It's always a good sign when a preview event starts wrapping up and the first thing you think is 'Nooooo, please let me take this game with me'. It was nice to place the latest standalone expansion pack for Company of Heroes 2 in context, with our gaggle of assembled European writers given a tour of the Bastogne barracks -- the operational heart of the Allied war effort during the Battle of the Bulge -- before checking out the game inspired by that bloody piece of history.
Inspired is certainly the word, as Relic have used the events of the battle to bookend this particular experience. Essentially, Ardennes Assault gives players the freedom to plan out their own military machinations in the region by way of a 'meta map'. If The Western Front Armies provided a multiplayer introduction to this newly explored theatre of war and the factions involved, the Ardennes Assault pack is the singleplayer counterpoint -- an expansion that zooms in on three individual companies and their commanding officers, struggling to take control of a region filled with constantly shifting German divisions. The idea is clear -- to present a relatively open ended canvas, framed by history, upon which we armchair generals might paint our personal tactical masterpieces.
Our two-hour session with the game consisted of playing the same mission multiple times. Set not far from Bastogne in the town of Houffalize, the skirmish in which we were involved saw us trying to join up with an allied column to the north, cutting through German-controlled territory, overrunning the enemy's artillery stations, and co-opting the massive guns for our own purposes. By focussing in on this single mission (there will be 18 in total we're told -- seven rather broad encounters and eleven more scripted scenarios) several times over, we were able to see how the different companies performed, and how the map changed depending upon what stage of the campaign we were at when we took the plunge.
My first attempt involved getting stuck in with Dog Company, who were led by WW1 veteran, Kurt Derby. Each of the companies has a commanding officer with a different personality who'll deliver something of a narrative debrief after a mission is completed, incorporating your successes and failures with both the main objectives and the dynamic secondary tasks that pop up. Being a save game set early on in the campaign, customisation options were limited, but I was still able to try out Dog Company's special abilities, most of which involved raining down barrages of fiery explosive death on my foes. I took the two artillery emplacements, adding to my extensive support armaments, but a surprise appearance by a couple of flanking enemy tanks meant that I was unable to spare troops to rescue a squad of friendlies holed up in a nearby building. Kurt would later lament the loss of these brave men in his closing monologue. Vengeance was swift, and came in the form of sustained artillery far from the captured guns and successive incendiary barrages against the enemies that stood between us and our allies to the north. Many pixels were set on fire that day.
The second playthrough saw me swap Kurt and his Dogs for the cocksure Johnny Vastano and his airborne Able Company. This time I chose a later save game, one apparently 58% of the way into the campaign. Throughout proceedings, you can earn requisition points that go towards upgrading the abilities of your three companies, but are also used to replenish the healthy state of your men. Complete more side objectives and you'll earn more requisition points, but you could risk losing veteran units and squandering personnel if you're tactically-deficient. Armed with over a hundred points, I ploughed them into Mustang strafing runs, upping the number of planes at my disposal, reducing their costs, increasing the efficacy of aerial rocket support, and giving my Paratroopers better guns. The trouble is, the German forces level up too.
The first thing I noticed was an increase in German veterancy. The storm troopers were hardier, and their bullets packed more of a punch. There were tanks and half tracks where before there had been none. Worse yet, the enemy infantry had found spots in the narrow alleyways around the centre of the map where they could sit and laugh at the impotent planes of mine that screamed overhead, spitting bullets of abject failure.
The side objectives had shifted too. Now the emphasis was on retrieving dynamically spawning bits of enemy intel, and then taking them back to HQ. I left a few units stationed at each artillery battery, and set off with a bunch of riflemen and a couple of light tanks to take some more resource points and secure the intel. Unfortunately, that's exactly when the German forces hit hard, overrunning the artillery unit not backed up by an anti tank gun. Although my riflemen were packing grenade launchers, the enemy armour units ultimately smashed them, and one of my big guns. Worse still, there'd been no way to bring in Paratroopers because I'd stretched the line too thin and had strayed too far into the population cap space.
Still, we rolled with the punches -- the cap disappeared after the massacre, but it meant that the remaining gun could be reinforced. The intel was retrieved, and two Shermans hit 3-star veterancy in the process, mopping up stray enemy units, and liberating a fuelling station to bring in more oil. Suddenly the abilities list along the top of the unit HUD lit up like a winning slots reel. The rocket strafing run was quick and punitive, and the enemy tanks exploded even as their crew leapt from the boiling metal husks before succumbing to the fire that consumed their bodies. After the counter came an all out offensive -- infantry, specialist gunners and light armour from one side, my veteran tanks and trusty engineers from the other, the remaining artillery gun creating chaos with barrages to herald our arrival, and Mustangs and Thunderbolts roaring through to mop up stragglers. It was a decisive victory in the end, one made all the sweeter by cutting off the enemy's escape to avoid the possibility of retreat and reinforcement elsewhere in the region. I didn't want premature celebration to lead to a missed opportunity and a significantly harder battle down the line.
Not that there would be on that day, but by that point I was hooked. I seriously considered trying to pluck out a hard drive and conceal it in my hair so I could bring it home. Unfortunately, my time with the mechanised Baker Company was cut short, just as I'd managed to unlock the top-tier ability of wheeling in two massive tank destroyers on demand. Pinned back, with both captured guns long-since destroyed, I was on the cusp of heavy defeat (I'd also ramped the difficulty up, which proved to be an interesting move given my rusty skills), but with the appearance of my shiny new tank destroyers, I was finally able to punch some holes in the German armour line.
And then it was time to go.
I won't lie, I suck at COH 2 online. But I love the offline campaigns and AI skirmishes, and for me, this expansion marks one of the most ambitious undertaking that Relic have attempted. The inclusion of a regional meta-map, not to mention dynamic events both in terms of mission parameters, regional activity, and pop-up, shifting objectives on the battlefield, these all point towards the promise of a game that'll never play the same way twice. That the Companies themselves feel noticeably different to use, with various strengths and weakness to suit different styles of play is most welcome.Managing the robustness of your forces will be crucial.
The bottom line is that Ardennes Assault finally brings the feeling of grand strategy and broader tactical thinking to bear on a game that has been renowned for tactical gameplay on a smaller, more individual scale. Company of Heroes has long been a series that is all about making the best with what you have, realising the importance of different individual units and the ways in which they can complement one another. Now, added to that formula, there's more of an opportunity to be a true armchair general, as well as a major on the field. It looks like it truly present the best of both worlds, and that's very exciting indeed.
Oh, and it'll release at the lower price point of Western Front Armies and won't require the base game either.