Developer: Relic Entertainment
It was always going to be something of a tall order for Company of Heroes 2 to reproduce the genre-redefining impact of its predecessor. It's been seven years since Relic rocked the RTS world by giving gamers an experience that abandoned the base building, perennial resource-gathering that had become de rigeur, and serving up taxing, tactical gameplay that forced you to make the most of what you had.
Given that Company of Heroes still enjoys a healthy multiplayer community, it's important to note that its sequel isn't quite the revolutionary step up that one might expect from time gap that's almost contained an entire console generation. But place the two games side-by-side and the differences become readily apparent.
Ratcheted up to its highest settings, Company of Heroes 2 unfolds like a cinematic masterpiece. The animations are fantastically wrought, the physics engine underpinning everything proving exceptional both in form and function. Tanks shake slightly with recoil from their turrets when they fire; pinned down by shells, fresh infantry will cower and scatter even as their veteran squadmates move decisively and regroup; mortar squads and heavy gunner teams move methodically to set up their ordinance. Buildings crumble, wooden huts shedding splinters and smoke from artillery barrages, explosions sending earth and shrapnel flying as burned men claw at the ground, staggering and writhing in the throes of death.
The singleplayer campaign presents us with an account of the war from former Soviet lieutenant Lev Isakovich, a man who now finds himself facing interrogation in one of Stalin’s gulags. It's clear that Isakovich has come to question some of the more severe tactics of his commanding officers, and Relic's story seeks to present a look at the historical conflict from a standpoint that eschews the traditional glorification of war. There's a clear emphasis in the narrative on looking behind the propaganda at the horrors of the war, and with Isakovich as our narrator, we're nudged into passing judgement on the action as Stalin wheels out Order 227 and turns his guns on his own men.
For all of the conscientious posturing in the cutscenes, the story hangs like a noose around the singleplayer missions. We never really get to experience the impact of Isakovich's testimonial because of Relic's attention to historical setting. Many of the missions feature lengthy defence components, surviving long enough to allow for fellow Russian forces to pull back, or awkward implementations of Stalin's tactics: an early mission has you pulling back across the map, burning fields as you go, carrying out the scorched earth missives from on high. Historically accurate? Maybe. But it's not much fun.
Conscripts -- that endless production line of cannon fodder -- makes replenishing bodies on the battlefield an easy task, and the population cap rises so that you can often fling upwards of 130 soldiers at the Wehrmacht forces. You'll need them too, as right from the very start you'll find yourself fighting battles on multiple fronts. But given that you can summon new meatbags at the drop of a hat, you'll plop some troops behind a sandbag wall or a smouldering tank's corpse and pummel your foes with a constant cycle of fresh grunts. Distressingly, the setting means that quite often your endless reserves of trigger fingers are what win you the day, not necessarily a huge amount of tactical nous. Worse still, you find yourself playing out the Soviet propaganda rather than really reflecting on it, and the awkwardly animated, treacle-thick-accented cutscenes are far too disconnected to be of much use there either.
But one thing that the campaign does do is introduce all of the game's various elements incredibly well. The UI is a confusing mess at the best of times, and the pace of the game, the nature of the dynamic fog of war, and the depth to the combat can be overwhelming for newcomers. It takes time to get used to switching between the micro and the macro -- moving your military chess pieces into position and then managing individual units in the heat of battle, across maps with frustratingly limited zoom-out options, to make the most of their special abilities. Flitting between three different skirmishes is absolutely exhausting, but the pacing of the campaign eases you into things very well indeed.
The early chapters deal with the Wehrmacht's push East, and the Russian retreat, so many of the missions are laborious defence-oriented affairs: you tread water for ten minutes and then pull back, five times over. But there are some wonderful moments that require real tactical ingenuity and make the most of the game's new systems. Dynamic fog of war isn't necessarily a hugely original concept, but Relic make it seem that way to a certain extent. Making the most of the ever-changing TrueSight fog is crucial when you're stalking a German Tiger tank through the streets of an abandoned, snow-swept town. In that same level, you have to be careful to keep your squad alive against the machinations of the freezing cold weather, making sure you build fires regularly and look after your men.
Another mission has you behind enemy lines with a small squad of snipers, a disciplined outfit who only fire at your command. Again, restricted in terms of sight by the fog, but now with more able covering units, you're able to leapfrog around the area, positioning your sharpshooters perfectly before taking out whole enemy clusters all at once.
