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Company of Heroes Preview

publisher: THQ
developer: Relic Entertainment
genre: Strategy

PIV 1500, 512MB RAM, 3GB HDD, 64MB video card
ESRB rating: M

release date: Sep 14, 06
» All About Company of Heroes on ActionTrip

Why bother coming up with a decent story, a completely new and novel setting, when you can look to our past and use one of the bloodiest periods of mankind's history? It sounds easy enough. History steps in and lays the groundwork for a strategy game - in this case, World War II. However, these days, a good real-time strategy (or any type of game, for that matter) needs more than a suitable backdrop. In terms of gameplay, players are going to expect something innovative. (Really? -Ed)

At last year's E3, THQ and Relic treated us to an intriguing presentation, which involved their latest joint endeavor, Company of Heroes (2lions got to see this one at the L.A. Convention Center in May '05... the lucky bastard! I never get to go because I'm a menace to society!). Facing a competitive market, the team at Relic realized they had to come up with more than just another usual WW II RTS. Also, they were dealing with a particularly worn-out setting, which in itself might keep many players away.

Company of Heroes is an RTS that takes place during World War II, so you are bound to run into some easily recognizable scenes. ('Saving Private Ryan' anyone?) The single-player campaign follows the story of Able Company, a group of brave men who are facing some of the most daring missions during the Normandy invasion. This, of course, raises the question of historical accuracy. The developers are determined to maintain a convincing in-game atmosphere, as well as a truthful portrayal of the conflicts that took place during the Second Word War. Some details regarding particular tasks, characters, as well as the storyline, are pretty much fictional. Then again, maps and specific locations in the game were designed according to their real life counterparts. The designers are actually striving to maintain a balance between historical events and elements that make a good real-time strategy. Naturally, Relic has taken creative licenses on particular objectives to make things a bit more exciting for gamers. For instance, there's an assignment, where your troops are required to seize Carentan in Normandy (just to refresh your memory, the city of Carentan is a key point between the two American landing beaches of Utah and Omaha - at the beginning of June 1944). Although the scenario was, apparently, borrowed from a specific chapter in WW II, mission objectives were made up to suit the pace of the gameplay.

Company of Heroes is clearly centered on action and intense battle scenes. You'll mostly take part in assignments throughout war-torn Europe, which means that your squad must make its way across demolished towns and villages in order to fulfill a particular assignment. The outcome of a mission largely depends on how well your troops handle themselves in a given situation. Interestingly enough, the physics are quite an important part of the gameplay. For example, tanks can take shortcuts towards their goals by blowing away certain obstacles or simply by crashing through them. So, whenever you see a stone wall blocking your way, just signal over to the tank unit and have him tear it down. Unsurprisingly, explosions also have a significant influence on other objects in the environment, as well as the shape of terrain. This in turn may affect how your troops operate on the battlefield - enter the realistic physics, which has been tweaked so your units can rely on different tactical approaches in combat.

Dynamic physics are but a small sample of the game's technology. Each and every unit within your ranks reacts naturally to the terrain on the battlefield. Almost any obstacle in the environment provides adequate cover for your soldiers once the shooting commences; such as decrepit buildings, burned out cars, sandbags, etc. Thanks to the advanced AI routines, your troops will respond accordingly to obstacles and enemies they encounter along the way. We were also informed that units are not a bunch of mindless kamikaze drones that enjoy walking into a rain of bullets. The AI enables units to assess potentially dangerous situations and just hand things over to more powerful units. Frequently throughout the game, troops may wait for tanks or other heavy artillery units to clear out the path before they jump into the fray themselves. Hm, well, that all sounds very impressive, but I cannot help but wonder how the programmers are going to handle unit path finding in such a complex 3D environment. Lousy path finding has been the major obstacle in most contemporary (and not-so-contemporary) RTS games.

Squad leaders are a rather welcomed addition and can prove useful in many difficult situations. Barking out orders during combat and using hand signals, these "officer" units are meant to guide lower-ranking soldiers through battle. Controlling units will also be a piece of cake. Selecting and moving your units about doesn't differ a lot from the well-known point-and-click RTS standard. We were also pleased to hear that the in-gamer camera offers you the possibility to view the action on screen up close. This is an unmistakable trademark of practically every strategy ever created by Relic.

To make all of this possible, Relic has decided to use its in-house Essence engine, on top of the Havok 3.0 physics engine. The so-called Essence engine was specifically developed to handle a huge amount of details and units on screen at once. Most action scenes are intense and nearly epic in scale, so this kind of technology was more than necessary. The engine, of course, denotes the usual stuff, such as DX9 support, Shader 3 technology, etc. From what we have seen of the game so far, there's no doubt that the developers did an excellent job on the visuals.

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