Company of Heroes 2 Review!
The original Company of Heroes did a lot of things right as far as RTS fans are concerned. It had a challenging single-player campaign and allowed players to choose from two unique factions for multiplayer, with more added with each expansion. It also provided a more realistic twist, forcing infantry to take cover and use terrain to their advantage rather than standing out in the open and simply exchanging blows. The game also emphasized tactics over firepower; while the end-game tanks are fairly destructive, a skilled player with a few units of cheaper infantry can still handle these iron behemoths. Everything combined to create one of the most enjoyable strategy games since the original Starcraft, leaving little necessity for improvement. The only issue some had with the game is the high level of micromanagement. Each group of infantry or vehicle required specific instructions in order to maximize their potential, leaving new players to get thoroughly destroyed by more skilled veterans. With the sequel, Relic has built upon the pros of their previous game while ignoring the cons that some had, ensuring that the faithful have more than enough reason to upgrade while leaving little incentive for those unimpressed with the first game to give the series another chance.
If you have even a basic understanding of World War II history, you already know what’s going on. Following a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that ensured a quick demise to Poland and supposed security for the Soviets in the early days of the war, Hitler decides to betray his eastern neighbors with a surprise attack known as Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The attack catches the Soviets completely off guard, pushing them all the way back to the iconic city of Stalingrad. Here the tide of the war turns due to the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming numbers that the Soviets were able to throw at their invaders, and the same foe that had defeated so many armies before: the terrible Russian winter. Unable to maintain their supply lines, the Germans lost the momentum and were soon pushed back by the Soviets, who found themselves within the very capital of Germany by the wars end.
Company of Heroes 2 takes place during this period of the war and while the campaign focuses on some specific individuals, their tales aren’t the real story of this game. The true setting that the developers seemed to be trying to recreate is the terrible conditions and brutality of the Eastern Front. Through both the single-player campaign and even multiplayer matches, players are subjected to a virtual recreation of the freezing reality of Russia; blizzards obstruct both the players’ views as well as that of the units on the ground, and infantry movements are brought to a crawl in the deep snow. If left on out in the open, infantry will even freeze to death, forcing players to stick to buildings and campfires as much as possible or to ensure that supply lines are maintained with troop transport vehicles.
The remaining gameplay elements will be recognizable veterans of the original game but require those unfamiliar with the mechanics to learn new skills. The game follows the usual base construction and resource management system but with a few caveats. There are three resource types: manpower, munitions, and fuel. Manpower generates on its own at a rate determined by the size of your army, with smaller armies generating more manpower. Munitions and fuel are meant for specialized infantry and vehicles and are earned through the capture and fortification of command points around the map. Since resources are not generated within your base, players are forced to expand their territory at a rapid rate and take the necessary time to build defenses for each point rather than simply amassing their army until they can steamroll across the map. Matches are seldom decided in single battles, with the game favoring back-and-forth assaults and counter-attacks until one side wins out.
When not in battle, players can customize their armies with individual skill loadouts and some unique units which are earned through gameplay and leveling up. Each army has different commanders that determine special abilities that the player can employ during matches; one commander may allow the player to call down an artillery barrage while another may summon a specialized tank. This gives players some additional room to craft unique armies as opposed to simply playing as the default German or Russian presets, but I would have liked to have seen some more visual customizations akin to Relic’s other RTS series, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. While such an option wouldn’t have fit as well in this realistic backdrop, it would have been an interesting flourish for multiplayer.
Areas from the ruins of Stalingrad and the Russian wilderness are all given a fine amount of detail in order to further enhance the feeling of realism that the developers were going for. Units also behave in believable ways, such as diving for cover when a machine gun starts up or turning to shoot when in the middle of an organized retreat. Despite these nice touches, the visuals are at their most impressive when the bullets and shells start flying. Explosions and machine gun fire rip apart the countryside with falling trees and dirt exploding upwards in the aftermath of a mortar shell. Units leave signs of their passing when they fall with rag-doll physics for infantry and broken down husks of vehicles. The game also employs destructible structures, which is especially impressive when a tank drives an infantry unit out of a building by placing a shell through a window.
The battles are so impressive that it’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on. This normally wouldn’t be an issue in a game where you can just select all of your units and select attack-move, but the level of micromanagement needed for Company of Heroes makes it so that you have to be able to offer individual orders at a moments notice. This is likely an issue that would resolve itself through enough practice, but new players might be overwhelmed by the massive explosions and chaos that often obstruct their view of the battlefield.
Anyone familiar with war epics, especially those focusing on World War II, will immediately feel comfortable with the soundtrack of Company of Heroes 2. The music is appropriately ominous at the outset of a match, foreshadowing the conflicts to come as you send your first infantry squad out to scout the area and capture a few nearby command points. Once the enemy is met, the soundtrack picks up and feels both epic and frantic, further amplifying the sheer enjoyment of simply watching battles play out. Again, this has the same effect as the graphics and make it far too easy to forget to command your troops as you get swept up in the theatrics of the presentation. The sound effects are also a boon. Units on both sides calmly acknowledge orders or scream them at the top of their lungs depending on the situation in the expected russian or german accents. One feature that I really enjoyed from my time with the game is that I could sometimes hear distant gunshots and explosions from conflicts on the other side of the map that were being caused by my allies and some enemy troops they came across.
Relic did everything that they needed to do with this sequel but little else. They amplified the features that made people appreciate the first game, and the resulting product is yet again one of the finest RTS experiences on the market. On the other hand, they didn’t change much to bring in players that might not have enjoyed the original title, so it’s likely the most of those playing Company of Heroes 2 will be veterans of the original game, a grim prospect for those looking to jump in as complete newcomers. Even still, Company of Heroes 2 is an easy decision for anyone looking for a more detailed RTS and history buffs who feel that the Eastern Front of World War II doesn’t get enough attention.