It's actually in the Theatre of War that you find the best missions: focused standalone chapters that present players with a particular set of victory conditions or limited resources at your disposal. Split between the Axis and the Soviets, missions are divided into three distinct categories. The special challenges are where you'll find some of the best singleplayer experiences to be had in the game. One mission sees you trying to wrestle back capture points with only a few tanks and a smattering of infantry at your disposal. Another has you leading a platoon of veteran tank-busters in to the freezing wastes to take out a German armour battalion. It's terse, tense stuff.
The co-op missions and the broader AI skirmishes that see you battling enemies with a specific playing style are more open affairs that bring in the resource management and light base building mechanics that barely feature in the campaign but are essential for the online component. The importance of not only controlling capture points, but ensuring that you build and maintain supply lines to boost the resources that govern your side's development , learning all of this is crucial. On the medium difficulty setting, the AI can be aggressive (sometimes stupidly, overly so) and it's easy o the larger maps to find your line being punctured if you haven't spread out scouts to ensure a good spread of visibility.
As in the original game, you'll progress through various Battle Phases, with direct action from certain units allowing you to build those units more efficiently in some cases. As you missions progress, you'll unlock a choice of commanders, and the commander you choose will determine the special abilities you unlock as you defeat enemy units and capture strategic points of interest. To begin with, these abilities might come in the form of a reconnaissance fly-by, then maybe a little further down the line you'll be blessed with a command tank that makes all of your tanks in the vicinity better, and then finally you'll be able to call in air support.
However, as engaging as the bits of Theatre of War are, everything in Company of Heroes 2 feels like it's geared towards the multiplayer, and that's no bad thing really. Though frustrating at times, I wanted to reach the end of the campaign and clock the ToW missions, and it's only really by the series' own lofty standards that the offline parts of COH2 feel a little underwhelming.
Online, however, it's easy to get overwhelmed if you haven't put the time in already. Here, the precision of real-time tactics is married up to fast-paced RTS gameplay where losing concentrations for a few seconds can make a huge difference. Teamwork is essential when facing skilled players and protecting your supply lines is absolutely key. It's not a resource-gathering management system, but you have to protect your interests. There's nothing worse than watch the progress bar tick away inexorably as your last tank gets blown sky-high.
The seven year gap has led to some modern concessions too as Relic start gunning for the likes of Blizzard. Team customisation is in, along with instant recording and Twitch integration for as much livestreaming as your ISP can handle. Relic has some way to go catch up to StarCraft II's level of global domination, but they're on the right track. Every little part of the game ties in to your General profile, giving you experience points and strategic unlocks as you advance through the ranks. There are numerous achievements to be won that extend the game's replayability, bonus objective that yield greater amounts of XP, and your rise in prominence gives you three slots for slight buffs that you can unlock such as a small percentage increase in your infantry's accuracy, or a little bit more health for your tanks. The Intelligence Boosters won't allow you to run roughshod over opponents and aren't a cushion for sloppy tactics, but they're nice little incentives and rewards that might give you the little edge you need, tailored to the manner in which you've been playing the game.
And that's Company of Heroes 2. It's not a terribly progressive, nor is it a game that feels balanced in terms of quality across all of its modes. It's a huge, deep, often clunky beast with some irritating habits and a few head-scratching hotkey placements. But it's easy to love. Take the time to learn its idiosyncrasies and familiarise yourself with the way things work and it comes alive in Theatre of War and online. Four-on-four matches are thrillingly daunting to begin with, but incredibly rewarding, and you'll come back time and time again. It might be slightly thematically suspect, but you won't remember that when you're awake at 4am playing "just one more game", forgetting that the last match lasted for well over an hour.
- Cracking production values, even on lower settings
- Some very well designed missions particularly in Theatre of War
- At its best, it perfects a marriage between RTT and RTS
- The multiplayer is fantastic
- Intimidatingly confusing UI
- The story and gameplay don't combine terribly well
- Conscripts rather unbalance everything a bit
The Short Version: Company of Heroes 2 is a big, sprawling beast of a game, but it doesn't really evolve significantly from its predecessor until you take the game online. As such, it's not a game that will redefine the RTS genre, but rather one that'll keep the COH community happy for another half-decade with its impressive depth and robust challenges. Make no mistake though, it's very, very good.