Land Of The Free: Company Of Heroes Online

By Phill Cameron on October 15th, 2010 at 2:35 pm.


Land Of The Free is an ongoing series looking at free to play games. This week we dip into the ongoing Company of Heroes Online beta.

Coming back to Company of Heroes, after all this time, feels somewhat akin to returning to your parents house. It’s the same place, and you spent a lot of time here, but somehow, something is different. And that something is you.

Company of Heroes was brilliant. It reinvigorated the RTS, and ensnared new fans left right and centre. It created something that made sense, transcending beyond the cookie-cutter base building focused genre and providing us with an experience that was that much more believable and engaging. And then Men of War came along and ruined it all. Or at least, it did for me. Not being able to select single units and position them, not able to accurately attack certain parts of an enemy tank, not having the absolutely vital ability to shoot off my enemy’s hats, and then steal them for myself, is jarring. I’ve been spoiled.

And so I’m returning to the house that is Company of Heroes, and I’m a different man to the one that enjoyed these mechanics so thoroughly. But the house has had some renovation, and really, it’s this that might just lure me back in. You see, Company of Heroes isn’t an RTS any more. Not purely. Now it’s got some RPG running through it’s veins.


It works like this: you have to create a commander when you start the game. You select from Allies or Axis, and then from one of three different archetypes that fit neatly into the ‘Turtling, Blitzing and Othering’ play styles that permeate strategy games. Whatever you choose, everyone still plays with the same units, but each different class has a bunch of support abilities and unique units that augment what you do, and how you do it.

Playing the game gives you experience and supplies. The experience levels you up, and the supplies can be spent on upgrades and units. Leveling up gives you points to spend on your skills, which all boost and unlock abilities that you use during the game once you hit the required commander level. These range from artillery strikes to forced enemy retreats, and everything in between. The clever thing is, depending on which play style you picked, they are entirely different, each one serving to better aid the way you play. Pick offensive and you’re going to have abilities that boost your unit speed, or provide a rolling barrage to better attack. Defensive supplies the opposite, and the other has a range of psychological based abilities, like scaring the bejeesus out of your opponent’s troops.


Fie! I hear you cry, claiming that these are going to unbalance matches to a silly degree, allowing people who’ve played longer access to far more powerful abilities, able to crush you with a mere glance. I have a counter to that specific point, and it comes in the form of the commander points that served as your tech tree in the original game. Now these are purely passive, standing there to let you know what commander level you’ve reached in the game. Weaker abilities require a lower commander level, with the big guns only coming out when you’ve hit the higher eschelon of commanderdom. It’s a clever way of dealing with the issue, and you can only ever have so many abilities equipped, stopping you from spamming your enemy into submission with ever bigger explosions.

This thinking transfers through to the new upgrades and units, limiting how many you can have active at any one time, as well as cleverly hemming in the abuse of a particularly powerful unit. They’re called ‘Hero’ units, and tend to have passive bonuses like more health, faster movement or better guns, and they come with a set amount of charges. These can be replenished with the supplies you win from battles, meaning that you’re going to have an out-of-battle economy to manage.


Not only this, but you’re presented with an HQ, fully equipped with every building you can build in the game, and each one of these has a set number of slots. You might have three hero tanks you want to play with, but if your tank depot only has a single slot, you can only take one of them into battle with you. So you’re going to have to tweak your hand like a deck of cards, trying to figure out which set of units compliments one another best, rather than just sticking them in willy nilly.

The army upgrades, too, are constrained, with you having only six slots to pop them into. Things like armour upgrades for all tanks that shove metal skirts on their sides, or improved weapons for your infantry are huge boosts, but once you’ve got enough bonuses to fill up your slots, the only advantage higher level players are going to have over you is more options. Luckily, that initial hump is made much, much easier by a pretty extensive tutorial.


You might think that you’ve played Company of Heroes before and thus you’re above playing a tutorial, but Relic are one step ahead of you. In big text, the first time you start up the game, you’re informed that if you complete the tutorial missions you’ll get far, far more rewards and experience than if you just jumped straight into the multiplayer, and that temptation for loot and levels should be enough to tempt you into, at the very least, having a look at the tutorial missions.

They’re quick, and relatively interesting, placing you in scripted scenarios to inform you of how the game plays, and (most of the time) it lets you skip through the text, meaning that if you remember everything you can breeze through them. And once each tutorial mission is completed, you get a nice shiny new level, and most of the time at least one reward item. Not only that, but it spends far more time informing you about the additions to the game rather than the basics that you already know.

