There’s no doubt that with Company of Heroes, Relic practically reinvented the WWII-themed real-time strategy, which has long since been regarded as a rapidly decaying genre. In a sense, Company of Heroes introduced a whole new aspect of real-time combat in strategy games, with units making the most out of the terrain to gain tactical advantage. At the same time, the AI ensured that units behaved and reacted accordingly to every situation, employing battle tactics such as flanking maneuvers, seeking cover, etc.
Moving away from conventional RTS recipes, CoH was, quite simply, a gaming experience worthy of anyone’s attention. In an effort to build upon this successful formula, Relic created Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, a standalone product (i.e. you won’t need the original to play it) with two new factions to control – the German Panzer Elite and the British 2nd Army.
The new single-player campaign broaches a specific period during World War II, when British and American troops commenced Operation Market Garden. Allied forces were making a push through the Netherlands to get into Germany, but were successfully driven back by the German Panzer Elite. The first couple of missions put you in control of German troops, such as the Panzer Elite Kampfgruppe, as they attempt to hold back the Allied attackers. In the second portion of the game, players are given control over British and Canadian forces, which were tasked with clearing out crucial territories within German-occupied France. All in all, with both these factions on offer, you could say that Opposing Fronts features a decent amount of new content. Also, it should take most players quite some time to finish all of the missions.
In all fairness, Opposing Fronts doesn’t really offer any important or groundbreaking innovations over the original, although it does include some new elements, upgrades and units, all of which should please gamers. Brits have their mobile HQ that can be set up anywhere on the map (WarCraft III anyone?). Upgrades include air support, armored support, as well as various ways to improve logistics. The Germans, for example, get to use scorched earth tactics and other similar upgrades that allow them to booby-trap crucial strategic points and buildings, so they don’t fall into enemy hands. This is a huge advantage when the enemy grabs hold of a strategic point and your forces are too far away to counter attack. The booby-trapped object detonates and you’ll see scorched soldiers fly up and scream in agony. The object of this is to buy your units some time, so they can reach and defend the strategic point on the map.
Apart from setting traps, you may disable strategic points altogether, in which case you’ll lose influence on a particular part of the map, but you’ll also stop enemy forces from gaining more territory and resources (like fuel and ammo, which are needed for reinforcements). This type of feature is a particularly good addition to the multiplayer, as it gives players a chance to broaden the tactical depth of gameplay. Incidentally, at this early stage, a rather small number of gamers are actively playing Opposing Fronts online, so we didn’t get a chance to fully explore the multiplayer aspect.
At any rate, each mission in the single-player campaign is well-structured, so players never feel bored and at the same time they’ll never get distracted from their main objectives. Should players choose to detour from the main task, they’ll often find a choice of secondary objectives. These may entail taking out enemy mortar emplacements or AA guns. Destroying these targets is optional, but in most cases it comes recommended if you want to avoid serious casualties. And believe me, saving the lives of your infantry has its own rewards, seeing as you can always recruit these experienced soldiers in subsequent missions (another useful option). Lieutenants, captains and recruits with experience are more effective in combat and have a better chance of survival on the battlefield. That’s not saying new recruits are dumb and useless; quite the opposite. Thanks to Relic’s excellent AI, units respond and act convincingly, particularly infantry units.
Additional effort was invested into improving vehicle AI this time around. From our experience, vehicle AI works quite well, both for friendly and enemy forces. Enemy vehicles are very good at prioritizing targets, so they can cripple your defenses quickly and effectively. They are skilled at positioning themselves adequately on the battlefield too, claiming higher ground to increase their accuracy. Still, I’m sorry to say that even with all these features, I encountered some pathfinding issues as well as a few problems with collision. Sometimes tanks may jam one another or simply get in each other’s way. As a result, in certain situations, it may take you a while to organize groups of armored vehicles. What’s more, in one of the missions a Cromwell tank got jammed while passing through building wreckage. It just refused to move and it remained stuck throughout the entire mission, which made the unit redundant and practically unusable. Although this occurred just once, I’d still strongly advise you install the latest patch to avoid such glitches.
Once again, players don’t have to buy the original Company of Heroes in order to play Opposing Fronts. Mind you, the learning curve is slightly steep with this one, I’m afraid. The new units, new features, coupled with a multitude of tactical possibilities can be overwhelming for gamers who aren’t acquainted with the gameplay mechanics of the original. The optional pre-campaign tutorial offers instructions on how to manage units, organize attacks, set up defensive lines, use deployable weapons, etc. Even so, when the real action starts, rookie gamers might get confused with all possible upgrades and new units.
The game uses the same technology that powered the original and by the look of things, it still works. Unit animation and highly detailed maps, along with the realistic physics, all contribute to the true-to-life ambience. Also, I had a decent frame rate at 1280×1024 res, with most of the details set on “High” – I ran the game on my Athlon 64 3500+/2 GB RAM/7800 GT rig. Like I said, the physics also play a huge role. For instance, buildings may provide sanctuary for troops, but if an armored truck or heavy tank accidentally backs up and smashes the building wall, you’ll have a shelter that’s slightly less reliable.
Overall, Opposing Fronts comes close to the visual quality of today’s RTS heavy hitters, such as World in Conflict. Of course, the lucky ones among you, with powerful enough hardware, might want to try out the game’s newly-fitted DX10 support. The switch to DX10, however, won’t make too much difference. The game looks superb and works just fine with DX9-based graphics.
The audio is, once again, first rate and goes perfectly with the game’s brilliant soundtrack. The voiceovers in the single-player campaign are quite believable and further add to the atmosphere.
To wrap things up, Opposing Fronts is a worthy continuation to the original Company of Heroes and is every bit as enjoyable. You’ll have fun with the realistic tactical combat, as you blow up buildings or use them as shelter, launch powerful mortar attacks, destroy enemy tanks and then utilize the wreckage as cover for your infantry and so on. In terms of tactics, the possibilities are almost endless. Still, the game doesn’t appear to offer any radical improvements and the gameplay is bound to prove a bit too complicated for those who haven’t tried the original. Both the German and British factions were, clearly, targeted towards veteran gamers – therefore inexperienced RTS gamers will need to invest extra time and effort to get the hang of all the units and their abilities. So if you want to get into the spirit of CoH quickly and straightforwardly, Opposing Fronts may not be the best way to start.