Operation Polar Bear - Reflections on Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

As my battle-hardened infantry units went to work assembling a machine gun nest at a vital bridge crossing in a recent Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts skirmish, I was struck with a sense of the unfamiliar. Not because I was playing a game set in arguably the most commonly portrayed historical period for video games; if anything that feeling is familiar to the point where I could probably field-strip a M1 Garand in the dark. The unknown factor in this case was the units themselves, who wore neither the Stars and Stripes nor the Union Jack on their arms. They were in fact, card-carrying members of the Dominion of Canada.

So how had these plucky Canucks found their way from Juno beach into my game? Up to that point, I had been battling the German Wehrmacht with the stiff upper lipped gents of the British S.A.S. An interlude came in the form of a mission where the Royal Canadian Rifles were tasked with capturing a vital airfield near the French town of Caen. It seems Jerry was going to come knocking on the door, and the Brits wanted to see if the lads from across the pond could answer. The mission is based on Operation Windsor, which took place in June of 1944. The Canadians were the main force behind the securing of a vital airfield at Carpiquet. In reality, the mission went as planned, and the forces which ultimately captured the airfield also repelled a German counter-attack. I hoped to recreate this experience within my game.

As the mission went on, I found myself less concerned with fending off waves of attackers in coal scuttle helmets and more with the portrayal of my own countrymen as they fought towards the airfield. The initial surprise of having any Canadians appear in a game was significant enough. Our representation to this point hadn’t exactly been awe-inspiring. Wolf Hawkfield from Sega’s Virtual Fighter series? Sasquatch from Darkstalkers? Not what I would call easy to identify with characters. CoH’s Canadians were a likeable enough sort. They were determined, and they steadfastly resisted the German attempts to instill fear via a fellow with a bullhorn. “Why fight for the imperialists who forget your sacrifices at Vimy?” he taunted. That made my eyebrows go up a bit. The reference to Vimy Ridge, a major source of national pride for us syrup peddlers suggests that Relic Entertainment did their homework. Looking up Relic revealed that they’re based out of Vancouver, and it’s at that point that the whole thing fell into place. Putting a single Canuck mission into their game must have given them some personal satisfaction (and variety) in an already stellar expansion pack.

So on the whole, did the men of the Royal Canadian Rifles do their country proud, or were they destined to join a crazed wrestler and some sort of Yeti fellow in the Canadian Videogame Character Hall of Shame? I thought the lads were portrayed well. There were some Bob and Doug Mackenzie accents, particularly the order acknowledgments, but other than that, they came off sounding great. I really can’t get too hung up on stereotypes though, especially when the British characters either sound like stuffy old men sitting in an armchair or Bacon from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If nothing else, I got to send a few hundred crying Nazis back to mama, and that is always worth the price of admission.