And if you’re still unclear on how to play, and you never played the original, there’s always the single player campaign. The original game, in its entirety, is there and available to play, for free. It almost sounds like madness, but I guess Relic and THQ figured that they’d managed to get all of the money they were going to get out of it with numerous Steam sales and retail boxes, and so they’re just giving it away. A touch altruistic, but there is a motive. Because, after all, they’re trying to make money with this, and they’re doing it in a pretty smart way. There’s a store, as there always is, and it contains things like increased experience rates along with pretty much every unit reward and upgrade you could dream of. The smart thing is, though, that they’ve all got supply costs too. Either you spend some money on Company of Heroes points, or you earn up enough supply points to buy what you want anyway. Obviously things are skewed towards the paying customer, but it’s important not to drive a great big divider between those who pay and those who don’t. It’s a lesson that’s taken a while to sink in, but free to play games seem to be understanding it.

And so Company of Heroes Online is the same old Company of Heroes, except it really isn’t. It’s reiterated, augmented and improved upon to make sure that you’re going to want to stick around and earn some rewards and experience. The lessons learned from Dawn of War 2 are shining through, and Relic know that if you provide people with an incentive for repeat play outside of the actual game experience itself, people are that much more likely to come back again, and again, and again.

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50 Comments »

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  1. CMaster says:

    I’m still having a lot of fun with the original CoH, which is pretty close to free these days anyway.

    I can’t say I’m enthused by the idea of CoH with even less attempt at balancing.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Actually, the balance being more crazy is actually part of the appeal. You can choose how you want to be overpowered, and compared to your opponents overpoweredness. From engineer squads who can plant demolitions from the word go, to tanks which regenerate, volks who cost next to nothing?

      Forget the balance relic set, whats your balance?

    • Wilson says:

      @CMaster – If they are planning on making this their main focus, I would expect it to actually receive balance updates, so in theory the balance should improve compared to regular CoH. Given enough time of course.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Some pc’s and connections die a death in 4 vs 4 games, the game runs smoothly for me on a 3000+ athlon xp with a 7600 gt nvidia on 3 vs 3 games, 4 vs 4 give me ‘lag’ warnings but don’t effect my play.

  2. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    How does it run?

    • Cooper says:

      Download it and find out for yourself?

      PCs are so software and hardware divergent that mileage always varies. Unless there are clear, obvious problems experienced by many, or obvious optimisation problems experienced even on gaming designed rigs, or there’s no demo for prospective buyers to find out themselves, ‘how a game runs’ is one of the more useless things a reviewer can tell you…

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      Nah, i might not be able to run it.
      I was more thinking in terms of lag and net code.

      A reviewer or previewer should be able to tell you if it feels like you are on a dedicated server, with light load, or whether you struggle against lag.
      Its one of the more useful things they can mention, as some cope fine with it, and others get infuriated.

    • Phill Cameron says:

      Basically, if I don’t mention it, it’s fine. It’s one of those things you don’t notice unless it’s particularly good or bad, and COHO is no exception. The matches seem fine, and despite being on a crappy internet connection, I never had any issues.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Why doesn’t Phil get a nice orange box around his comments? Not good enough is he? Eh? EH!?

    • James says:

      The original ran fine on my Intel integrated video card.

  3. Heliocentric says:

    The command tree’s don’t really neatly fall into anything. Its a toybox which you can take, 1, 2 or eventually 5 toys out of. Its very much like any mmo in that while classes exist its ‘builds’ which really effect how you play.

    I’m very much in love with the game though, so much so i accept the very ‘beta’ balance with hero jeeps who can run rings around tanks, massacre infantry and capture flags.

    I urge people to play it, because they did what i thought was impossible, provide a lure to make me want it enough to get good at the game, and thats where the real meat is.

  4. hbunny says:

    People have reported that the texture detail is lower than vanilla COH, but I can’t tell the difference. Many of the same maps are in COHO as in the original, but often tweaked.

    Balance is still an issue and some heroes and call-in units can be abused if you’ve leveled them up a bit.

    The bit about “turtling, blitzing and othering” is completely wrong. Aggressive play wins. You won’t win against any decent players trying to turtle while you tech up to tanks.

