Ask an RTS fan what’s wrong with the genre and you’ll get two common replies: the tank rush and resource micromanagement. Both are perfectly valid, the first being a question of credibility, the second of why a general at the turning point of war should feel like an accountant sat at his desk. So how come Company Of Heroes, a game credited with reinventing the RTS, still gets away with both?
Ironically, it starts by giving you even more to worry about, turning each of your remote-controlled ragdolls into something quite alien to the RTS: a plausible human being. Call it Ryan syndrome, maybe, when a lone soldier crawling through a pile of his unit’s arms and legs is suddenly more valuable than the unit as a whole. In Relic’s war, when a mortar shell literally rips a squad in half and leaves one man ‘pinned’, he may as well be dead. If he scrambles to safety you could reinforce him at the touch of a button, but it’s often less bother to just cut him loose and start over.
But somehow you find yourself trying to save this man, throwing logic, tactics and even troops to the wind in efforts to bring him home. To the average RTS studio, which sees change as the latest steal from Tolkien or Lovecraft and evolution as a new panel for already bloated HUDs, making people actually care about the units on the ground must seem like some kind of Nazi occultism. But to Relic it’s a bare necessity of a genre that was built to simulate war, but has blinded itself to what war really is. Company Of Heroes’ backbone, the Essence engine, is aptly named: it strikes some much-needed fear into a flaccid genre’s heart.
When those individual chunks of scenery begin spiralling through the air and punching holes in the ground, sending particles everywhere, the tabletop battlefield quickly becomes real. Tanks become leviathans, buildings become homes, and soldiers become husbands, fathers, and sons. Having circled WWII like a moth around a flame for almost a decade, it’s the point at which gaming finally gets its hands dirty. It’s a breathtaking, shameful experience.
The coincidence of this and Chris Crawford’s Supreme Commander offers a great RTS worldview. Here are two projects subject to the same dilemma – how to give one man control over many – with entirely opposite solutions. SupCom is the genre archetype, a game of thought rather than feeling that’s presented with abstract, die-cut precision. Company Of Heroes is the iconoclast, refusing to dehumanise its troops and watch the world explode from the comfort of a cloud.
Favouring haste and improvisation over meticulous planning, it seldom slips into the absurd ruts of parry and riposte that define the RTS, wherein two sides fruitlessly bang at the gates of each other’s HQ until an act of brute force ends the battle. With its multiple command and control points, dynamic front lines, and devastating counterattacks, Relic’s is a game that muddies the rules of engagement.
Those who’ve had the pleasure will recall one moment in particular, in Carentan, where you’ve choked the enemy advance by occupying three key bridges. You’ve put snipers in the nearby windows and gun nests at the exits, and pointed flamethrowers at the near-ground and bazookas at the far. German troops and tanks chug into sight like Space Invaders and are duly crushed.
Leaving the frontline to manage itself, you return to your makeshift factories to build the next phase, a spear of tanks to fling customarily across the map. But then an earthquake hits, created not by nature but by offscreen artillery you never knew was there. The game promised a counterattack but gives you two instead, one to distract, the other to destroy. Your impregnable barrier, 15 minutes in the making, is gone in 15 seconds.
A producer for Medal Of Honor once explained how, in addition to this sleight of hand, there are natural checks that can stop a game being exploited by its players. If the exploit in Company Of Heroes is the dependable tank rush, then the natural checks are everywhere. Essence and Havok keep that technique in line, with intricate terrain and architecture that turns rushes into clots, which in turn become giant, explosive bullseyes. The game loves nothing more than a vulgar show of strength because nothing’s so easily punished.
Why remove the flaws of the RTS, it asks, when you can turn them into traps and leave them in? For those thinking that gaming’s pre-watershed version of WWII, with all its bloodless jaunts across Omaha Beach, has taught them war, the message here is that war cannot be taught. If you bring to it a playbook, or heaven forbid the lessons of the GDI or Harkonnen, you may as well bring a suicide note as well.