Review: Company of Heroes 2 (PC)
Where do you begin when tasked with crafting a sequel to an award-winning strategy title? That’s the position Relic Entertainment found themselves in after spending the last few years in an affair with Space Marines and Orks. They’ve since returned to the rubbles of human conflict in Company of Heroes 2 and decidedly focused on the bloodiest there ever was: the Eastern Front of World War II.
Anyone familiar with Relic’s real-time strategy offerings might agree that they, as a genre, seem to fall between tactical squad manoeuvres and all-out battlefield chaos. It’s the Relic spin on things and Company of Heroes 2 is no different, planting you in the boots of a lieutenant rather than a general. In this case, those boots belong to Lev Abramovich Isakovich of the Soviet Red Army. Instead of leading a glorious assault, however, the game starts off with him in a Siberian labour camp, charged with treason.
Consisting of 14 missions, the Soviet-only campaign is Isakovich’s account of what happened during the course of the war. From mounting a desperate defense against the overwhelming Nazi blitzkrieg as your comrades evacuate, to hunting the legendary Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger heavy tank with nothing but a handful of men, the missions are as varied as they are entertaining. Relic has ensured that no two missions feel the same, never letting you settle into a comfortable mindset even if it just boils down to destroy-and-capture. This would prove to be a great learning experience for the challenges of multiplayer later on.
As far as the story goes, it’s painfully obvious that “the brutalities of war” is the driving theme here. For what is known as the Great Patriotic War, the campaign is happy to remind us of the commissars armed with Stalin’s infamous Order No. 227 (“Not a step back”), ready to execute any deemed to be traitors. Officers are also shown to carelessly sacrifice troops in favour of battlefield advantages, merely acceptable losses for the greater cause. When Isakovich takes issues with the things he’s seen and done, he ultimately gets accused of not being a true Soviet soldier and gets transferred to a penal battalion, left to take on a suicidal task without any support.
It paints a grim picture of a war borne out of necessity, although in their quest for authenticity Relic has skewed things a little too far. Despite being the protagonists, the Soviets are seen in so much negativity that it feels like a tired, inaccurate cliché, especially when some of the atrocities are portrayed as common occurrences. Thankfully this is a problem reserved just for the cut scenes—the banter you hear among your troops feels far less dramatized and usually swings between patriotism, cynicism and humour (“Why do they call if half-tracks and not half-wheels?”).
Regardless of your stance on history, the heart to any RTS lies in its mechanics and multiplayer skirmishes. Here the game doesn’t disappoint, rekindling memories of its predecessor. The series does away with resource gathering, automatically generating manpower, munitions and fuel points for you. By capturing territories and building depots, you get to increase the rate of generation for a resource. Conversely that rate can be slowed by a large army as it requires a larger upkeep. This helps to prevent the dominant player from steamrolling over their opponents, although it will happen eventually if territories are not reclaimed.
As these territories need to be linked to headquarters, either player has the option of pushing deeper into their opponent’s line and capturing an adjacent area, severing the supply link and encircling any trapped troops. It provides for a tense tug-of-war which neatly recreates the inch-by-inch nature of frontline warfare. One can imagine the rallying cries and heart-pounding terror as your soldiers weather one assault after the other, usually accompanied by shells of all sizes whistling overhead, only to make a counter-push afterwards.
Since the core gameplay hasn’t changed, much will be familiar to the series veteran. For the newer players, a segment featuring tips and video tutorials will get you up to speed in no time. Of great importance are the lessons on cover, positioning and unit reinforcement.
New to Company of Heroes 2 are three features—True Sight, Cold Tech and Commanders—which work in concert to make for a unique experience. The first better simulates line of sight of the men and women on the ground, granting greater significance to fences and holes in walls when scouting. There could easily be a tank or a flamethrower (or the KV-8 flamethrower tank) just behind the corner, unless your idea of scouting is levelling the ground with artillery.
Winter does a great job of adding dynamism to the battles too. A short countdown will pop up randomly before a blizzard kicks in, effectively freezing infantry to death unless rooted by a camp fire or in a building. They’re not a respite from battle, however, as these are prime opportunities to send your cold-immune snipers and half-tracks out for raids, ambushes or artillery-spotting. And everyone knows what happens when you break the ice under your enemy; there’s a delicious satisfaction in watching a couple of tanks sink to their watery graves.
Adding to that list of unknown surprises are Commanders, something I find as the best addition. After a set amount of time passes, players can select a Commander who comes bundled with perks and abilities determined during customisation. This makes it far more difficult for a human opponent to predict your tactics and then building an effective army to counter it until late-game. Theoretically this would open up some high-level feinting although I’m nowhere near that ability.
Commanders only gain new abilities depending on your play style. Like using mortar infantry? Use them enough and you’ll unlock a bonus for them. The same can be said for any other unit in the game, allowing you to fully invest in your favoured strategy. Do be aware of which faction you play though, as they have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Germans do better at forming a tight, combined arms force rather than quickly swarming across the map (in my experiences anyway).
Merging the experiences of both single- and multiplayer is Theatre of War, made up of solo skirmishes, challenges and co-op battles. This intends to better recreate the fight for the Eastern Front from both sides and is where Relic plans to bolster with downloadable content.
So far so good, but here’s the greatest caveat: multiplayer is dependent on there being a connection to Relic’s servers, even if all you want to do is play against the AI. I found myself unable to get into a skirmish twice during the review period, which would have been exceedingly frustrating if not for the campaign and solo Theatre of War missions. There’s no measure for player performance either, making automatch feel like a gamble.
Essentially, Company of Heroes 2 plays similarly to its predecessor and that isn’t a bad thing. Given the improved engine, multiplayer options and added replay value, the game looks set to occupy our computers until an expansion trundles along—hopefully it’ll contain the other Allied forces or the German campaign. A recommended purchase, this is a good opportunity for those new to RTS to hop on the half-track too. Just remember: “On the battlefield, you will hear many words that start with ‘F’, but the most important one is ‘Flank’.”
- Excellent strategy elements that rewards smart, adaptive play.
- Dynamic and immersive battles that keep you alert.
- Great multiplayer options.
- Online-only skirmishes, even against AI.
- Matchmaking feels like a gamble.
- Over-dramatized campaign narrative.