  5. Dominic White says:

    In related ‘good free-to-play game’ news, the super-long-running Dynasty Warriors series of kung-fu hack n’ slashers has gotten an online spinoff, gone into closed-but-really-open (you don’t need an invite, just sign up and play) beta as of yesterday.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFniW8gitr8

    http://dynastywarriors.aeriagames.com/

    For people who know about the series, it’s Dynasty Warriors 5, but with up to 12 players on each side in any given battle. For those now familiar with it, it’s an arcade brawler with a light tactical element, based on the 14th century novel Romance of The Three Kingdoms, and you get to beat up astronomical quantities of dudes in a single 10-20 minute mission. It’s not uncommon to personally kill a thousand guys in one mission. It’s ridiculously over-the-top. Simple and addictive megabiff action.

    Gamepad recommended. It’s a lot of fun. Also, DO NOT PURSUE LU BU.

    • Dominic White says:

      *not* familiar with, even.. spellcheck fails me”

      Anyway, it’s a good game, and (like CoHO) an online reimagining of an existing offline game, so you can be sure that it has very solid core gameplay.

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      Oh Lu Bu.
      I remember the one time i killed him, it was very rewarding.
      Of course, that was the last time i fought him, because its suicide to go up against him, really.

    • Dominic White says:

      Lu Bu is even more ruinously powerful in DWO. He appears sometimes as a random spawn, just appearing as a neutral faction in the middle off a battle, looking to wreck somebody because he’s a jerk like that. He’s balanced so that he’ll be tough even for a whole bunch of players.

      Other hero characters appear on all sides, too. They’re also very tough, but not quite as extreme.

    • TCM says:

      That is how Lu Bu should be, in any given game.

      INCLUDING GAMES THAT DO NOT TAKE PLACE IN THE THREE KINGDOMS.

    • psycho7005 says:

      In Dynasty Warriors 2 (yes very old i know :P), he wasn’t that bad. He was tough and it always took me a few tries to kill him but i could do it, and it was very worth it as he dropped +6 strength.

      Then i didn’t buy a lot of Dynasty Warrior games (because they’re basically all the same) until Dynasty Warriors 5. Imagine my surprise the first time i tried to fight him. He is like a god walking among mere mortals in that game, and he always chased ME around. LEAVE ME ALONE LU BU, I’M SORRY I’M ON THE WRONG SIDE!!

      Lu Bu for leader of the world methinks….

    • DrGonzo says:

      Is it anything like DOTA? I could see a mode in Dynasty Warriors based around that idea working rather well.

    • Dominic White says:

      Kinda, I guess. They actually added a mid-battle upgrade system where you have to unlock your better moves and assorted stat boosts by beating up generic troops, and the gameplay involves pushing across the map to take out the enemy bases.

      So yeah, there’s some slight DOTA similarities.

    • Dominic White says:

      Okay, here’s something seriously neat about DWO.

      If you speedrun the starting tutorial mission (requires killing a lot of dudes, very quickly), you’ll be thrown into a bonus boss battle against an enemy captain. Beat him soundly, and you’ll get an S-Rank for the mission. Your reward? Three promotions, 200 honor, and you get to skip over all the other tutorial missions, because you’ve proven that you’re familiar with Dynasty Warriors.

      This is very useful, as those tutorials are slow and tedious, but probably required for newbies.

    • Wilson says:

      @Dominic White – I’ve just tried it out, and it looks fun. Does anyone else have massive input lag though? Is that part of the game, or is my connection bad? Because it kind of takes a lot of the enjoyment out of it. I press attack, and sometimes I attack. Combos are nearly impossible.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Richard Beer says:

    What a great intro, Phil. I haven’t even read the article yet, but I was moved to comment!

  7. Hodag says:

    Also retail CoH let’s you install the truly awesome Eastern Front mod which the online version won’t.

  8. Anthony Damiani says:

    I don’t want RPG in my RTS, dammit! And I certainly don’t want online persistent progression. :(

    • Lacunaa says:

      This. How are more options for paying customers/massgamers not detrimental to game balance? That would be implying that every option has the same strength which clearly can never be the case. What is wrong with motivating players to play just by making the game balanced and fun?

  9. Adam Whitehead says:

    As someone else mentioned:

    In CoH you can play as the Red Army (via the excellent, professional-quality EASTERN FRONT mod).

    In CoH Online you cannot (so far).

    So, whilst diverting if it’s for free, it doesn’t really appeal over vanilla so far.

  10. moe says:

    Does CoH Online allow you to setup and play private matches? Perhaps a 1v1 or 2v2 with just you and your pals? No random internet people.

    I kind of doubt it, but just thought I’d ask. Thanks in advance.

