“War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy.” – Bart Simpson
Company of Heroes 2 is set in one of these wars. To my disappointment, it was not in the universe of Hoth and Dagoba, nor was it in the home of the free and land of the brave. It’s the old reliable WWII. The first game of the series is held in high esteem by many players, so the pressure was on developers Relic to deliver with the sequel. Not everything they try works, but despite this and a few minor faults, Company of Heroes 2 can stand proudly alongside its veteran predecessor.
Unfortunately, the storyline is one of its shortcomings. Assuming the role of Lev Abramovich Isakovich, you sit disillusioned in a Russian gulag several years after the war, mournfully recounting your exploits from Operation Barbarossa to the Battle of Berlin. The objective here is to put a face and a conscience on a commanding officer that has to routinely order men to their death.
It seems Relic went to some length to try and connect the player with Lev Abramovich in a vain attempt to teach some moral lesson. However, this is completely lost as no emotional connection forms between player and character. It’s hard to say why exactly, but perhaps it’s because the cutscenes are terribly animated and would not look so out of place on the PlayStation 2. Or maybe it’s because the character’s internal conflict is so clichéd by now that it simply doesn’t resonate anymore. Or it could be the fact that, after suffering through the aforementioned cutscenes, you’re transported to the mission’s eye in the sky view, where you can only imagine that Abramovich is floating on-high, bellowing orders from above, Soviet sickle in hand, like some kind of Commie Angel of Death. It just all seems so irrelevant. A real-time strategy game rarely demands a strong narrative to be enjoyable, so why waste time on one unless you are providing a unique experience? And honestly, a WWII setting is hardly unique; we all know the outcome.
Thankfully this doesn’t impact too negatively on the game as a whole. The gameplay is where Company of Heroes 2 really shines. The basic RTS mechanics are present and well-refined. The entire battle can be commanded using only the mouse but can be augmented nicely with some easy keyboard shortcuts. The traditional base-centered structure has given way to minimal groups of buildings that make up forward command posts, from where the player can draw new units and vehicles provided they have the right amount of resources.
These commodities, like ammo and fuel, are scattered about the maps and can be claimed by any unit in the field. Further command points can be captured and built upon by engineers and can also unlock reinforcements. This is a stark contrast to the classic RTS scenario of building huge fortifications with a sea of factories and barracks producing units en masse, and adds a tactical twist to engagements forcing the player to be more conservative in their approach to battles. Further complicating things is the population cap, where only a specific number of units may be on the field at any one time. Of course, fallen soldiers and destroyed vehicles can be easily replaced but this takes time. It’s less about the numbers and more about how you can best utilise them. Quality, not quantity. It’s a limitation that makes the game harder but also much more rewarding. Squads of soldiers are each tailored to specific tasks (anti-tank, heavy machine gun etc), with each having extra abilities besides aiming and shooting. These abilities, such as smoke grenades and scout flares, can be very handy and are easily accessed by a few clicks.
Some units may even upgrade their weapons to include flamethrowers, which are all kinds of awesome. However, as the field becomes more crowded and the battle intensifies, it can become chaotic trying to micro-manage each individual squad. This chaos is very much apparent in the opening mission where it seems the player is dropped in at the deep end. Taking command during the Battle of Stalingrad, it could be argued that the game should have chosen a less intense setting to teach the player the basics. A flood of orders fill the screen, along with explosions, gunfire and death – and all the while you are trying to get to grips with the control scheme and unit abilities. Gamers new to the series may find the learning curve steep at the beginning, but it’s not enough to turn someone away. There are tips and a tutorial mission hidden away in the main menu but these are not accessible during gameplay, a little infuriating when you need a refresher course on a particular unit or ability. The pace of the game can be easily slowed and in all but a few timed missions you can plan your attack at leisure.
There are a few mechanics that are very well-executed. When placing a unit in cover it shows you dots corresponding to where each individual unit will stick to for dear life in order to avoid the barrage of gunfire. This is a welcome indicator amongst the ruins and rubble to know whether your soldiers will be safe or whether they just appear to be. The infamous “Order 227” also makes an appearance, adding a further dynamic. When recruiting conscripts that can bolster any squad, Order 227 prevents any retreat to safe HQ’s, unless they want to stare down the barrel of a Soviet pistol. This never seemed to impact play however and might have been a good idea on paper that doesn’t really translate well into the finished product. In fact, sometimes you may even forget such an order is in effect.
