DESPITE BEING THE best RTS out this year - and certainly one of the best ever to grace these hallowed pages - Company Of Heroes isn't really a revolutionary game. What Relic have done is take the real-time strategy genre, cut it open, examine it, pull out all the smelly old bits that people hate and put in some lovely tasty new bits that people will like. Then they have sewn it up, put it on its feet and sent it out into the world to, er, bring happiness, light and cheer wherever it sets foot. It's like some kind of lean, mean RTS Frankenstein. Or some kind of lean, mean RTS Frankenstein's monster, for the pedants out there.
What I'm trying to say is that it's more an evolution of the genre. With Company Of Heroes, Relic have moved the RTS one significant step closer to perfection.
I'M LOSING WOOD
For example, resource management is a part of the game, but tedious gold, wood or Tiberium-farming is not - instead you accrue points by capturing and holding sections of territory, in a system similar to that used by Relic's last effort, Dawn Of War. You also build up special XP points by killing enemies. Yes, it's still resource-gathering, and you still use the points to create new units and unlock new abilities, but it's been cleverly engineered to force you into combat rather than encourage you to hang back, 'turtle up' and spend five hours constructing an elaborate, impregnable and largely pointless stronghold.
And then there's the tactics. There's nothing particularly inspired here; you have to make use of cover or your troops will be ripped to ribbons, and if you hold the enemy with one unit and then flank him with another, you'll probably wipe him out with ease. Tanks blow up quicker if you get round the back, where their armour isn't as thick. It's basic stuff, true - but it's rare to see it properly implemented in a mainstream RTS. We're talking about a genre where most combat is still determined by an abstract scissors-paper-stone mechanic, and the fact that Company Of Heroes uses realworld tactics that actually work made me feel like some kind of non-moustachioed General Montgomery.
It helps that, in the words of one developer, "shit blows up real good" in this game. My PC's subwoofer hasn't rumbled
out explosions so buttock-quakingly booming since Soldiers: Heroes Of World War II arrived a couple of years ago.
The way enemy troops somersault through the air after receiving the delicate attentions of a Calliope rocket launcher is a thing of terrible, Havok-induced beauty - we might even go so far as to say that it's "teh aw35om3 dood," if our parlance contained such terms (but it doesn't lol). It's an eye-popping display of destruction, but there's also a real purpose to it. This is one of a handful of games with fully destructible terrain. The battlefield can be completely reshaped by tanks, mortars and aerial bombardments.
Your GIs can huddle in the craters that result from an artillery strike, or a tank can power straight through a wall to provide them with an alternative path to the next objective. And it's not just about knocking things down: you can also use engineers to build defensive structures like sandbags, barbed wire, tank traps and machine-gun nests, or order a unit to take up positions in a building (and you can see them actually do it - they'll kick open the shutters and mount a machine gun in a window frame).
Keeping your men in cover is vital if you want to succeed here, and thankfully Relic have made doing so a no-brainer: hover the pointer over a part of the battlefield and dots will appear to indicate where your men will end up, should you decide to click. Green dots are the best type of cover (ie behind sandbags or solid walls), yellow is minor cover (hedgerows and craters), no dots means virtually no protection and red (the middle of road, for example) means your men are more exposed than Arnold Schwarzenegger at the beginning of a Terminator movie. It works well.