    • Heliocentric says:

      You can set up private custom games, or setup ‘parties’ for ‘reward games’ (the more serious games). So yes, its got full functionality in that regard.

  11. frosty840 says:

    CoHO hasn’t been properly patched since the middle of August, when they completely fucked the Ostwind, during the closed beta.

    Many of the powers on each side are ludicrously unbalanced, several completely negating the Germans’ MG42 suppression ability, which is the Axis’ main defense against the fact that the Allies capture territory 1.5 times faster than the Axis.

    There’s a particular pair of abilities which send me into even more of a fiery rage than usual; They’re two closely-matched abilities, one in an Allied command tree, the other on the Axis side. The Axis power, when fully upgraded, allows you to basically un-suppress a squad. It begins life with a huge bunch of debuffs (squad takes increased damage, fires less accurately, etc) and these debuffs are removed from the effect of the power as you upgrade it.

    The Allied version of the power (and I’m not kidding, here) starts without those debuffs, for the same price, upgrades with buffs instead of un-debuffs and basically grants you the ability to give “a squad” the ability to dodge most incoming fire, fire at an increased rate, be unsuppressable, and to keep that ability in play cheaply, with no cooldown time, for as long as the money holds out. I say “a squad”, but it is, in fact, an area-of-effect ability, meaning you can use it on your entire goddamn army if you can get a member of each squad under the aoe cursor. I say “a squad” because Relic’s in-game documentation, when it isn’t ommitting as much important, nay, essential information as it can, flat-out lies to you.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Company of Heroes. I think it’s pretty much the best RTS ever. But Relic keep fucking up so badly I feel it must all be part of an epically trollsome plan. The alternative is just too distressing.

    The idea that CoHO is in any way, shape, or form, a game which is ready to be released to the micropayments model is bollocks. I wouldn’t play CoHO for free, right at the moment, and haven’t for months. I can still give an up-to-date opinion on it, however, as, like I said, there hasn’t been a substantial patch to CoHO’s gameplay since August, unless you count one which slightly increased the costs of two of the abilities, which are now more expensive, and yet remain utterly, utterly broken, Relic having completely failed to take on-board any of the specific complaints about those abilities.

    Okay, rant over, CoHO sucks, and Relic have sucked since 2007, when the design team in charge of developing the original Company of Heroes fucked off to form Smoking Gun Studios, leaving the ghost of Relic to spawn second-rate expansions and Dawn of War titles from the corpse of the fundamentally brilliant Company of Heroes engine.

    Good luck and my best wishes to the CoHO team; they’re going to fucking need it.

  12. Lolto says:

    CoH online sounds alright…

    You guys should try out the CoH mod Operation Market Garden: http://www.omgmod.org

    It’s a persistency mod which focuses on the combat of CoH and not the building aspect. CoH online proposes some aspects which are similar to the mod.

    Check it out.

  13. Ludd says:

    @frosty840: Wow, that’s sad. I loved Company of Heroes and it had so much potential that wasn’t, and probably never will be, realized. It’s all but dead since Opposing Fronts.

  14. DMJ says:

    Loved this game when new.
    Years of enjoyable play.
    Now I have Starcraft.

  15. Thants says:

    “Not being able to select single units and position them, not able to accurately attack certain parts of an enemy tank, not having the absolutely vital ability to shoot off my enemy’s hats, and then steal them for myself, is jarring. I’ve been spoiled.”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll gladly give up those things for an interface that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out.

    • Thants says:

      That said, players having better stuff because they’ve played longer sounds like the last thing an RTS needs.

    • Heliocentric says:

      I’d love a game where its like golf handicap. When you level up you have to choose a weakness. 10 less hp on your engineers or your bar upgrade cost more?

  16. Titus says:

    “The bit about “turtling, blitzing and othering” is completely wrong. Aggressive play wins. You won’t win against any decent players trying to turtle while you tech up to tanks.”

    This is only really true in 1-1 play and not always there either. I am a axis defensive player who mainly plays in a 3 man team the other players are blitz and terror. We use my abilities to close off captured swathes of the board to great effect. I lock my area down with 88’s and W crossfire bunkers for behind and in front ranger / allied infantry spam. It is important if you take this style of play to have the reactive arty to make sure the massive blobs can be repulsed too.

    We win most games and are in the 2%and 5% bracket, we have had some really amazing wars with real good teams that have lasted right to the final bell. The defensive abilities really do allow someone who wants to play this way to have a viable way to play, of course you have to get out the gates like a shot and get your ground pegged down asap or you can be in big trouble.

