Company of Heroes is a long running World War 2 franchise, although it is one of the only ones to be a RTS instead of a first person shoot. The game sets many of the story missions with real offensives that happened during the war; it will even stop and display the lay of the land with overviews that feel more like maps that commanders carried with them instead of high def displays. What really makes a lasting impression is how well balanced the multiplayer is, to the extent that it even rivals StarCraft. Oh, and the entire thing is going free!
Most free to play games expect that all gameplay be done online, while connected to their servers. Normally this means interacting with large chunks of the community any time one logs in, however, Company of Heroes has done away with that by including a chunk of the single player game with this model. This is a great idea, because the best way to get one's footing when playing an RTS is beat the single player game for experience before jumping into a realm filled with people who are way better than any new player could hope to be.
But even after the single player campaign is completed, that the game allows for play against bots as well. From what I managed to play during E3 2010, this was the same exact experience as playing against the computer as it is during the retail game, down to the inclusion of the well known maps from previous games. The only noticeable difference during this play was the balancing, although this is common for any expansion –or even updates—of any RTS to review balance tweaks, Company of Heroes has taken most of that a step further with the introduction of hero units.
Hero units are similar to normal units, except that they can gain experience throughout the course of play. Very similar to the hero units that were introduced in Warcraft 3, these units are persistent over the course of an entire career with the game, so that when a match is over the hero will still retain some of the experience from that game. Oddly though, they must be spawned from within the structure that produces the normal type of that unit, so a hero infantry must spawn at an infantry building and an armored hero unit must spawn with other armored units.
The game itself is free, which means that at some point there are micro-transactions driving the gears of gameplay. The way that this was laid out it seemed to be leaning more towards how Battlefield Heroes was first set up – that a player gets in game currency for playing in battles but they can also can buy it with real world money as well. With this coming from the same team known for tireless in-game balancing, it seems like the two will even out between the person who drops 10 bucks for the weekend play, and that dedicated gamer that constantly plays.
The items that can be purchased are also a new addition to the game as units can now be equipped with other equipment as well. This wasn’t gone over in extreme detail at E3, so I am a little fuzzy on the mechanics, but during one of the matches an infantry unit was equipped with a better rifle and seemed to be taking out other similar unequipped units pretty easily. These weapons can be won after a battle or bought from the store with the game winnings/money as well. It does seem a little odd that the hero units appear as a finite spawn that must be repurchased after a certain amount of uses, in a game where just a little more power on one unit means the difference in battle a constantly improving unit is a must have.
The only other major difference that I managed to notice was that the player chooses a commander when starting up the game, and these commanders act similar to the three skill paths that the players were able to choose during gameplay (which are similar to tech trees for other games). For the Americans, there is an armored commander that falls in line with the same in game tree that was present during the retail game, but this time the unlocks are done outside of battle from experience that gained from playing the game. So instead of being able to reach the bottom of one of the tech trees in just one battle, it will take a ton of time to unlock everything, but once unlocked it will stay that way. Also many of the passive skills, like raid, have become active –so the talent needs to be clicked to start it and will only run for a small amount of time before it has to be activated again.
The beta for CoH:O should be starting up sometime this summer with the final product having a planned release date of September. For anyone who has ever had a passing interest in any RTS game, Company of Heroes has always been a solid recommendation. Now that the game is going free to play, there is no reason that it just doesn’t come installed on every PC on the planet. The series really is just that good.