Company of Heroes Online Hands-on
The freemium model - free gameplay with additional content for a price - caught on through MMOs such as Maple Story and Dungeons & Dragons Online, and is quickly catching on in other genres. It's an attractive idea for a strained wallet, but freemium games also have a reputation for sub-standard graphics and uninspired gameplay, regardless of how much you spend. It's doubtful that anyone will be able to lob such comments at Company of Heroes Online.
No knowledge of the prior retail releases will be required, since the full campaign from the original 2006 release will be included. Even four years later, the 15 missions are some of the best in the genre. Like Saving Private Ryan, Company of Heroes Online (COHO) begins with an amazing cinematic of soldiers storming the beach of Normandy, before kicking you into the panicked and seemingly futile situation. You would have to be cold-hearted to play through the scenario and not feel pain for the soldiers who really experienced it, or not be thankful for having been born a few generations later.
Following missions have you guiding Able company behind enemy lines to take back the countryside one sector at a time. This means that you'll almost never be an equal footing with the opposition. You have to be resourceful; setting mines along roadways, setting up sandbag barricades and luring enemies to you, and scavenging for better weapons among the deceased. There are always main objectives to capture, secondary objectives that contribute resources to upgrade and replenish troops, as well as hidden objectives that keep gameplay fresh, such as saving a group of friendlies under fire.
The gameplay and interface are also the same as the original's, which are also very similar to Relic's other famous RTS series, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. You can upgrade the abilities and weapons of troops, often in mid-battle, by collecting and spending resources. Figuring all of this out might prove tricky for newcomers though, due to unclear menus. The menu suggests playing through the campaign first, even though the training sections, which are the only places to learn the control schemes, are located in the multiplayer section. Even the method for setting up a skirmish with the AI for extra practice is not apparent, and initially led me to believe the option didn't exist.
The big question is: what makes COHO different from the original? Multiplayer matches are not new to the series after all. One answer is the price of free. Players will also receive experience to level up and Supply points to buy Heroes with special abilities and Army Items to bolster your forces. Some examples include camouflage, reinforcements armed with Thompson machineguns, and the option to turn civilian buildings into fortified barracks. Heroes have abilities all their own and get stronger with experience.
Players have the option of spending Supply points earned through gameplay, which could take anywhere from an hour to a few days to afford some upgrades, or by cutting corners and purchasing COHO Cash with real money (exact prices unknown). Multiplayer is the best way to earn Supply points, for which there are 16 maps at present. Players can square off in matches of 1v1 up to 4v4, and vie for objectives in a game of Victory Points, or decimate their opponents in Annihilation.
The original game established itself as one of the best RTS experiences. Company of Heroes Online has the potential to make it even better with highly customizable armies and seemingly infinite strategies, and all without sacrificing an ounce of quality like other freemium games.