Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
Company of Heroes was one of those games that utterly exceeded our expectations. Not only did it manage to recreate the visceral brutality of warfare, it also succeeded in striking that ever-elusive balance between accessibility and strategy. Few other RTS games have ever managed to pull off this tricky equilibrium with such aplomb, let alone managed to also seamlessly integrate a moving plot that explores the human element of war: the fears, the hopes and the insecurities of man. So, a tall order to follow, I'm sure you'll agree. Which brings us nicely onto this stand-alone expansion pack that despite its best efforts, never quite manages to scale the same lofty heights as its predecessor.
Opposing Fronts introduces two new factions into the WWII meat grinder, each starring in its own campaign. First up are the plucky Brits, a defensively stout faction specialising in anti-tank weapons and artillery, and possessing some of the game's most versatile foot soldiers. These grunts have the ability to build battlefield emplacements (such as machine-gun nests and mortar emplacements) and call in additional support, which is spewed onto the war zone from passing gliders. Brit officers are also no slouches, possessing valiant abilities such as Heroic Charge, which counters suppression and maximises the amount of damage nearby troops inflict on the enemy.
The Brit campaign revolves around the liberation of Caen and the push towards Berlin that took place after the D-Oay landings. While I could spend hours boring you with copious historical nuggets about the operation, I II spare you the blurb and just say that this battle saw the clash between two giant tank regiments, which roughly translates to loads of explosions, carnage and debris. However, rather than degenerating into a predictable slug fest, the Caen campaign requires careful use of combined arms and all the tricks you learnt from the original game if you're going to make the push towards Berlin anything more than a limp shove.
Sadly the compelling plot and clever character development of Company of Heroes' cut scenes seem to have been replaced here by hackneyed stereotypes. Brit grunts sound like a bunch of cockney twats whose sole purpose in life appears to be to blurt out as many expletives as possible before getting kiHed. Meanwhile, the mustachioed generals are wet-lipped toffs whose main participation in the war seems to revolve around staring down binoculars while watching the proletariat getting their noses blown off, then retiring to their tents for cream tea and Etonian reacharounds.
Luckily, the German campaign's story is rather more thoughtful and convincing, revolving around two brothers battling as part of the Panzer Elite against the allies during Operation Market Garden. The German faction is quite simply the most awesome faction yet seen in the Company of Heroes series. A wrecking ball on caterpillar tracks, a division of Nazi armour can trounce almost any enemy force in a head-on confrontation, while staying highly mobile. This is offset by the German's relatively small infantry squads, which can be easily overpowered by the larger Allied platoons.
But what are these two campaigns actually like to play, hmm? Well, here's the thing. You see while Opposing Fronts clearly likes to make a big fanfare about not being an expansion pack, it has that distinctive, unmistakable whiff associated with an add-on. While many of its missions are brutal, tactical and fairly entertaining (especially the larger tank battles) they're also all too often overly linear and predictably designed, leading to a lack of freedom that reduces potential replayability.
Another quibble lies with the lack of proactive attacks from the opposition, which often feels somewhat stagnant: a problem given that Opposing Fronts is a territory-based game. With your foes rarely venturing out of their comfort zones to retake the territory you've just prized out of their grasp, victory can sometimes feel rather inevitable.
Conversely, some other missions are too taxing. Throw in some suspect pathfinding and the fact that troops often ignore your commands to take cover, instead opting to run into the open and get pumped full of lead, and you're left with an unbalanced and unpolished experience.
Dry Your Eyes, Mate
Now, before you get depressed, let me assure you that there's still more than enough here to recommend. The two factions are adequately varied and require their own unique style of play, with the Brits often bunkering down and pounding the enemy from a distance and the Germans employing Blitzkrieg tactics as they roll incessantly towards their foes in heavy, yet mobile armour divisions.
Also the sheer number of heavy weapons at your disposal is almost worth the entry fee alone. Once the big guns roll out, levels turn into brutal, armoured cauldrons of destruction in which men, debris and dirt fill the air in a thick blanket of death. There is also an abundance of desperate defensive missions, during which you must fend off seemingly impossible odds and experience more tension-filled buttockclenching moments than having a bout of diarrhoea on an express train that lacks a working toilet.
