Company Of Heroes Was The Perfect RTS

Our list of the best strategy games on the PC contains only three RTS titles. And none of them are from the past decade. There's a very good reason for this: the genre was perfected by Company of Heroes all the way back in 2006.

The Best Strategy Games On PC

The PC is home to just about every type of video game under the sun, but few are as quintessentially PC as strategy games.

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The popularity of certain types of games can wax and wane depending on all kinds of things. With flight sims, it was the decline of the joystick. Adventure games died on CD-ROM and were reborn on digital shopfronts. Other genres have come and gone thanks to shifting market tastes, or advances in technology.

For me, though, the RTS is different. It's never gone away — you only have to look at StarCraft II or Deserts of Kharak to see good, recent examples — but for a long time it's felt to me like a dead man walking, with developers seemingly unable (or unwilling) to make the kind of major, serious advances you see in other genres like first-person shooters (compare Call of Duty to Call of Duty 4) or even turn-based strategy (compare Civilisation III to Civilisation VI).

Which is fine! I appreciate that millions of people love RTS games for that consistency, that entrenched set of expectations, and the studios making good ones have made a lot of money doing so.

Me, though, I'd always wanted something more. RTS games have always presented themselves as these destructive little dioramas, miniature studies in simulation warfare. Whether it was Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Dune 2, WarCraft or Age of Empires, screenshots and trailers made it look like these games were about the art of commanding armies in the field like an officer, a sensation the actual gameplay — where you end up being more of a shepherd — rarely provided.

One of the things I liked about 2016's Offworld Trading Company was that, whether intentional or not, its existence as a real-time strategy game without combat was a sort of commentary on how tanks and spaceships and soldiers in most RTS games were just window dressing. The real warfare was going on in the crunching of numbers between two colliding forces. Whoever could build up the most optimal bunch of digits and throw it against the other would usually win, and it didn't matter if they were battleships or, in Offworld Trading Company's case, resource prices.

A successful strategy for a game like StarCraft or Command & Conquer is most important at the broadest possible level: how you gather resources, what units you build and in what order, how best to assemble them, when to commit to an assault. True to the genre's name, these are indeed strategies.

But when it comes to simulating warfare, having a strategy is only half the battle. The other half — often the most defining — is in the employment of tactics (especially once your strategy goes pear-shaped), something which most RTS games absolutely fail to account for, or at least smudge over.

Except for Company of Heroes.

Video via We Play Games.

Relic's 2006 classic didn't care about how many crystals you dug out of the ground (it didn't feature any resource gathering at all), or how many weapons you could build with them, because success in Company of Heroes wasn't down to the size of your army, it was down to what you could do with it.

The fundamentals of Company of Heroes were its simulations of battlefield realities like cover and suppression. In most RTS games, if you send some infantry down a road up against a large heavy weapon, they'd run right at it taking damage, with little (if any) allowance made for the elevation of the gun or where its placed. Do it in Company of Heroes and your men will scatter, hit the dirt, take cover and/or see their morale broken, causing them to flee the battle and return to your base.

This meant that the person controlling the infantry had to be very careful how they were used. But even more importantly, it meant the person controlling the heavy weapon could lock down an entire area of the map, and to remove them would require the right mix of units working in the right way at the right time.

The same principles were extended to vehicles; tanks in Company of Heroes were not simply assigned a massive amount of HP then sent on their way to wreak havoc. Their use mirrored that in actual combat, with their frontal armour thick and strong, but their sides and rear extremely vulnerable, meaning it was vital to make sure you were using them in the right way or you'd lose them real quick.

Cover was another area in which Company of Heroes excelled. Relic had tested the idea out in 2004's Dawn of War, but in Company of Heroes it was perfected, with every single movement of infantry units revealing not just places they could move and take cover, but how effective that cover would be. Run across a road and you could get torn apart, but take cover behind a brick wall and a squad of infantry could survive for an eternity.

All this meant that the plans you cobbled together in Company of Heroes were taxing in their development and challenging in their execution. Rather than an abstract battle of numbers, an engagement in Company of Heroes usually feels more like this:

Which shouldn't surprise you! The TV series Band of Brothers was a massive inspiration on the development of the game, to the point where CoH's opening campaign missions walk hand-in-hand with the first few episodes of the TV show. Even the name itself, "Company of Heroes", is shared with the final line delivered in the series before the credits roll:

The inspiration is more than thematic. Band of Brothers was a show grounded in the intimacy of war. We were made to care about each soldier by following their adventures, both in and out of battle, and as we saw them in action we didn't just see moments of individual bravery, but also a strong focus on showcasing the tactics and teamwork that went into a successful action.

And that's exactly what Company of Heroes does. Its cover system makes each soldier precious, where in other RTS games they're expendable cannon fodder. Its suppression systems give immense power to units deployed in the optimal fashion, and require complex, on-the-fly plans to get rid of them.

It makes combat feel alive, and fluid, and dare I say exciting, just like it should. Company of Heroes' sound design deserves a special mention here, with the thundering boom of its artillery and the crack of its tank fire really helping get the point across that explosions are big, bad and very dangerous things for soldiers caught out in the open.

And while it was physically challenging to react to all of this, it was never in a "how fast can I click through this routine" kind of way, it was in a "oh shit oh shit I'm being attacked on two fronts which one deserves my attention" way. Again, just like it should, because it's the kind of thing someone in command of a military unit in the field should be worrying about, rather than fretting over how much lumber they're chopping down at any given moment.