    I only came back to the game after Coercion from a mate who was nuts about this game back in the day, but I’m glad I did its pretty fun at the moment.

    • Wilson says:

      @Titus – I think the bit you quoted was probably meant compared to many other strategy games. You can’t turtle in your base in CoH, and what you’re describing is a very offensive defence (as it has to be in CoH) compared to what you can do in some other strategy games.

  17. magaruis says:

    I loved Company of heroes. I loved it so much i own it twice (Not kidding, some steam deals don’t care if you own a game).
    But…
    I don’t like COHO.
    The original had all tech trees build up to something , meaning you could do something with your reinforcement points during the game. An allied tank commander would build up capping abilitys with light vehicles , repair for vehicles and finally huge vehicle reinforcements.
    Now on the other hand , when you start out , you pick one ability and thats it. So you either go for the support for your tanks or go for the heavy tanks. you can of course build this up , but i always have the feeling something is missing. Evry game i have that huge feeling of lacking so many usefull abilitys.

    I did like the idea of hero units. They were fitting , although some of them were impossible of leveling up. leveling up engineers (your standard build unit) by shooting enemys just wasn’t the best idea.

    There was also one campaign in COHO. So even when you are playing as germans , you will be playing the allied campaign. If i’m not mistaken , COH (after all the expansions) had about 6-8 different campaigns you could play through.
    I loved the original COH to death. COHO just doesn’t give me that same feel. It just feels like someone tried to port the original game to a F2P format.

    • Heliocentric says:

      You can level hero engineers by using land mines, but you were using them anyway right… RIGHT?

  18. rocketman71 says:

    The last fuckup in CoH’s history. Sad.

    Relic, for the fucking hundredth time: bugfixes for the first, plus CoH2 with japs and russkies. No MMO shit, thanks.

    • Heliocentric says:

      You really think this soaked up all the resources they would be otherwise be spending on coh 2? Anyway, its not an mmo, not even close, unless you count 4 vs 4 as massive. Its just coh given a lick of paint and turned free to pay/microtransaction and its still beta, yes the balance is bollocksed, yes microtransaction is screwing the balance worse, yes i wish coh regular was getting fixed, but see thats the problem.

      Regular coh has no steady revenue stream, thus in a world ran by tight fisted publishers, no support, if the people paying for hats for their soldiers start complaining you better know the balance team will be on it… Crap? The fate of balance will be decided by the people who pay? Those people are idiots!

  19. markcocjin says:

    What he said is true. Like it or not, Company of Heroes Online is Company of Heroes’ only chance at survival. No matter how bad it plays, it will be the only game that keeps the IP relevant.

    It’s a new car with new controls. Learn to use it and continue to enjoy driving.

  20. nichevo says:

    I don’t like the idea of commander persistence. I want to be able to choose any “build” at the start of, or even during, a match and be able to use it without any artificial (i.e. non-gameplay) restraint.

    In other words, I don’t like the idea of being “locked in” to Blitz and being unable to try out Terror or Defensive without grinding through dozens of matches.

    • Heliocentric says:

      You’ve got 4 commander slots, i know be should be 6, just pick your favourites.

  21. grimskin says:

    “The army upgrades, too, are constrained, with you having only six slots to pop them into.”

    I’m pretty sure, that it’s eight, not six.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Yeah, i caught that but it just felt pedantic. Additionally his explanation of how hero slots are unlocked was flakey as hell.

      Essentially every gate (on each unit deploying building structure except the hq which has one always) has up to 3 slots each with a level requirement. At level 50 you’d have everything at 16 you’d have a slot or 2 in the 2 most basic buildings.

      But to be fair, without paying money for supply you could only use a few heroes at once, unless you stick to low level heroes. My 2 favourites are the cheap demo engineer(whoops there goes your early mg bunker/house deployed mg/wall you based your defenses on/base buildings) and the assault jeep (whoops there goes your pio squad/essential cp/sniper/mg42/mortar/retreating squad).

  22. Tetragrammaton says:

    But, all this is irrelevant since……. THE KING OF WWII ELECTRONICAL STRATAGEM MOW:AS(hats) IS ALMOST UPON US. SO SAYETH THE LORD.

    • Heliocentric says:

      They should totally release a special hats edition with dozens of totally unsuited hats. Trilbys and bowler hats you can salvage of a group of ambassadors, catholic deacon’s hats, chef’s hats, a deer’s head as a hat dead rising style.

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