Some of Opposing Front's missions are persistent meaning that the destruction you inflict on the scenery carries over to the next mission (if it's based on the same patch of land), although admittedly these can sometimes feel like developmental short cuts rather than masterstrokes of innovation (eg just another section of the previous level getting opened up).
Opposing Fronts provides a decent frenetic and entertaining stopgap between the original game and the inevitable sequel. While it has its fair share of hiccups, the game's fundamental quality manages to shine through and ensure that there's plenty of entertainment to be had.
If you approach it with eyes wide open and take it for what it is - a stand-alone expansion pack rather than the next step forward for the series - you'll find two solid campaigns, a host of new units and some fun multiplayer sessions lying in wait to ambush your spare time.
If you approach it with eyes closed however, you'll never get the thing installed in the first place. And that really would be a bloody silly thing to do.
Download Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Silence Falls over the table of a rather posh waterfront restaurant in Vancouver, where I'm sat surrounded by various members of the team from Relic Entertainment. "It's a moose." "What? Are you kidding me? Look at its nose! That's no moose. It's a caribou!"
Canadians, eh? Pretty much since we sat down, they've been comedically bickering, and I've just inadvertently triggered the next argument by innocently asking which animal features on the back of a Canadian quarter. Over the following hours, not only does my knowledge of horned ungulates increase tenfold, but I'm witness to debates on the value of local-language voiceovers and whether the representation of Canadians in South Park is accurate, and I learn that the producer of Relic said he "wanted to crap his pants" when he heard the VI rocket in Company Of Heroes. By the time we reach the end of the meal, I'm left with no doubt in my mind that the new breed of World War 2 RTS creators are no longer your stereotypical Polish bespectacled bedroom coders. Rather, they're hugely passionate, loud, funny and authoritative on the differences between elk, moose and caribou.
And that passion's proved a major asset, because Company Of Heroes is head and shoulders above its various competitors in that most populated of genres to exist on PC - the WWII RTS. While Relic's experience from previously successful titles such as Homeworld 2 and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War has undoubtedly helped, they're still competing in a pretty crowded field. It's something that the developers are keenly aware of. "On Company Of Heroes, we really wanted to reinvigorate the RTS genre," says lead designer Josh Mosqueira. ' There were three key areas that we concentrated on: real soldiers, real battlefields and a compelling cinematic experience. Now we think we've achieved that, we're looking to the future. Company Of Heroes was always a starting point. We want to create a living franchise.
Mosqueira continues: "Four years ago, almost to the day, we sat down and said, 'OK, we're working on Company Of Heroes. What do we want to do with this? What are our big goals?' For us, our goal is to become the definitive World War II strategy platform and eventually to become the definitive strategy platform, period. To most, that would sound like a pretty ambitious aim. But COH clearly demonstrated to the world that Relic are more than capable of achieving their lofty ambitions. Garnering critical acclaim across the globe, it picked up awards left, right and centre, scoring an impressive 93% in ZONE, and put Relic firmly on the map as one of the premier RTS developers around.
But while you might be scratching your head wondering just what these guys could do to improve upon the highly acclaimed COH, they're very far from mystified. "We're perfectionists, we pick apart our games and we're actually pretty brutal," says Mosqueira. "So there's a whole ton of things that we want to improve and enhance to really create the best RTS that we can. Obviously one of the things that we learned from feedback was that people wanted more armies.
And so in stalks Opposing Fronts. A standalone expansion to Company Of Heroes, it will feature two brand new armies, the British and the Panzer Elite, and two full campaigns, the Battle for Caen and Operation Market Garden. But don't be fooled into thinking that Relic are just going to add a bunch of cheap content. As Mosqueira points out: "There's actually more content in OF than in the first COH, but we're making sure it has the same quality bar, or even higher.
The first thing that Relic are really keen to stress is just how different the two new armies will feel. Mosqueira explains the reasoning behind this. "It's not like a fantasy or sci-fi game where you can add hover-tanks or demons. All the armies share common units, so our goal is really to make sure that when you're commanding the British or the Panzer Elite, they feel unique and distinct. In terms of looks, characteristics, abilities and tactics, every army has a unique essence that sets them apart from the others."
