can level up during battle and gain access to new skills. If you're prepared to save up for a while you can buy some pretty extraordinary stuff, though there is a hidden cost. Each unit has a certain number of action points which are depleted with each battle, once they've run out you'll have to buy more, either with Supply or real money. There are already over a hundred Hero units in the game already, here's a few of the best from the Allied and Axis stores.
“A Jeep that does reconnaissance, what's so interesting about that?” I hear you say, “isn't that what Jeeps are for?” Well, yes, but I think it's fair to say that this special unit has been poorly named. Level it up a bit and this Jeep gains the ability to call in air strikes . That's not reconnaissance, that's mass murder! Anyway, in honour if this impressive new ability I've taken the liberty of renaming it 'Nuke Jeep.'
Nuke Jeep also gets a 20% boost to speed and acceleration, combine this with the Jeep's naturally huge sight radius and there's plenty of scope for players to sneak in behind the enemy and call in a crafty air strike without the Germans even realising that they've been spotted. Jeeps are normally a bit pants in Company of Heroes, they're great Sniper hunters, and they can tear across the map to tip the balance in early game infantry stalemates, but as soon as the real guns hit the field they inevitably get one-shotted by an AT gun. With this Hero unit's air-strike ability there will be some incentive to deploy a Nuke Jeep in the late game, providing you have enough munitions to afford the strikes, and the micromanagement skills to keep your unit out of the shadow of the many Stugs and Panzers that will be roaming the field.
As they level up these Engineers grow to become a competent combat unit. After a few levels they gain two extra members to the squad, and deal 10% more damage in fire fights, which is hugely impressive in itself, but their talents really come into play at their highest level when they gain the ability to break suppression and heal surrounding units.
So when your Riflemen charge into the sights of some entrenched German heavy machine gunners these Engineers will be able to sweep in and save them from certain death. For most units in Company of Heroes suppression means annihilation. Under heavy fire Riflemen throw themselves to ground in terror and can only shuffle along at about two inches a minute until a lowly Pioneer squad flanks and puts them all out of their misery, or the heavy machine gunners are killed, or the unit retreats. With the Charismatic Engineers on the field you get that vital second chance. Once you've seen your enemy's defences and survived, you're at a big advantage.
Survival Sniper is the most expensive item in the entire store, costing some 8480 Supply to purchase. To put that in context I have just reached level 9 and I've accumulated about 2500 in total.
Survival Sniper justifies his cost by being hard as nails. With a few victories under his belt he gains a 20% health boost. This becomes more impressive combined with the fact that he takes 25% less damage while fleeing, and, at the highest level, can camouflage as he escapes.
As long as you keep an eye on him Survival Sniper just isn't going to die. The enemy are probably going to have to call in an air strike to lay waste to the general area he's in, and hope one of the shells land directly on his head. Even more worryingly for your foe, Survival Sniper gains the ability to sprint while cloaked, meaning that you can audaciously charge him into enemy territory and quite easily have him set up behind enemy lines, covering Victory Points and wiping out AT gun crews until the final klaxon sounds.
To be honest, there's not a huge amount I can say about this Hero unit's abilities. I'm looking at my notebook and all I've written are the words “can throw grenades!!!” next to a doodle of an American soldier going “nyooo!”
I can see this being good in very specific situations where the Americans are well dug in, either behind some sandbags and a machine gun nest, or garrisoning a building. Grenadier Motorcycle will be able to charge in, dodging bullets and bombs to dump a pineapple in the Yank's laps before vanishing into the smoke and letting the explosive do the dirty work. It's not quite as awesome as Nuke Jeep, but is sure to be useful nonetheless. That kind of hit and run attack will take a bit of micromanaging, but in the hands of a skilled player the Grenadier Motorcycle could prove to be a powerful presence in the early game.
Berger's Panzer Pioneers
This is the first Hero unit on the list to have a good proper Hero name. I'd like to see more Hero units named as though they were people, and not just after their function. It seems the coolest names go to the most impressive units, and Berger's Panzer Pioneers are the real deal.
I'm a big fan of special abilities that stretch the usefulness of a unit, making them relevant in the endgame when you'd normally just be seeing a field full of tanks. In Company of Heroes your lowly Pioneers, and the American equivalent, the Engineers, both gain flamethrowers that can turn them into a devastating offensive unit that can immolate a poorly placed squad of infantry in minutes. Berger's Panzer Pioneers aim even higher. Once fully levelled their squad gains two Panzerschreks, German anti-tank bazookas. They can also place anti tank mines as a cheaper cost, turning these Pioneers into elite tank hunters. In many ways Berger's Panzer Pioneers are the most heroic of the lot, it's great to think of these lowly engineers taking on the huge death machines that make up the American armour division.
Field Specialist Sniper
Aren't all Snipers field specialists? This is another one I'm going to have to rename. Field Specialist Sniper shall henceforth be known as 'Jerk Sniper'.
There's nothing more irritating in Company of Heroes than having a tiny jerk unit sneak past your front line to start capping a resource point deep in your territory. It's like an itch you just have to scratch, you always have to send someone to chase off the invading unit and reclaim your territory. Jerk Sniper caps 50% faster than any other unit, and can also sprint, making him the perfect point stealer. As a Sniper he's also well equipped to take out the engineer or infantry squad that is sent to stop him. Also, as if he wasn't enough of a dick already, he has the ability to plant “crippling traps”. I don't really know what those are but in my head they're huge, horrible man-sized bear traps waiting to ensnare and hobble passing infantry. What a jerk.
We'll have more information on Company of Heroes Online very soon.