Relic have listened to their fanbase. It's taken a year, but the Public Games List option is now absolutely A Thing you can have in Company of Heroes 2 thanks to the arrival of a standalone expansion pack that sees the focus of the war move from the Siberian wastes and the Eastern Front across to a whole bunch of battlefields in and around Belgium. Finally, finally there's a server list to make configuring online multiplayer matches that much easier. It's about damn time.
In many ways, The Western Front Armies feels like an old-school expansion rather than the DLC drops we tend to see these days. Though there's nothing new per se for singleplayer strategy fans to get stuck into in terms of campaign missions, but TWFA's release heralds the arrival of two new factions: the US Allied forces and the Oberkommando West Axis army for a bunch of skirmish shenanigans, and online battles. Company of Heroes has always been a series where the offline components are really just the means by which you get to grips with the depth of tactical systems before taking your strategic brain online and pitting your abilities against other armchair generals across the globe.
The Western Front Armies doesn't require the base game so if you want to jump straight in at the deep end, you absolutely can, but here's how it works:
You're essentially purchasing the use of the new factions, along with the usual COH2 multiplayer modes, and the various tweaks and improvements that Relic have made over the last twelve months. You can buy the use of the US or Oberkommando West forces individually for around a tenner, or pay five quid more to bag them both. That needs you all of teh COH2 multiplayer goodness you could want (Theatre of War content aside), along with AI skirmish options for your purchased factions if you fancy a little bit of offline practice. You won't be able to play as the Soviet or Wehrmacht forces if you don't own the base game, but you will be able to play against COH2 veterans who haven't upgraded, so the player pool is kept nice and large. Better yet, there's no real map restriction. As well as the eight new maps included with TWFA, you'll be able to play on any of the original COH2 maps as long as one of the players in your match has the base game.
But you can buy the complete base game for less than the price of one multiplayer faction in TWFA, so what's new?
Well, for starters, War Bulletins are no more. Chasing grindy goals for minuscule bonuses to certain units is out, and a new initiative called War Spoils is in.War Spoils are essentially fairly random loot drops after each game, with the potential to gain new Commanders, skins, and intelligence. Intelligence bulletins hark back to the little modifiers in the base game and signify passive buffs such as quicker reload speeds for your units or hastier movement across the map, and the Commanders work much as they did before, providing different approaches in terms of battle focus and special abilities and units. It's a neat little system that presents rewards after every victory, and every crushing defeat, and should make it easier for Relic to introduce new content going forwards, though there is a worry that the rather random nature of it might be foreshadowing the addition of some kind of microtransaction-based store somewhere down the line.
Though Relic are persistent in trying to pimp out the community-developed maps, there are eight new ones included here, and they're really rather nifty indeed. They don't take advantage of the weather systems that the freezing cold Siberian maps did in the base game, but there's an impressive variety in terms of design to make for some wonderfully varied encounters. You can pit your might and intellect against a single opponent on one or two of the maps in tight environments, but there are a few settings that allow for massive 4-v-4 games that are staggeringly epic and can last for hours. The Hurtgen Forest map is arguably the standout: an epic map based on the infamous three-month-long battle that saw German forces digging in to defend against the mobility and versatility of the US forces.
Speaking of which, Relic have absolutely nailed the two factions here. These are no mere reskins, it's clear to see that an enormous amount of work and research has gone into making the two new factions as distinct and as detailed as possible. The US forces are all about quick thinking and multi-role units, capable of changing weaponry and focus on the fly, adapting to whatever gets thrown their way. The basic Riflemen can be upgraded to grenade-chucking, anti-tank-gun-wielding heavy hitters, and they're joined by some incredibly robust engineers in the Rear Echelons who, much like Archer's Cyril Figgis, are particularly adept at a spot of suppressing fire. You also have the ability to call in Paratroopers and airlift in weapons, which never gets old.