All in all the campaign offers 15 missions with numerous objectives in each. Side-objectives also appear, such as saving trapped civilians and capturing strategic points whereby the player is rewarded with extra units or supplies. Landscapes vary from scenic countrysides to rubble-filled broken cities to snow-covered woodland. Snow levels add a further problem: the cold. In order to prevent freezing to death, soldiers must huddle around campfires, take shelter in building or hug low walls and fences to fend off the sub-zero conditions. This excellent obstacle makes planning assaults even trickier and is very well realised.
Seasoned aficionados of the series may argue the gripes about the single-player campaign but nearly all would deem it to be trivial. The real meat of Company of Heroes 2 is the multiplayer and that’s where it will always be. Longevity in AAA titles is the name of the game these days and one look at the multiplayer section will put your mind at ease about the game’s staying power. Three options present themselves for online play: player versus player, player versus AI and player/player versus AI. Standard enough choices, but within these is where you can really try out the full power of the Soviet army, or German if you’re that way inclined. Couple this with a plethora of unlockables and there’s enough to keep anyone busy for a long time. These add a whole host of upgrades to in-game units like stronger armour on tanks, better sniper accuracy or increased damage.
Also included is the new Theatre of War section. Here players can take part in co-op mission, solo battles and skirmishes with AI with each 3 having scenarios unique to both the Motherland and Third Reich. Of course, planned DLC will likely increase the amount of missions in time, but for the moment there’s more than enough. The multiplayer is, in a word, fun. Frustrating at times, but fun. With human opponents it almost feels like a different game. Expect to come up against some serious players who are downright devious in their attacks. But, my god, the relief and euphoria you feel after winning a long match is incredible. And it’s made all the more sweeter when you imagine the poor dude on the other side of the world tearing his hair out as you absolutely dominate from start to finish.
Graphically the game is only adequate. This may seem to be a harsh judgement but at no time will you find yourself in awe of the visuals. This is especially apparent in the aforementioned cutscenes. Landscapes are well rendered and dynamic, with accurate, realistic lighting but, in 2013, would you expect anything less? The destructive environments do an excellent job of adding an unpredictable element to the action; one minute your units are safe behind cover or garrisoned in a building, the next the whole area has been reduced to smouldering rubble. Special detail has been given to individual unit and vehicle models which becomes very evident when playing around with the camera position.
The standard isometric view is the default position but COH2 allows you to freely rotate on a 360 axis as well as zooming in so close you can spot which of your grunts had a chance to shave that morning. While being a nice touch, it’s absolutely unnecessary. Missions generally involve large numbers spread across a wide area and this up close and personal viewpoint serves no tactical advantage. It almost seems like a waste of resources going to that much trouble when a fixed camera, or even one that removes/reduces the zoom, could have allowed the developer to focus elsewhere (read: on those god-awful cutscenes).
The audible elements are pretty faultless, though. Weapon sounds have a satisfying realism, tanks and half-tracks rumble along with earth-shattering resonance, and the crack of sniper rifles cuts through the action notifying you that there’s one less Gerry to worry about. The voice-acting is also a strong point, ranging from gravel-voiced Commanders barking orders about objectives to passing comments from soldiers on the ground offering insight into their struggles. The musical backdrop is the standard military affair, featuring pompous brass sections blasting rousing melodies over reverb-soaked snare drums, to strict marching beats. Chorus’s of boisterous Soviet voices aim to inspire, singing triumphant tales of Mother Russia and her valiant troops. These battle hymns are wonderful and really complete the whole package.
VERDICT: Company of Heroes 2 is undeniably enjoyable. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of steamrolling the enemy base with overwhelming numbers or the satisfaction of seeing your well-planned tactics executed perfectly. The game is challenging, but never feels insurmountable. With every mission approachable in a number of ways, it doesn’t take a seasoned military tactician to progress. The relatively short single-player campaign is propped up by the strong multiplayer showing and additional Theatre of War modes. It’s not perfect, but it does succeed in overcoming a few missteps to march proudly forward.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.