Last year’s Company of Heroes from THQ gave the real-time-strategy genre an injection of vigor not seen in a long time. It mixed up the standard notions of play and introduced elements such as varying types of cover and directional fire; all underscored with a heaping helping of micromanagement to squeeze out every ounce of production from every unit. It was a blast to play in both single and multiplayer and showed there was room for innovation in the RTS field. Today we have Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, and while it doesn’t innovate nearly as much, it builds on the solid concepts of the original to create an explosively-fun strategy game.Opposing Fronts examines WWII from two unique perspectives: that of a German Panzer Elite unit defending the Netherlands during Operation Marketgarden and the British Army in the Battle for Caen. Together, the two campaigns will give players approximately 15 hours of material and are longer than what was given to players that picked up the original Heroes. Unlike that game, however, Opposing Fronts pushes a mobile style of play.German forces consist of a myriad of fast and agile units meant for quickly traversing from point to point to engage the enemy and move on. This is emphasized by the lack of a heavy tank in the standard build options. The bulk of the German’s a**nal consists of varying half-tracks, armored cars, open-compartment anti-tank vehicles and an anti-infantry tank that will outright refuse to engage heavy armor. But while it may be light, it can take beating. This is helped by the fact that the standard German infantry unit can also repair any structure or mechanized unit on the battlefield.
Players that prefer a more heavy-handed option should not be worried. Depending on the type of Army Command a player chooses, he or she will get access to Jagdpanzer, Hetzer, or Tiger tanks. As support options that must be earned with experience points, it helps to keep the game low-key until the better units and abilities are earned through combat. Aside from bringing in heavy armor, the Germans have other abilities should a different Army Command be chosen. Luftwaffe support brings in air bombardments and can also bring in infantry to construct ground defenses. The most interesting, however, is Scorched Earth. With access to ground-pounding artillery players can decimate bunched groups of enemies and even booby-trap control points to give capturing soldiers an unpleasant surprise or outright disable the control point from being used by either army.Similarly, the British army is just as mobile but in uniquely different ways. While their German counterparts have fixed-placement buildings that must be constructed, the British call in support trucks that are deployed for use and then can be packed up and moved to different sectors as the battle changes. The Brits also have access to several standard base defenses including machine gun nests, anti-tank emplacements and devastating howitzer batteries. This makes them quite effective at rapidly capturing territory and then fortifying it to blunt any counter-a*ault.Like the Panzer Elites, the British’s heaviest units are obtained through support options, which include Churchill tanks in three different flavors. Additional support options also include the ability to drop commandos anywhere on the battlefield and to grant additional abilities to howitzer emplacements that, them gntrencheditiom!l arimctie death machines. This is counter-balanced by the fact that they eat up a large chunk of population points. Like all fixed British emplacements, a balance needs to be struck since too many defensive structures hamstrings a player’s ability to launch offensive operations. This becomes more critical when players realize that there is no way to raze or otherwise dismantle defensive structures that have become obsolete on the battlefield.One interesting difference between the two factions is how units gain veterancy. With the Panzer Elites, the more destruction a particular unit causes the better it will become. As its three veterancy awards are triggered commanders have the ability to a*ign offensive or defensive bonuses for each level attained. This means players can adjust each individual unit on the battlefield depending on the situation. The British on the other hand have Lieutenants, Captains and Command Tanks that are linked to individual squads and units. These officers gain experience and project it in a certain radius around them, giving non-specific bonuses to any soldiers that happen to be in the area.There are advantages to each method but German units needing to be manually upgraded highlight an important aspect of Opposing Fronts: players will need to keep constant vigilance over their forces in order to achieve victory. Large numbers of units have special abilities that can make or break battles and the commander that isn’t paying close attention is likely to end up decimated on the front line. It’s this fact that means newbies to the RTS genre may find Fronts to be a bit more than they can handle.Of course they can always practice during the two lengthy campaigns and in skirmish mode before taking their exploits online. In skirmish and online multiplayer the two game modes from the original Heroes still remain. For those that don’t know, victory is achieved by either eliminating the enemy in annihilation mode or by capturing strategic points located around the map. Players are still forced to play Axis versus Allies, a complaint of the original game, but for those that own Company of Heroes the option to play as the Americans or regular German force is available.Opposing Fronts continues the pedigree of excellent graphics and a robust original soundtrack. The 3D environments are fully interactive and change as battle is waged. Craters of artillery fire provide good cover for advancing infantry while derelict cars, tank hulls and sections of buildings must be blast through or rolled over to get past. Bringing tanks into an urban jungle presents an array of problems and highlights some of the cooler effects that the graphics engine is capable of. Rubble from collapsing buildings can tumble down and destroy entire groups of units. It’s the small details like this that make the visuals all the more appreciated. Watching a squad of British troops scurry for cover or cautiously walk through enemy territory are just a few of the things that gives the game a special graphical touch. The addition of a well-executed soundtrack also helps things as militaristic drum beats victorious-sounding string sections provide a notion of sanity on an otherwise insane battlefield.Overall, Opposing Fronts is an excellent standalone expansion pack for the original Company of Heroes. It may require some practice by RTS novices in order to get the hang of things but anyone that gives the game a chance will certainly not regret it.