Off to Market
April 27, 2007 – Last year, the makers of the Warhammer RTS series made a profound mark on the gaming industry with Company of Heroes. CoH set a new standard for graphic quality and gameplay in the RTS genre and was a critical and commercial smash. In 2006, five major gaming publications gave it Game of the Year awards, one British company gave it the highest rating they’ve ever given to an RTS, and it remains the all-time highest-rated game of its genre. Them’s some mighty big shoes to fill, but rather than churn out a meager expansion pack, Relic put out the stand-alone sequel, Opposing Fronts.
Opposing Fronts is essentially the same game, with a single player function and a focus on multiplayer. Whereas players fought through Operation Overlord in the original CoH, this time the action centers on the next major offensive of WWII, Operation Market Garden. This operation was a coordinated assault between U.S. and British armored and airborne divisions whose objective was to take control of bridges and roadways in France and the Netherlands to secure a safe passage through the Rhineland. It was a tremendous show of manpower and resulted in terrible losses, particularly on the British side. Less famous than Overlord, Market Garden is most famously commemorated in the book and film “A Bridge Too Far.” In the original CoH, the player took the part of U.S. Army or the German Wehrmacht. This time around, the player takes the part of the British Commonwealth forces or the German Panzer Elite.
Whichever side they choose, players will scramble for territorial supremacy. Much like Relic’s other high-profile title, Dawn of War, Company of Heroes is based around the taking and holding of strategic points. These points become staging areas for assaults and reward whoever holds them with resources and control of the game map. Occupied areas are linked together in a sort of supply line, and taking control of these areas can restrict the flow of enemy resources. There are three primary resources in CoH: fuel, munitions, and manpower. Fuel allows the purchase of tanks, vehicles, and global upgrades. Munitions allows for upgrades in squads or vehicles and to use special abilities. Manpower is important for all units but particularly infantry and can be used to improve the flow of resources in strategic points.
While certain liberties were taken in CoH with regard to the names of infantry outfits, historical chronology, and place, aspects of the game are realistic. The array of units and weapons available run the gamut from paratroopers and Sherman Crab tanks to Panzer Aces in their famous Panzer tanks. Flamethrowers, Knight’s Cross Winners, Nebelwerfers, Panzerschrecks, M9 Bazookas, and other units and weapons are all at the players’ disposal. There are distinct advantages to playing either side.
German forces generally have fewer units, but they are significantly more advanced. They may take more time to produce and cost more in terms of resources, but it’s worth it. Allied forces, on the other hand, are more numerous and readily available to take the fight to the enemy. CoH runs on Relic’s proprietary Essence gaming engine and this makes for some uniquely intelligent and satisfying gameplay.
The physics of the game are one of its hallmarks and ground cover is one of its most sophisticated aspects. The game can tell the difference between the cover offered by a bush or crater, and that offered by a fence or wall. Damage is adjusted accordingly and the A.I. is strong enough that computer-controlled units will use different kinds of cover to their advantage. There is no truly safe hiding place in CoH. Hide too long in a building and not only will you only be able to fire through broken windows and bombed-out walls, but you run the risk of being sniped, having a satchel charge tossed in at you, or being burned to a crisp by flamethrower units. As impressive as the Essence engine was in CoH, previews indicate that it has improved even more. Better A.I., dynamic weather effects, and improved physics have been cited in the improved Essence engine.
The original CoH was often criticized as having some of the lousiest code around when it came to online play. Developed more for peer-to-peer networking, the game often failed to connect for server play. This element has supposedly been improved in Opposing Fronts, and rightly so, as online play has become the new standard in gaming. The game does have a single-player and skirmish mode as well. Also, anyone who has the original CoH can access not only the British and Panzer Elite from Opposing Fronts but also the U.S. Army and German Wehrmacht forces from the original.
It’s never easy to follow up a classic, but sequels are a must, especially in the video gaming industry. Rather than phone it in with a few extra levels and units in an expansion pack, Relic has done their audience a service and honored the legacy of their game. They created an experience distinct from the original which builds on the basic formula that made the original great. If it’s anything like the original Company of Heroes, Opposing Fronts should be a home-run for the folks at Relic and RTS gamers alike.