Well, I’m finally back. After a shock stampede through Florida, putting the Americans on the back foot for nearly two weeks, my offensive stalled in Orlando, where after bitter house-to-house fighting, I managed to turn the tide of the campaign. After a painful slog across the Atlantic Ocean, I managed to push myself back to Britain and capture the Reichstag that is this review.
Why the laboured metaphors, you may ask? Well if you spotted that I’m phrasing this opening like an overview of the Eastern Front of World War II, it’s a clever allusion to the fact that the game I’m critiquing this week is Company of Heroes 2, sequel to the 2006 RTS and this time taking place in Eastern Europe. But, through explaining my clever joke, I have thus ruined it. Forward, comrades! To the review!
Yes, Company of Heroes 2 is the newest pretender to the RTS crown. After the wonderful reception of the 2006 game, we’ve endured seven years of waiting, during which time a lot of excellent extra content has been released. Not only two expansion packs, featuring two extra campaigns, factions, and an imperial ton of extra units, but also some fantastic mods, like Blitzkrieg, Modern Combat and, er, Eastern Front. But the less said about that around Sega’s lawyers, the better.
Still, my point is that they have an excellent pedigree to live up to and for the most part the developers, Relic, manage this admirably. Not only have they retained aspects of the original which were fantastic ideas, such as the innovative cover mechanics, commander abilities and resource-granting control points, they’ve added several small differences which contribute further to the fun.
First of these is the ability to replenish damaged squads using fresh recruits. This avoids the frustration present in having to withdraw several partially-damaged units after an attack and allowing the Nazis to regain their momentum (something you really don’t want to do). It’s also rather clever in mirroring to a small degree the actual tactics used by the Soviet Union. With poor-quality and scarce weaponry, the USSR relied on its manpower to see it through battles. Some 30 million Soviet citizens served in the Second World War and the fighting was chaotic and brutal, soldiers often being sent into the meat grinder without weapons or ammunition.
It’s commendable, then, that Company of Heroes 2’s combat is similarly fluid and quick-paced. Gone are the days where a player could simply set up a choke point and watch the AI soldiers blunder into it. Maps are now open, largely flat, and very cold. A major offensive can fall flat in the face of ambushing tanks, or be pushed through by a bloody human wave attack using dozens of conscripts.
The much-touted heat mechanic comes into play in a major way, striking when the player least expects it and can be deadly to infantry forces. Soldiers can be saved by being garrisoned in vehicles or buildings, or can huddle by campfires. The latter method is convenient, but leaves them exposed to sniper fire, so the player must always make a choice between the safety of their soldiers and their chances of winning the battle quickly. Not, actually, that the game ever explains how huddling in a bombed out building or an open-top truck would help the soldiers at all, but we’ll forgive it for reasons of expediency and the fact that most people are not on anywhere near my level of pedantry.
Yes, General Winter can strike at any time and it can be sad to see an infantryman drop to the floor yards from a campfire, but its effect is somewhat diminished by the general rate of casualties sustained during battles. RTS is not a good genre for story, and indeed the only characters ever properly described during the campaign are commanders, so if you’re expecting a touching war story, you’re much better off going to play something like Spec Ops: The Line (which is actually harrowing, but that’s the nearest shooters get to touching).
Still, you aren’t here for the story, so what of the multiplayer, the aspect which sustains these games through years of expansions and which I barely ever bloody play. Surprisingly though, it’s very playable. This may be an effect of the game being new, which means not everybody is yet a hardened veteran and you do at least stand a chance.
It can be very enjoyable pulling tricks your opponent won’t expect; flanking manoeuvres, ambushes and massed armour attacks can throw out their whole strategy, and have your troops speeding towards their base virtually unopposed. Contrastingly, one of the most painful aspects of the game is fighting a hopeless last stand, knowing you haven’t the time nor the resources to hold off the fascists but expending every possible unit anyway in a last-ditch attempt to stop them.
One of the few bad aspects of the original Company of Heroes was its close-in, inflexible camera. This largely remains in the sequel and once again is one of very few low points. The view the player is given means the game once again resorts to very unrealistic mechanics in tank and infantry battles. Tank engagements usually take place over several hundred metres, not a dozen, and it’s depressing (if realistic, given the use of conscripts) to have infantry blasting at one another for a couple of minutes from arm’s length without hitting a thing.
Still, it’s well-presented in other ways. Ice, which can be broken under vehicles to send them to the freezing depths, looks very realistic and cracks beautifully, which adds to the vicious winter setting very nicely indeed. Fire burns and spreads realistically, and trees won’t long survive any encounter with explosives or tanks. In fact, it’s hard to think of many nicer-looking strategy games, so on that front Relic are to be commended. See what I did there?
Overall, if you’re a fan of real-time strategy, you’ll already have bought Company of Heroes 2 so it would be a moot point to recommend it to you. But for those still sitting on the Maginot Line, there’s never been a better time to get into strategy games. Give Company of Heroes a try, and I promise you’ll see it all the way to Berlin. 9.2/10