Single-Player Showdown: Company of Heroes 1, Mission 1
As with most games, the first few single-player missions in Company of Heroes serve to introduce the player to basic mechanics and familiarize them with their use, establishing a firm foundation for expansion into more advanced mechanics and tactics in later levels. A specialized, condensed tutorial mission also exists outside the campaign to introduce the multiplayer-focused to the gameplay, but as Relic took the time and effort to build basic learning into the early single-player missions, this commentary will proceed as though the player has not experienced the tutorial.
So! Let’s storm the beaches of Normandy.
The first mission opens with a pre-rendered cutscene showing one of the American landings on D-Day. The landing craft storm in, get shot up, foul on the German defenses, and disgorge infantry on to the shore. The focus of the cutscene is an infantry company captain, who rallies his soldiers under withering fire and leads them forward. He is clearly the hero and focus of the campaign – right up until he is unceremoniously cut down by scything machine-gun bullets. The German defenders re-load as another wave of landing craft approach the beach.
You may be thinking “That’s all a bit Saving Private Ryan,” and you’d be right. Company of Heroes’ single-player campaign cribs very heavily from not just Saving Private Ryan but also Band of Brothers in creating the theme and overall mission structure. It’s not a particularly original source of material, but Relic do lay their own storyline (that of Able Company) over top, and as far as inspirations go, they picked some extremely solid sources. This is part of why the campaign feels overall very well-made and tightly plotted: They had excellent source material to work with and take examples from.
Of course, we’re not even finished with the first mission yet, so let’s carry on. The cutscene smoothly shifts from pre-rendered to in-engine, causing everyone to become noticeably more polygonal. Another infantry captain is shown in another landing craft, and the same scene plays out again – gunfire, landing craft, infantry storming the shore. The camera slowly pulls back from the in-close action, and the in-engine cutscene transitions just as smoothly into actual gameplay.
The first thing the game teaches you about is cover. Infantry squads need to advance up the beach, and if you leave them outside the convenient cover offered by the many obstacles and tank traps, mortar and artillery fire zeroes in on their position to devastating effect. This is not actually representative of what cover does or how it works – it is, essentially, a dodge bonus and extra suppression resist – but it does encourage you to associate ‘in cover’ with ‘safe’. At least it would if the mission were not entirely winnable by simply zerging every rifleman up towards the barrier at the shingle – only twenty-five soldiers need to make it, and there are enough on the beach (with more spawning from the landing craft to replace any wiped out squads) that a bum-rush tactic will quickly succeed, at the cost of many virtual lives.
Once twenty-five infantry make it to the shingle, you are given a squad of engineers to move up as well. Them you do have to be more careful with, because you only get one squad at a time, and if they get killed you have to start again from the end of the beach. Once they arrive, there’s another cutscene of them blowing apart the barrier, and then it’s back to the action. Two rifle squads, an engineer squad, and – if you grabbed him – the sniper are ready to go. There are two routes up the bluff, and the objective is at the top – destroying the large bunker with a satchel charge from the engineers.
Gameplay Mechanics Sins: 1. Combat Engineers do not have the ability to use Satchel Charges in the normal game; it is restricted to the Airborne infantry squad. However, Combat Engineers do have the unlockable ability to use Demolition Charges, and since you need to fight your way up to the bunker to reach it with the short range of the satchels, there’s no real reason why the demo charges couldn’t have been used instead.
This phase is where the game teaches you about suppression effects. Certain weapons, such as machine guns, cause suppression when they fire at infantry. Suppressed infantry hit the dirt, move and fire more slowly, and are less accurate. If subject to continued suppression, they become pinned, moving even more slowly and not returning fire at all, and start taking extra damage. The game teaches this the hard way by lining the only possible approaches with MG42 teams, who will quickly suppress your infantry. The mission encourages you to use grenades to clear out the MGs – a valid tactic, if you move in from the flank where the weapon’s limited arc of fire can’t pin down the squad, but difficult to manage from the front. This is where the sniper is useful, able to pick off the MG crew at range. If you didn’t save the sniper, you’ll need to co-ordinate the approach of multiple squads to overwhelm the weapons. Unlike in Company of Heroes 2, the unit AI is not smart enough to swap targets, and will continue to focus down one squad while another storms up. If any squad gets wiped out, they are replaced by a fresh one, though you only get one sniper.
Once you satchel-charge the bunker, there’s a brief in-engine cutscene where the infantry captain teams up with a sergeant (who is given a name – Sgt. Conti) and they clear out the bunker at close range with submachine guns. Hard angles and fast cuts suggest the brutality without actually showing it, and when they exit they have a distinct thousand-yard stare. Of course, being the heroes, they quickly shake it off and focus on the next objective – eliminating the gun battery atop the ridge. There are two ways to go about this: Fighting through the trench network to reach the ridge and blowing them with satchel charges, or manning the de-crewed Flak-88 emplacement and using it to destroy them at range. The game ensures you realize this is an option by highlighting the gun and suggesting using your infantry squad to crew it, thus introducing the mechanic of crewing abandoned weapons. There are also infantry weapons laying around the trench network for your troops to pilfer. Half-strength German infantry will occasionally spawn from small bunkers in the trench network, and a secondary objective to clear them pops up.
Not Quite a Sin: The Wehrmacht (German multiplayer/skirmish faction) can in fact use these bunkers to reinforce their soldiers if they take the Defensive doctrine, allowing them to re-fill squads which have suffered losses with fresh men. The Wehrmacht can also upgrade these bunkers to medic stations, which will take in casualties from the battlefield and spawn a fresh squad of infantry once enough have been saved. Neither of these is quite how the bunkers are shown to work in this level, but the basic idea of bunkers being enemy strongpoints and sources of reinforcements holds true. More importantly, it’s not telling the player to use bunkers in the manner shown.
Once the gun batteries are silenced, any remaining German infantry flees and the mission is concluded. We have secured the beaches of Normandy and gained a foothold in not only France but in the beginning of an excellent story arc: The Normandy Campaign. It’s a well-known (or at least, certain elements of it are) part of the Second World War with a defined beginning and end point that doesn’t cover too much time or territory to make its depiction unwieldy via the medium of a real-time strategy game. Relic are not trying to show the entire liberation of France, the full push from the beaches to the Oder River, or shoehorning in North Africa and Italy, but are confining themselves to a contained, identifiable period.
Next time in Company of Heroes 1: Death from above.