As the only journalist present from the UK, a patriotic smile spreads across my face when the British army appears on screen. Art director Nick Carota explains their visual style. "The British are extremely straightforward and efficient, and very practical - they endured a lot of suffering in the war. We're trying to represent that in their vehicle design, so there's a lot of gigantic bolts and it's like they melted down a whole bunch of cast-iron frying pans to build this Cromwell tank, which they did do." But the differences aren't just limited to their design...
British lieutenants and captains serve as the army's lynchpins, offering nearby units offensive and defensive bonuses respectively, and in contrast to previous squads, they're the only British units able to become veterans. The Brits will also be able to call upon masses of artillery to back them up, delivering everything from counterbarrages to a general pounding of an area. But the Tommies' key advantage is their defensive ability. Forget COH's measly sandbags; our plucky privates specialise in digging in and weathering the storm. Slit trenches offer excellent cover and are able to withstand direct hits, mortar/anti-tank/anti-aircraft pits can be dug out to provide specialised defences and artillery emplacements can also be constructed.
Another unique British trait (as well as, presumably, the ability to whistle jauntily), is the ability to pack up their barracks and move it to the front line, putting an emphasis on picking out key sectors, moving there and then digging in. Relic also lets on that their command tree will feature the Royal Canadian Artillery, the Royal Commandos and the Royal Scots Engineers, although further details are scarce.
With all the defensive options on offer, playing as the Brits will offer a hugely different experience from what we've seen before. And before you cringe at the thought of all those Jamie Oliver soundalikes, you'll be happy to know that Relic are working hard on making the voiceovers as believable as possible, with auditions being conducted to search out the right talent. Which is great news indeed, guvnor.
The Panzer Elite are a different matter entirely. Carota explains their design. "Visually, they're very badass. They've got the stealth look to all their vehicles. They had some of the coolest camo in the war, they loved their leather jackets and some of their half-tracks were like the Batmobile. We've just had a field-day working with their stuff." Contrasting starkly with the Brits, they're a vehicle-based army with little to no static defences. Instead, when troops are garrisoned into one of their vehicles, the soldiers will take up proper offensive positions within it, shooting their weapons from its relatively safe confines, essentially turning the thing into a huge chunk of mobile armour.
Some of the game's most powerful vehicles are controlled by these guys, including the Jagdpanther. which Relic liken to a moving bunker, explaining that it once took five US Sherman tanks to disable one. Their command trees should also prove intriguing, with Luftwaffe ground troops, tank hunters and scorched earth being the three options on offer.
Let's face it, we've all played WWII titles as the Americans or the British, but this opportunity to see the war from the other side throws up a refreshingly different set of challenges. Mosqueira reasons: "It's one thing to always play as the Allies, but at a certain point I think people get a little tired of that and they want something different. Recalling the soldiers' story from the German perspective was important.
"At this point in the war, most German troops knew the end was in sight, so how do you deal with that? You're fighting for your homeland so that what happened at the end of World War I doesn't repeat itself. So there's some really interesting drama. But at the same time, we have to do it in a respectful manner. We make sure there are researchers looking into things - all of our scripts are sent over to Germany to be vetted."
Doing The Caen-Caen
Perhaps even more so than in COH. super-strong single-player experiences are a prime aim for Opposing Fronts.
"We're aiming for the same length in total as the original COH. so expect to have a good 15-20 hours of gameplay" says Mosqueira. "As you start, you'll get to choose the Caen campaign as the British or the Market Garden campaign as the Panzer Elite. You'll be able to swap, so if you've played a couple of missions in one. you'll be able to start up the other one as well. It's important to know that it's not a mirror campaign; each campaign is entirely separate and has its own missions, its own maps and its own objectives."
In Caen, when the Allies arrived, Hitler had some of his best SS Panzer divisions placed around the city, which led to some of the largest tank battles fought during the war. Here, playing as the Brits, this intense urban warfare takes place among some of the most devastated landscapes that COH has offered, with barely a wall left standing in the entire city. There's also a truly inspired setting in the form of the innards of a blasted cathedral, complete with missing roof and crumbling walls.
Carota mentions a particularly nice little touch: "In all of our cities in OF you can actually see in the distance the cities that you're going to go to. When you've completed the first mission, you're actually looking at Caen - and during the mission you can look over and see it, Carpiquet or Hill 112."
The other campaign, Operation Market Garden, in which the Germans attempt to repel the largest airborne assault in history, offers its own opportunities.
