It’s not quite as bad as Half Life 3 (Half what?) but Company of Heroes 2 has certainly been a long time coming. Almost seven years on from its award-winning predecessor, the focus has shifted from the Allies, Normandy and D-Day to Stalingrad, Order 227 and Operation Barbarossa - the WWII conflict between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The result is a fulfilling RTS with the hallmarks of greatness, yet a certain lack of something intangible which propelled Relic to such dizzying success with the first title.
It’s bombastic from the very beginning - the game’s introduction involves retaking Stalingrad in what was one of the bloodiest conflicts of WWII. As artillery shells crash around your embarking squads, you learn how to take cover behind tanks, outflank machine gun nests and collect discarded weapons to arm your woefully underprepared conscripts. Later missions reference other points in the war as the conflict escalated, including destroying bridges to halt the German progress towards Moscow and snow-baked skirmishes as winter settled and harried troops on both sides alike.
Company of Heroes 2 doesn’t stray far from a tried and tested template which, when first unveiled in 2006 in Company of Heroes, was ground breaking. In a departure from conventional resource collecting and base building (here’s looking at you Supreme Commander and Command & Conquer), players must capture control zones to garner fuel, munitions and other resources needed to build units and call in special attacks like bomber runs. This promotes an “active” play style where risk-taking and attacking are rewarded, instead of the infamous “turtling” technique of regular RTSs where armies are built, and moved, en masse in one giant push for the enemy’s HQ.
The Russian faction (around which the single-player game is centred; both German and Russian forces can be used in multiplayer) fits well within this system. As opposed to the American, German and British factions of Company of Heroes, the Russians specialise in abundant and cheap conscripts which, while weak, are extremely versatile. Each can be customized with weapons found across the map (such as heavy machine guns or anti-tank guns) and upgraded with special abilities such as molotov cocktails or sub-machine guns. Their greater numbers allow for rushing of control points and adaptation through subtle customisation. As they can be easily replaced, you’re encouraged to experiment with styles and builds; would it be easier to rush that encampment head-on with three units, or have one flanking while the others perch behind cover and attack as a distraction? This avoids becoming repetitive - just - with the timely introduction of new features such as tanks (smashy), engineers (buildy) and artillery (splodey).
Occasionally the tempo slips however and boredom creeps in. Old Man Winter, the scourge of so many poor souls during this dreadful conflict, plays a role in some missions. Units must huddle around fires or garrison buildings to avoid freezing to death, leading to staccato attacks on enemy strongholds and last ditch attempts to capture areas because turning back would mean certain death. Setting aside the potentially facetious treatment of the subject matter, this falters gameplay as - in direct opposition to the fluidity described above - mass mobilisation and attrition are required to carry the day.
On balance the “S” in Company of Heroes 2 “RTS” is immensely satisfying. Orders can be clipped off rapidly through a neat UI and there’s only the odd “how do I...?” moment, no mean feat for a strategically complex game. Scrolling and zooming across maps is elegantly handled and crisp graphics and audio cues help pick out friend from foe while the battles rage around you. The reliance on positioning of troops behind cover and use of specific weapons against appropriate targets is - arguably - much more inviting and grounded than StarCraft’s clicks-per-second approach, making things easier to pick up for newcomers. Fluid animations bring these battles to life, making them much more intuitive; instead of disembodied icons indicating fear, success or routing, you’ll see troops cower, cheer or drop arms and turn tail. At times Company of Heroes 2 is perhaps too lenient however, with enemies rarely counter-attacking to punish recklessness. This can be remedied by upping the difficulty level; careless charges see your squads mowed down, and concerted efforts to capture areas will see commensurate efforts to repel you with either artillery and/ or mechanised infantry, or attacks against lesser defended areas.
You can make your life a bit harder by completing optional objectives to gain additional experience which all goes towards gaining achievements (displayed as medals on your gamer profile) and perks for multiplayer army loadouts which are constructed around “Commanders”. These avatars allow you to customise skins and builds for your Soviet/ Nazi army to suit your playing style. For example, the Soviet focus on infantry can be focussed on shock troops (rapid moving, heavily armed against other infantry) or conscripts (adaptable and plentiful, for players wanting to jump around the map hitting their opponents with simultaneous and overwhelming manoeuvres). If making your own specification seems too onerous, DLC can be purchased for prepackaged sets, the highlight surely being the leaflet drops which make enemy soldiers question the morality of their actions. No, I am not making this up. Tailoring armies to your playing style will undoubtedly lengthen and broaden the appeal of Company of Heroes 2 beyond the main campaign.
We were unable to test the online portion due to restrictions on our review copy but we can report that the usual suspects are present - Player Vs AI, Player Vs Player - in addition to single-player challenges and cooperative missions. Twitch.tv has also been incorporated to elevate multiplayer to the bleeding edge of interactivity, a la StarCraft II, although this is unlikely to turn waivering consumers alone. It’s generally safe to say, given the high level of polish throughout the single player campaign, and Relic’s pedigree in general, that multiplayer will be somewhere between solid and fantastic.
Relic have played it safe here, it has to be said. With an admittedly beautiful graphical overhaul and solid mechanics Company of Heroes 2 was never going to be anything less than good. But there are few real developments in terms of gameplay and innovation which may feel like a missed opportunity for ardent fans.
The seminal RTS returns in a Soviet-based sequel.