Being a sequel to one of the most critically-acclaimed RTS games ever means that Company of Heroes 2 has a lot to prove. 7 years have gone by and a slew of RTS juggernauts have stepped up and captivated PC gamers, so Relic Entertainment had somewhat of a challenge ahead of them. The question is, how have they managed?
The short answer is, pretty damn well.
If you’ve played the original, what you see as you take your first look at the game might not seem surprising or particularly innovative. You’re presented with the regular campaign mode, online/skirmish, and Theater of War mode. To see the real worth, you of course have to delve a little deeper.
Over the course of the fairly lengthy, 15 hour campaign, you’re thrust into the capable Soviet boots of Lev Abramovich Isakovich – a former Soviet Army lieutenant – through a series of flashbacks as he re-lives his grisly memories from the Eastern Front, whilst being interrogated by his former commanding officer in a cell of the notorious Gulag. These memories will involve you taking control of a number of units, and shifting them around the screen to smite the Nazi invaders. Rather than being in control of individual soldiers, you have units made up of several soldiers under your command. This makes keeping on top of all of them much easier, but also reinforces the notion that you’re really just a big, red meat grinder, sending waves of fresh-faced young conscripts out to their doom.
As with the original, the core mechanics of Company of Heroes 2 are smooth and refined. Individual units can be selected by clicking on them, or several units by dragging over them and then directing them either to a location, or to attack a specific enemy unit. This generally works well and allows you to pinpoint your units wherever you need them, although sometimes if you have a group of units close together but only want to move a few of them, moving them all individually can be slightly tedious.
Units have been given a slight overhaul in that they now have the addition of the TruSight system. This means that each unit is able to see a certain distance through the environment, and enemies are only made visible to you once they’ve entered this field of vision. Whilst basic conscripts may have a fairly limited sight radius, snipers in comparison can see extremely far, and allow you to scout ahead for the rest of your troops. This makes for a very welcome addition, adding an extra layer of strategy to your moves as you never really know whether the next corner is going to be empty, or housing a Nazi tank division.
Each of your units have extra abilities and items they can use, as well as upgrades which make them more effective, or slightly change what they do. For example, you could upgrade your engineers to have a flamethrower and clear out building and bunkers, and turn your half track into the infantry and plane obliterating “Meat Chopper”, or command your infantry units to lob a molotov into that pesky bunker. Engineers are also incredibly useful without any upgrades, as they can fix up damaged vehicles, and place defensive items like barbed wire or anti-vehicle mines.
Another new addition is weather; though when I say weather, I essentially mean winter. As is common knowledge, the Germans had some troubles invading Russia due to that whole freezing cold winter thing, leading to roughly 734,000 German soliders losing their lives in the first 5 months of the invasion. To replicate these harsh conditions, Relic has added blizzards, meaning that once a blizzard hits, your units have to find a source of warmth (a bonfire), or a sheltered area (a building or vehicle) before freezing to death. This may not sound difficult in theory, but due to the high level of micro management needed to stay on top of all your units in the midst of battle, it may often happen that you’ll forget about a group placed somewhere a few moves back, leading to their unfortunate and miserable demise.
Deep snow can also incredibly slow down your units on foot, which can reduce the chances of a successful attack significantly, and turn a quick retreat into a slaughter. The same also goes for frozen bodies of water; they can be useful as a shortcut when crossing to the opposite river bank, but should the enemy zero in on you with artillery or other explosives, your men and/or vehicles can look forward to a nice (sub zero) swim with the fishes once the ice cracks wide open.
Graphically, Company of Heroes 2 hasn’t shown heaps of innovation. Compared with the original – and bearing in mind the 7 year gap between the two – it’s somewhat hard to believe that there hasn’t been a huge graphical leap. Character animations are often choppy and quite far removed from any sense of fluidity, though if you zoom in and watch your little men for example setting up a machine gun or firing off a mortar, you can sense that there is plenty of detail at work here, though it could have been a little more across the board. This isn’t to say that Company of Heroes 2 doesn’t look good, as it is still a pretty game by most standards.
Additionally, cutscene graphics are neither CGI nor the in-game engine by the look of things. In this day and age it doesn’t seem too presumptuous to expect CG cutscenes if the game engine itself can’t deliver, so why Relic chose to go down this route is slightly puzzling.
