Company of Heroes still plays like The Most Horrifying War Movie You've Ever Seen: The Game. Now Relic are beginning a new campaign, taking their 2006 RTS classic, and rebuilding it for 2010's online audience. For free. This year, publisher THQ will be hosting the game as a free-to-play download, funded with item purchases. It's currently available for free in Korea. It will be free-to-play in the US before the end of 2010, with a European release to follow.
That doesn't mean it has become any softer or easier. In fact, the new Company of Heroes Online delivers even more depth and even more complexity than ever before. We've been playing the Korean version of the game relentlessly. And there's one realisation we've come away with: we'd be nowhere without paratroopers.
Here's an example. We're in the final stages of the fight. The only units left on the field are tanks. They prowl through every street, circling and outmanoeuvring their foe, looking for that elusive chance to fire a shell into their weak rear armour. For all their power, tanks can't win the match. The all important victory points need to be captured by infantry, and the decisive point on this particular map now lies unclaimed. I need to get it back.
At a fairly hefty resource cost I give the order, and down come the paratroopers, in a storm of silk and Yankee smack talk.
It's a suicide mission, of course, but I get a few moments of grace before the German bombing run starts. Relentless, earth shattering strikes begin to lay waste to the area. When it clears, the Paratroopers are all dead, but the all important victory point has turned blue. They've capped the point. The bastards did it.
Whether it's your division commander, or the new new army items and hero units gifted by random drops after every battle, the additions made by Company of Heroes Online are all about specialisation. Army items are assigned to your base before a fight, and can grant general buffs to certain types of troop, making your tanks move quicker, for example, or improving the accuracy of your Riflemen. Hero units, meanwhile, are unique special units that gain experience on the battlefield, earning new abilities every time they level up. These abilities vary from a simple increase in sight radius to, in one case, an Axis Halftrack that can self destruct on command to cover an area in flame.
In combination, commander abilities, army items and hero units can be used to tune your army to fit your preferred style of play, making your favoured strategies more powerful. Let's say you're looking to dominate the early game and set up impenetrable defences to stave off the late tanks rush. Take an Infantry commander for faster infantry deployment and access to better defences, slot in army items that increase the durability of your infantry and recruit heroic Engineer and Riflemen units to the field. If, like me, you favour fast response and suicidal charges for victory points, then go for air command.
What would I have done without Paratroopers? I only had the ability to call down these chain smoking sky-warriors because my division commander, my persistent avatar for Company of Heroes Online, had chosen to specialise in air support, and had levelled up enough to gain the skill. If I had chosen infantry specialisation then I would have had to rely on different strategies. I could have called in a squad of tank slaying Rangers instead, or used my own aerial bombardments to push the Germans back. Alternatively, as a tank commander I could have called in the more fearsome war machines to dominate the Stugs and Panzers roaming the field, and gone straight to their base to win by annihilation.
It's hard to tailor your army set-up like this when relying on random drops. Fortunately, troops can also be purchased from the online store with Supply, the in-game currency earned by completing missions and multi player matches. I've found the rate at which I've gained Supply to be fairly slow so far, but in the final version of the game you'll also be able to buy these items with real money to save time.
I've been enjoying the new hero units a lot. In fact, on returning to the original Company of Heroes for a few games, I found that I'd become quite reliant on them, and missed my special engineers and their ability to repair tanks at super-speed. There is a niggling worry I can't shake, however. The great success of Company of Heroes as a multi player game lies in the near perfect balance between the Allied and Axis factions. With hundreds of new hero units and army items being added to the game, I wonder if Relic can retain this fine balance, and keep matches competitive. Right now, with the game in beta in Korea and not due to hit America until late summer, it's too early to tell, but I can't wait to find out.
Of all the new additions, the experience system, the special units, the army items, the best thing I can say about Company of Heroes Online so far is that the quality of the original game shines through. It's still one of the most complex and fascinating RTS games out there, and one of the most intense and brutal depictions of war in gaming. Considering the fact that the entire single player campaign is to be included as part of the free download, it might just prove to be one of the best deals in gaming as well.