Real Time Strategy enthusiasts have had to wait seven years between the release of Relic‘s original Company of Heroes and its sequel. If this were reflected in the game’s setting, players would now be commanding American forces in Korea against the Communist scourge. Instead, Relic Entertainment has brought their story back in time to 1941 and Operation Barbarossa; the German invasion of Russia. The experience will be familiar for anyone who played the original installment, but it still presents a refreshing alternative to most modern RTS conventions. Company of Heroes 2 is a mixture of the successes of its predecessor and the limited ambitions of its designer. It is by-and-large a solid but cautious success.
This experience, which aims to give the player battlefield command of a Russian or German force, differs significantly from most strategy games. The focus is not on rapid, synchronized resource collection and unit production, but on squad management, mixed unit tactics and territorial control. The player gains resources by holding strategic points, which means that map control is a crucial concept and the land itself defines the terms of victory. All of these elements, retained from the original, make gameplay tense and exciting, while also clearly delineating the player’s goals. Thankfully, most of Relic‘s additions for this chapter of WWII are attractive improvements. The best is the TrueSight system, which reveals the battlefield to you as your troops see it; instead of a standard circle of vision granted by a unit, sight range can be blocked by tall objects like buildings, vehicles and smoke. This mechanic will keep you on edge as you never know what awaits around the next corner, but also gives you another defense, as you can use a smoke grenade to block an enemy MG42 team’s vision for a few precious moments as your flame thrower-equipped penal battalion flanks them and burns them out of their cover. Weather also plays a crucial role, as blizzards limit your sight and movement, and you may find yourself losing more troops to “General Winter” than to the enemy, if you aren’t careful.
So what’s in Company of Heroes 2? The least memorable mode is its campaign, which is a serviceable tale of the Russian war effort as recollected by an officer who has been detained in Siberia for doubting the glorious cause of Communism (read: being upset by the slaughter of retreating troops by their superiors and Soviet commanders’ tendency to use front-line conscripts as meat shields). The campaign is little more than an introduction to the game’s units and concepts, and it isn’t even fully successful in that respect, as you will never get a chance to play as the Germans and experience their fighting style. Most of the missions in the story come down to “beat a static AI with all of the unit types you had in the previous mission, plus one new one.” The thin plot, which touches on the brutal conditions suffered by Soviet soldiers and the equally bloody ultimatums delivered by their commanders, is somewhat insulting; it perfunctorily tells the player about dramatic and horrific events like the implementation of Order 227, but makes it an uninteresting, clumsy part of the campaign gameplay. Most of the striking historical drama is reserved for brief cut scenes, which ring hollow when placed against the meat and potatoes of playing.
Much better is the Theater of War mode, where players command the forces of either side in specific missions which represent elements of the historic war effort. Units and their abilities are limited by the time frame (no Tiger tanks in a 1941 scenario, for instance), and the specific set of challenges makes for a varied and fun experience only matched in a few of the campaign missions. Here you can play as the Germans or the Russians on the Eastern Front, and the scenarios include holding a key position against waves of enemies, hunting and assassinating officers with camouflaged sharpshooters, or using Soviet Katyusha Rocket Trucks to bombard enemy structures in a hail of satisfying explosions.
These explosions are just the most bombastic symptom of one of Company Of Heroes 2‘s greatest assets: its technical proficiency. The sound design is a wonder and you must play this game with headphones so that you can savor every crunch, thud and whirl. You will learn to distinguish the brittle chatter of a German MG42 from the duller pounding of a Russian Maxim HMG, and a sharp crack will alert you even before you see the enemy squad that they have been equipped with super-lethal Gewehr 43s. Graphically, Relic has been subtle and masterful, prioritizing detail over the polygon count (though the game is still rendered beautifully). Weapon modelling, vehicle physics and unit animations are all carefully illustrated. You can watch an anti-tank gun crew loll about, listen to them chat, and then watch them snap to attention as an enemy armored car appears. With each shot the gun’s barrel retracts and the crew deliberately reloads it and the car rocks on its chassis when struck. When the enemy vehicle explodes, and it will, the roar and flash of flames and sparks is hellishly beautiful.
Unfortunately not everything about Company of Heroes 2‘s presentation is perfect. The most annoying element is the UI, which occupies an absurdly large amount of the screen, blocking about 15% of your total view with a completely unnecessary gray box which exists only to bear a short description of the highlighted unit. In addition, important events are announced by the appearance of an infuriating massive flashing box in the middle of the screen, which will invariably appear as you are about to coordinate a delicate infantry flanking maneuver.
And you will need every inch of space to keep control in the multiplayer, which is sure to be this game’s longest-lasting success. Again, playing against other humans online is reminiscent of the original game’s system, but with the aforementioned features. It is hectic, terrifying, challenging and amazing, combining the beauty and tactical grace (or, in my case, scrambling) with the cleverness only a human can produce. A few customization goodies, like vehicle skins and commanders with different battle abilities, are unlocked as you gain levels through either the single- or multiplayer. The strangest elements are unlockable ‘bulletins,’ which are essentially army upgrades. These can be essentially useless (2% faster health regeneration) or extremely beneficial (10% faster production time). It is unclear whether Relic intended these to be mere window-dressing, or actual game changers, and as a result they are tough to pin down.
Is Company of Heroes 2 ambitious? Not particularly. Does it effectively represent the horrors and humanity of the Eastern Front in WWII? Definitely nyet. But it accomplishes its play with such style and skill that you can’t avoid being sucked in and playing one more round. If not for the Motherland, then just because it’s so damn fun.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of Company of Heroes 2 developed by Relic Entertainment, Published by SEGA.