Company of Heroes
Computer game
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Genre: RTS
Platform: PC
Year: 2006

Company of Heroes has the merit of being, if not the first RTS game set in World War II, at least the only good one in living memory, resulting in a fresh angle to a setting normally popular with first-person shooters and 'real', turn-based strategies. Refinements to the engine of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War give it such long-awaited features as squads that seek cover automatically and realistically destructible environments, while the camera can be zoomed and turned to any point of the battlefield blah bla blah bla blah blah blah.

If you've played games of this ilk in the 21st century, you know what you're getting. Company of Heroes is the latest inch forward in a genre where innovation has long been synonymous with bankruptcy. It's a fairly competent game on its own - the AI poses a challenge, defenses need a fair bit of thought, there's a good variety of units and objectives (loading times are Commodore 64-level, though) - but the claim to fame it needs to stand out is the historical setting, which is why I got it. Now, chances are this view won't occur to those who don't think too much and are no more than reasonably deranged, but that's also what eventually left me disgusted at entertainment like never before.

Realism is the game's central theme. The amount of detail in the units and theatres is astounding, the battles are historical and their role in the greater campaign is described elaborately, every last piece of equipment was real. Before this, 'realistic' in real-time strategies involved orbital ion cannons. This almost revolutionary concept works for all of a few minutes before it impacts the purposefully absurd game mechanics and explodes. The designers declined to make any serious attempt to break free of the formulae and concepts of the genre, which have much less to do with reality than action movie combat scenes. Having buildings grow out of the ground as pioneers poke their shovels at them, then spontaneously generating new soldiers inside, is not "reinforcement" no matter how keenly you use the term. Soldiers who seek cover by themselves, while neat, are so much fluff and deck chair arranging when they have no names, no morale, no ammo count but unending reserves in a game that prides itself on realism.

There's such a thing as making concessions to the medium. Unfortunately, there's also such a thing as bending over backwards until you find your head up your ass and your work a mockery of what it sought to emulate. The Krauts are reinforcing from those guard towers! Destroy those towers to stop Kraut reinforcements!

Where Company of Heroes does shine is filth. Flying body parts, screams of the dying, an almost continuous stream of obscenities - the game is packed to the brim with macabreness that would be far too much for anything not purporting to be historical. This does, and since it can get away with it, goes on to use the bulk of its cutscenes to show German cunning/Allied strength with the gruesome deaths of the other side.

A lot of buzz was made about the game's graphics. Sure enough, the body parts that detach according to the laws of physics when their owners run into mine flails and the intricate 30-second death sequences show that some serious work's gone into them. The camera, the viewpoint, can be moved freely with no or little loss of quality, right down to checking the soldiers' individual faces and expressions. Well, I did. In the interest of fairness there's some overlap, some exceptions, but by and large Americans get the strong, clean jaws and bright gazes while Nazis bear deep, shifty eyes and horrible grimaces. This level of respect isn't limited to just that: German units largely scream in proper German, but whenever one says something the player needs to hear, he lapses into die ridicülös mankled German that we all know and love, roughly on the level of the 1945 film My Japan*.

I cannot even begin to count how many distinct kinds of wrong it is for a game to turn its very real soldiers, a significant part of whom survive to this day, into goodies versus baddies whom it's okay to kill because they're bad. Add the fact that that's in so many words the ideology the baddies had and were implementing, and the whole mess starts looking like one of those things** that you'd really, really like to be intentional irony but aren't. This is the American WWII Mary Sue in action, self-insertion into an ethically pre-chewed and sanitized version of the war instead of admitting, over sixty years after the fact, that Defending Freedom And LibertyTM involved killing not sworn agents of evil but uncountable men who were guilty of little more than being born in the wrong country.

The game is grim and humorless, what joy it has is the twisted glee of murder and destruction. It is thoroughly sick. In short, it is war, as much of its ugliness as possible crammed in under the flag of realism while the actual waging is about as genuine as Operation: Ninja Patriot. Company of Heroes is exactly what the much-maligned anti-game crusaders say they are. We gamers should be ashamed of ourselves.

HateQuest 2007

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