On the flip side, the audio effects are great. There’s never a quiet moment as you hear weapons firing in the distance, tank treads thundering along, or artillery pounding dangerously close to your units. Even once the action subsides, your infantry will keep you entertained with cheeky quips and dialogue as they stand around waiting for orders.
Missions generally involve you crossing each map to several capture points, wiping out the enemies there and along the way, and sometimes setting up defences against a German counter-attack. Once you have control of a checkpoint you can choose between setting up fuel or munitions caches with a squad of engineers, which allows you to gain either one of these resources quicker. Manpower is also a resource, influential on nearly all “purchasing” decisions. These three resources allow you to construct both buildings and units, and once you run out, you’ll need to wait until you have a sufficient amount before you can get hold of more.
Occasionally though, missions will throw you a proverbial curveball. One of my personal highlights was the ambush by (and eventual hunt for) a German Tiger tank, in and around an abandoned airfield. The TruSight system made this especially nerve-racking, as I truly had to check out every corner and play extremely strategically, placing mines and trying to lure it into a trap, lest I wanted to become easy cannon fodder for the rolling goliath.
Being an RTS, the “Strategy” would seem quite fundamental here. Whilst you’ll no doubt be employing a lot of strategy to begin with, it quickly became apparent to me that to defeat the enemy, superior numbers were all that really mattered. Building up a large mix of both vehicle and infantry-based units, and then pushing them forward as a huge lumbering beast, makes for an easy (if relatively unsatisfying) win, most of the time – the quality of German units is generally better, but as mentioned, this can be overcome by sheer number. Relic seems to be aware of the balance issues though, and is hopefully working on a fix.
Many people are probably here for the multiplayer though. The main objective is to capture and hold 3 main points on the map, and as you do, whittle down the enemy points to zero for the eventual win. Along the way there are smaller, less important points to capture, which allow you to build up your resources faster, thus allowing you to build more units and buildings. It’s a nice, simple framework, which sets the scene for the madness and confusion of battle to come crashing down on you – for first-time players it is bound to be a steep learning curve, not aided by the bare-bones tutorials provided by the game. Veteran players definitely hold a huge advantage here, and it may be a little intimidating for beginners at first, though if you stick with it you’re in for an absolute treat as the experience is something quite extraordinary. Compared to the campaign, a strategy is most definitely needed during online play though, unless you enjoy being absolutely obliterated and having your headquarters wiped out before your eyes.
Aside from the Campaign and Multiplayer modes, there is Theater of War mode. You’re presented with several scenarios in either coop or single player form, and are pushed to go for the high score. Some of the missions here seem like they should’ve been included in the campaign itself as they’re so enjoyable, but it’s also nice to have this great selection of missions on the side, for your perusal whenever you feel like a quick game.
The story itself does a good job of portraying the grim realities of the war on the Eastern Front. The deaths at the hands of the elements, the brutal command of the Soviet army, and Order 227 (which meant any retreating soldiers were to be shot on sight), all make for a dark backdrop to the action – some of which can somewhat drag you down after a resounding victory, though it also serves to spur you on and see the Nazi evil wiped out from your frosty Russian soil.
As for replay value – there’s tons of it. Whilst the campaign may not hold many new surprises after the first playthrough, Theater of War mode, but especially the online multiplayer have a lot to offer in the long run. If you stick with it and break through the initial learning curve, you’ll hold a brilliant little sandbox just waiting for you to unleash your genius tactics on any fools who dare stand against you.
A 7 year wait would seem to indicate that there have been major improvements, but rather we’ve been given yet another tight package, though unfortunately without any mind-blowing additions. When viewed as a standalone game though, Company of Heroes 2 does far more right than wrong, and easily holds its own in the rather more crowded RTS market of today. Company of Heroes 2 is somewhat like the artillery it features; it may miss a couple of shots, but when it makes contact, it’s a mighty gorgeous explosion.
Company of Heroes 2 is out now on PC.
- Simply addictive gameplay leaves you wanting more
- The TruSight system makes for a great addition
- Steep learning curve for online matches
- Few signs of true innovation since the original