Company of Heroes was so good at what it did that, even a decade on, it has yet to be beaten. Relic's next game, Dawn of War II, kept some aspects of its cover system but moved in an RPG territory. Not even Company of Heroes 2, the game's direct sequel released in 2013, could overcome it, let down as it was by a dreadful campaign.

It's rare that we see a single game stand so tall amongst its peers so long after it was first released, but the fact Company of Heroes remains the pinnacle of real-time battlefield tactics in 2017 is testament to Relic's 2006 classic, in both the thought that went into its design and the near-perfection with which it was implemented.


Comments

    Yep, definitely my favourite RTS of all time.

    Pretty sure it had resource gathering..... Fuel, ammunition and reinforcement points from captured nodes.

    EDIT: World in Conflict was pretty good as well.

    Last edited 13/02/17 10:18 am

      It was more tightly integrated with the taking and holding of territory, which made its resource gathering mechanic seem not quite so monotonous.

    I remember playing a game waaay back in the day that had your units rolling around the hedgerows in France and for the life of me I can't recall the title...this *might* be it but that HUD doesn't ring any bells. In any event, I'll have to get this, it looks great and might scratch that itch from my youth.
    Thanks Luke.

      you could be taking about mircosofts "A Bridge too Far" series

        I think it was Close Combat @thyco!!!! cheers mate
        Edit: just watched some footage - definitely CC. I have been trying to remember this game for years. Another victory for the Kotaku community! I owe you many a beer sir.

        Last edited 13/02/17 11:26 am

    I Think this is why COH2 was so widely panned, at its core its not a terrible game (not including pay to win aspects of multiplayer and the less than stellar campaign as mentioned above). But following on from COH (and its expansions) it just didn't reach the heights most expected and thus got slammed by many people. If they should decide to go back to the roots with a COH3 and just pretty up the graphics (not that it looks bad for a 2006 game) and removed the PTW aspects of multiplayer that made its way into COH2, we would have a new Esport RTS to rival StarCraft (maybe not in Korea etc but you know what I mean)

    I would rather fire up COH for the umpteenth time than play COH2.

      Problem I had with CoH2 is it just upped the complexity and lethality of weapons/abilities. So you had more to manage while units were always seconds away from being killed/destroyed. It make the game incredibly stressful to play and far from as enjoyable as COH1

      As for eSports. I really think really Relic (and RTS Developers in general) needs to stop chasing that rabbit. Stop trying to design a game based around its potential as an eSport - if you make a good game first, the eSports rubbish can come later.

      Last edited 13/02/17 10:59 am

        upvote for your esports comment. thats the thing that a lot of devs and publishers dont understand. Starcraft, UT and Quake3 werent made for Esports, they were made to be the best games you could play and enjoy

        Yeah, that's what I was getting at with the eSport comment, as far as if they stop trying to make it for that purpose and just make it a good game (as was the case with CoH) then they are probably more likely to succeed in doing so (counter intuitive I know).

        I totally agree that by trying to secure a spot in eSport with CoH2 they lost sight of what made the first game good and as you said over complicated a lot of it to try and make it deeper but in the long run lost the FUN of it.

        No company is going to make a eSport league for a game with a small fan base, it just wouldn't make sense financially. If they concentrate on building the fan base with a good/great game first and then the eSport will follow. Most eSport titles are in the simple to learn but hard to master range of games (make sense as then everyone can appreciate the game and understands when a more complex play is made)

        Thanks for the reply.

    This & Warzone 2100, two RTS's that had little to do with resource management, and much more to do with tactical and strategic decisions have always resonated with me more than AoE and Starcraft & clones.

      Check out Faces of War as well. The series is like CoH but takes it even further down to the soldier level to the point that they all have individual kits and need to raid bodies for ammo and bandages to keep going.

      Wouldn't have put Warzone in here as I remember having to keep control of those damn oil relics.....

        Drop Oil Derrick & Power Plant and forget about it. Very similar to CoH's territory mechanic tbh.

        This is especially true in multiplayer where most games are played on max oil in base maps.

        But I'll have a look at FoW, sounds kinda Xcomy\Commando's rather than RTS though.

        Last edited 13/02/17 11:29 am

    The were many games back in the day that had elements of tactical decision making.

    e.g. Earth 2140 had ammo and fuel counts for its units forcing you to do a risk analysis on every encounter. It also had day-night cycles (I particularly remembered rolling my tanks into an enemy base with my tanks lights off then out ranging and out-shooting the enemy guns that were lit up by the base lights...)

    Ground control had armor zones where its tanks were unstoppable from the front but could be flanked, and flanked hard...

    It's a "rush map" always type of Rts, The Multiplayer doesn't even play like it's campaign, I've never seen the appeal of these type of Rts's, Cossacks 3 can support more than 10 000 units on screen, Celtic Kings Rage of war is like Age of Empires with food resource management in the way of standing armies can die of starvation, There are better more worthy Rts's that bring more to the genre than Coh, Coh even has the classic "Saving Private Ryan team America crap" where the only country storming Normandy is the USA.. I think Coh is overhyped but thats just my opinion, If you enjoyed Coh, Then great :)

    I think you misspelled Brood War in the title there.

    The AI in Company of Heroes cheats though (it can see through your shroud), so it's disqualified.

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