E3 07: Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts Preview

The stand-alone expansion to Relic's excellent period piece Company of Heroes adds two new campaigns, some pretty weather effects, and a pair of armies: the British, and the German Panzer Elite. That doesn't sound like much content on the outside, but the new armies alone are distinct enough that they add a significant amount to an already deeply satisfying game.

In the original Company of Heroes, flag conquering and offensive maneuvers were the name of the game, with defensive strategies tending to lose out in the end. Opposing Fronts remedies this by providing an entire army built around prudent commanding. Reflecting their posture during the war, British troops dig trenches and build fortifications on their way to the front lines, resulting in an experience that requires less micromanagement and more careful planning. Long trench structures can be placed anywhere on the map, with soldiers turning to fire on either side of the line, covering a 360 degree field of fire, and allowing infantry to use their new automatically-fired rifle-grenades from underground. Opponents will need to use weapons like grenades and artillery to smoke out the hidden defenders.

Players of the British side obviously won't win a game by sitting down, however. One new special ability is the glider reinforcement, which is called in similar to the way carpet bombing was in the first game, with a landing strip placed on an empty field. Gliders filled with elite British commandos tumble to the ground, the wings of their transports shearing off on the sides of buildings as they careen down city streets. When the British infantry emerges from their busted ride and marches into enemy territory, their pace slows, the men cautiously moving from building to building, reflecting their shrewd style. These little touches are what allowed Company of Heroes to stand out amidst a sea of bland WW2-themed games, and they continue to impress with the sequel.

On the other extreme, the Panzer Elite faction is all about brutal blitzkrieg assaults. All of the elite army's units are able to capture points, including tanks and transports. In one scene, a massive Jagdpanther tank--described as a "tank with an 88 welded to it"--burst through the British front line, arcing shots into trenches and mowing down exposed infantry. In response, the British issued an artillery barrage using its mobile M7 Priests, scoring a lucky hit on the beastly tank and disabling its gun.

Panzer Elite units are broken into small groups of three or so infantry. Although these groups are weaker in strength than other sides, they also have the advantage of covering more ground, making it much more difficult to defend against them. These infantry can be loaded into vehicles and used as weapon platforms, firing bazookas and rifles from the backseats of halftracks and jeeps. New lieutenant and commander units give troops boosts in ability, although they must be individually managed and kept out of danger, lest they be offed by a sniper.

The new weather effects add a wonderful sense of atmosphere to levels. Rain patters down on troops and rooftops, lightning flashes, and booming thunder add to the apocalyptic sounds of explosions and gunfire. This weather not only looks pretty, but affects the gameplay--muddy roads are impassable by trucks or tanks, and lightning briefly illuminates troops moving through darkened fields.

Players who only own the original game will be able to play against Opposing Fronts owners online, although only the armies contained in the specific game a player owns will be opened up for use. It's hard to imagine anyone who still plays the original game not picking up the expansion, however. The new Operation Market Garden and Battle for Caen campaigns--covering the British and German armies, respectively--sound like great material, and I can't wait to give the British faction a try, as workable defensive RTS strategies are almost always refreshing. I'll get my chance in November with everybody else, when Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts is released to stores.

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