Playing as the US, though, is all about making sure you have the right command units in the field. You start with a fully constructed base, but you can't wield the power of certain units unless you have the right officer in play. If you're looking for an AA half-track or a machine-gun unit, you'll need to find a Lieutenant, and if you want that Sherman, you'll need to call in a Major first. Thankfully, the officers have some sweet abilities that mean they're actually useful in battle. The Major is particularly handy, given that he can call in artillery strikes. He can also fake out the enemy to pull them out of position, and there's really nothing quite as satisfying as engineering a fake strike and having an enemy battalion run straight into your heavy gunners.
If the key to winning as the US is making sure that you have the right balance in terms of units for the job at hand no matter the enemy you're facing, for the Oberkommando West, it's all about being incredibly canny with resources management, and ensuring you're playing a viable long game until you can bring out your biggest guns. For the US, the early-game is key, for the OW it's all about trying desperately not to blow your wad (of oil) too early.
For the Germans, the Western Front had become extremely problematic by 1944. They were an elite force, certainly, but supply issues and the expense of maintaining their powerful units was taking its toll. So it is with the OW in this game: mechanically superior but at a rather steep price. The OW start off with an established half-track, and another awaiting deployment. At the start of a game, it's imperative to capture resources points and set up two more half-track command points in order to access the elite units. It's designed to reflect the mobile, inconsistent nature of the dubious supply lines at the time, and it means you have to really dig in from the start. The US game is far more active to a certain extent, even if they're not equipped for a straight, head-on fight, but playing as the OW really benefits defensively-minded players.
Once you have the resources coming in, though, you can start to wheel out awesome pieces of kit such as the infra-red half-track, which scans the vicinity for enemy soldiers lurking in amongst the fog of war or under cover of darkness. Panzerfusiliers and heavy artillery units come into play, dealing damage and adding to the confusion by whippoing up smokescreens. And then, when you've finally amassed enough oil, you can let the Tiger out of its cage. The Jagdtiger is insane, capable of bringing down an enemy base on its own. Combine it with a smattering of anti-infantry units and you're borderline unstoppable if you play carefully. If you encounter dug-in troops, you can just blow their cover to smithereens. Or fire through the building they're cowering behind. It's ludicrously expensive, but you'll find yourself cackling like an idiot when you finally roll one out.
Again, so much of that has to to with the superb sound design. The graphics have had a little buff up, and the game seems to run a little smoother than it did this time last year, it's the sound that once again immerses you completely in the action. Relic's pursuit of aural authenticity elevates everything slightly and makes the satisfying moments, the boom, blast, and ruin of your opponent, that much more pleasing.
If there is a complaint to be made, though, it's more to do with market forces than anything. If you consider Company of Heroes 2 as a digital proposition, then this package makes excellent sense. Normally somewhere between £15-25 for the base game, TWFA allows new players to jump in at a lower rate with an optimised game, and not have to pay for the singleplayer component if they don't want to. But placed in comparison with a retail reality that enables you to pick up the base game for under a tenner, it's arguably a little less generous. Then again, we live in an age where people pay £10-15 for four maps in console shooters, so value is fairly subjective.
What I can say is that TWFA provides a great starting point for newcomers to jump into the series, with eight new maps, two fantastically realised new faction, and a host of other little improvements to stability and performance. You'll want to brush up on your skills against AI opponents before heading online, though. Trust me.
- New factions are fantastically realised and pleasingly distinct from one another
- Public server lists...FINALLY!
- Epic maps allow for some insane MP
- Crossplay MP with base game owners opens up player pool nicely
- Sound design is once again spot on
- Balancing and stability improvements
- Consumer choice is always nice
- You can pick up the full base game for under a tenner if you hunt around
- Units still have occasional pathfinding issues
- Steep learning curve without the campaign
The Short Version: Boasting two wonderfully-realised new faction, each with their own distinct strengths and weaknesses, The Western Front Armies is a cracking digital proposition for newcomers and veterans alike. But if you're not bothered about the new content and just want to sample COH2, be aware that hard copies for the base game run cheaper than this.