Company of Heroes Online isn't just a straight remake of the original, addictive real-time strategy game, it takes that experience and fixes almost everything wrong with it.
Not that Company of Heroes mulitplayer gaming was tragically broken. But as Tim Holman, Relic's director of Company of Heroes Online said at a recent event for the press "We loved our single player experience, but multiplayer wasn't quite right."
The problem as Relic saw it was that nothing carried forward from match to match.
That's the biggest change with the free-to-player Company of Heroes Online: Players create a commander who earns experience that can be used to level up his abilities.
When a character is first created a player has to decide what sort of commander they want (there are six types). That decision controls the sorts of special command abilities that they will be able to unlock. Those abilities show up on a command tree.
The game is currently in open beta in Korea and will be going to open beta in China next, then it comes to the U.S. And the free game (the only thing that Relic and THQ plans to sell are "convenience items" that can speed up character leveling ) will support eight player online matches and will also include the full version of the single player Company of Heroes for free.
That's pretty great, but not nearly as great as this new take on 2006's game of the year.
I sat down with the game following the THQ briefing to get an idea of what the game was like. Before I knew it I had played two complete matches and was being hustled out the door to other appointments.
The character Relic let me use was maxed out with improvement points, so I was able to go in before a match and unlock and upgrade every single one of my character's abilities.
In my case, I choose a tank commander, which meant I was able to beef up my tanks with more armor and special abilities and even call for air drops of tanks.
The matchmaking, I was told, first looks for players of similar levels, and then it expands its search looking again for players a little further apart in experience. The system keeps doing this until it finds a match. In my case, since I was playing the highest level character possible in a Korean open beta, the matchmaking took a bit longer, but it was still less than five minutes.
Once I dropped into the game, everything looked very familiar, which is a very, very good thing.
The graphics still looked amazing with shadows, real physics and all of those tiny little army men running around shooting at each other.
The only difference popped up when I started using some of my Tank Commander's special abilities, which are unlocked with experience. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of time to get to the point where you can create tanks in the matches, so I was smoked the first time.
In the rematch though, I managed to capture the control points and eviscerate the competition with my armored vehicles.
The idea of freemium games doesn't sit well with everyone. That's because the way the developers make money off of these titles is incredibly varied. It can mean having to harass friends to join you or paying for basic components or game time. This latest concept, paying to speed up your leveling, seems to becoming popular among these sorts of titles now.
Lord of Ultima, for instance, has a very similar system.
But it doesn't bother me with Company of Heroes Online, mostly because the matchmaking system works to find players of similar levels, so in theory you're never going to be incredibly outmatched just because someone dropped a load of cash.
Also, it's Company of Heroes... free and better.
I can't think of a single thing wrong with that. And I can't wait until it hits North America in September.