"It's important for me and the rest of the art team to visit a new place like Holland, because we're getting pretty sick of Normandy," laughs Carota. He continues: "Playing as the Panzer Elite in the Market Garden campaign gives you a chance to see the conflict from the other side. After all, you do play both sides, and that was a tremendous advantage in the narrative, to be able to allow a sense of empathy to appear.
Whatever campaign you're playing though, Relic are working hard to make each level unique. Carota explains: In this game, I'm really concerned with making sure that every level you play is memorable, so that when players go and talk about it with their friends, there won't be any confusion between different missions. They'll be like, 'You know, Caen counter-attack, at night when the lightning's coming, and then the King Tiger rolls in. Oh, I crapped my pants!" As yon can tell, the crapping of pants is a big deal at the home of Relic.
War has been described as 90% boredom, 10% terror. With the former in mind, OF will offer a wide variety of combat scenarios, including the counterattack missions seen in levels such as Carentan, epic tank battles, elite infantry skirmishes, fighting over bridges, a level in which troops and tanks arrive via gliders and lots of conflict in the forest. Mosqueira adds: In COH, we had very little forest-based fighting, but now we've implemented it properly." Hippies might want to look away now, as it's pretty certain that a lot of trees will snuff it. Mosqueira also quips that we'll "get to see what happens when a Sherman attacks a windmill". I'm putting my money on the Sherman.
Other additions will include "tactical sound" (enabling the astute player to recognise the type of machinery firing from its unique sound effects), a full selection of weather effects, complete day-to-night transition (finally enabling missions that say "hold the town until daylight") and a complete overhaul of the vehicle Al.
Carota continues: "We spent all this time doing the Ix'lievable squad movement and the vehicles frustrated us, because we had big plans for these formations, but just didn't have the time to implement it in COH. Visually, seeing intelligent behaviour from your units is very important, and the believability factor was quashed a lot when you saw a whole bunch of vehicles doing the dirty."
As my presentation conies to an end, Mosqueira loads up a level to give us a quick demonstration of the two new armies in battle. Under the cover of darkness and a stinging rain, a couple of British squads cautiously stalk across open terrain to capture a resource point, with a Cromwell tank and their lieutenant standing watch. Once the point's been captured, Mosqueira has one squad build a slit trench while the other takes cover behind the standard sandbags. Lightning flashes overhead, illuminating the forces at work. Minutes later, a couple of the half-track vehicles of the Panzer Elite roll into the square, with German soldiers leaning out of them, firing their Panzerschrecks at the Cromwell tank. However, they don't last long against the heavily dug-in British.
Time to even things up a bit. The steady rumble of a tank fills the air, and suddenly one of the walls of the square crumbles before the might of a Panther. Panzer Elite troops flood through the gap in the wall and the scene descends into chaos, with machine-gun fire filling the air and explosions rocking the screen. Mosqueira switches back to the British to call in some help courtesy of the Royal Canadian Artillery. Soon, shells begin to drop from the sky and the battle really heats up.
Panning around, the units that took cover behind the sandbags have been totally wiped out and the Cromwell's been decimated by the superior Panther. All that remains is a handful of plucky Brits in the slit trench withstanding hit after hit. When only one is left, it looks like the battle's going the way of the Germans. Suddenly, reinforcements arrive, and a neat bit of flanking exposes the weaker parts of the Panther's armour to the two newly arrived tanks, while the infantry reinforcements mop up any German stragglers. A moment to feel patriotic if ever I saw one.
Half The Battle
It's an exhilarating display that serves to remind ns all just why the original Company Of Heroes was such a notable success. After all, how many other RTS games can you list where just the act of watching someone else play a level gets your heart racing? The problem with follow-ups to games that are so successful is the difficulty of matching the intensity and expectations of the first title. But my trip to Vancouver has cemented in my head the fact that the team at Relic are one of the most passionate I've ever met. Couple that with a love for their subject matter that borders on scary and a harsh eye for self-criticism and you can begin to see the potential for Opposing Fronts to be hugely successful. And if this is only the beginning of the COH follow-ups, then Relic seem to be firmly in line to live up to their goals.
The definitive WWII strategy title? We thought they were there already to be honest - but won't stop them bettering it if they feel inclined. Just don't mention the moose...