Company of Heroes 2 Review

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Company of Heroes 2
Platform: PC
Developer: Relic
Publisher: Sega

It doesn’t seem so long ago that every other game was a World War II shooter. And it is funny to think that it has actually been quite a few years since this was the case. So long in fact, that the original Company of Heroes came out when this trend was fading away. In truth, every other game wasn’t ever a WWII shooter as today, every other game is not a modern military shooter, it just seems that way sometimes. It was a fad that passed, as the fad for modern military shooters is (hopefully) passing right now. The noticeable abundance of modern shooters has at least made the World War II setting somewhat appealing again and this certainly bodes well for the eastern front setting of Company of Heroes 2.

To avoid confusion, let me make it clear that Company of Heroes 2 (CO2 hereafter) is not an FPS. It is a real-time strategy game and the sequel to one of the most successful and highly praised RTS games of the last decade. It is also another game whose future was somewhat shaky after the collapse of THQ. Thankfully Sega (who also publish the Total War series) picked up the publishing rights.

It has been a long time since I’ve really got into an RTS game. The genre was almost all I played for a good portion of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The Command & Conquer, WarCraft and StarCraft series were my favourites. As the C&C series declined and sequels to the latter two seemed like they would never happen, I lost interest and did my gaming elsewhere. I could never really get into different strategy titles, as they lacked the story hook and didn’t really seem that different in other ways. Having overlooked the first Company of Heroes, I see that I missed something of a renaissance in the genre. I apologise for this little history, but I felt it necessary to understand where I am coming from before proceeding.

Like the original, COH2 plays much like a standard RTS; the interface, controls and commands should for the most part be familiar to anyone who has played an RTS game before. But it is where it differs that really makes the game unique. Coming at it as someone who used to favour turtling while building an overwhelming force, I found this strategy to be a losing one in COH2. Resources are generally spread about the map and failing to go out and capture and defend them immediately is a losing strategy. What about tank rushing? Well, I tried it once and despite having the most powerful tanks available, they were destroyed in less than a minute. This was a horrible experience but it taught me the mechanics faster than a condescending tutorial ever could. Effectively mixing units, using cover and flanking manoeuvres are all but essential to success and this is a great thing. This goes double and more for multiplayer.

While many genres have simplified aspects of the gameplay or at least included some sort of tutorial for new players, RTS games, if anything, have only gotten more complicated. COH2 is no exception with very little to guide new players. The best bet for someone new to the genre is to jump straight into the campaign which slowly introduces new units and tactics mission by mission, until you can use them effectively. Even then there is much that goes unexplained and is left for you to learn on your own, like I did with the aforementioned tank rush. RTS veterans will be able to get right into learning the nuances of the new units, terrains and trying new tactics. For new players, there is really no easy way to learn how to play competitive multiplayer better than trying it for yourself and losing a lot.

While I’ve certainly played RTS games competitively, I’ve never been very good at them. This didn’t stop me trying it in COH2 but most of my game was spent with the excellent campaign. As mentioned, the setting is on the Eastern Front with the player commanding the Soviet forces first repelling an invasion from the motherland before invading the fatherland. Design wise, the campaign is fairly standard as it slowly introduces units and mechanics to the point where you have every unit available in the last few missions. The variety of objectives on each one however is what makes it really special. Early missions have Soviet conscripts throwing themselves at German lines, with machine guns ready to mow down any that try to retreat. These missions have you flanking machine gun positions, capturing anti-tank guns and defending bridges in an attempt to repel the enemies. Once the Soviets have the momentum moving the other way, you’ll be engaged in hard urban warfare where cautious advances against entrenched enemies are essential. Carefully picking off soldiers with snipers and softening positions with artillery bombardment are all part of it. When you’re getting bored with that there are a few unique missions, such as one where a weakened force is being stalked by a tank that you are under orders to capture. Another mission has you moving troops in extreme winter conditions where they will die if left too long in the cold. There is also a fantastic stealth mission involving the Polish resistance.

Relic doesn’t shy away from the reality of the Soviet regime despite a few surprisingly delusional apologists I saw popping up in comment threads. Civilians are massacred, troops are left to die to further war aims and the ones that aren’t are treated brutishly. And you as the commander are not allowed to shy away from this. At one point late in the game, I tried to pull back soldiers when I realised they were machine gunning retreating German civilians. It was too late. The only way to rationalise it is that a foreign bully is worse than a domestic one, and the troop are at the very least defending their homeland. This is not just my moral dilemma but the stories protagonist, Lev Abramovich Isakovich’s, who is narrating the campaign from a gulag.

Outside of the campaign, there is a fully featured multiplayer that is integrated with Steam and Twitch.TV. There are plenty of options and play modes to choose from with 1v1, 2v2 and 4v4 available and matchmaking that worked great every time I used it. The Theatre of War mode offers even more with some co-op scenarios and plenty of single player challenges. There are also plenty of unlockables for customising the aesthetics of your units and a selection of commanders that grant different abilities. The campaign more than sold the game for me but this is the area where most players will be heading and despite my preference for single-player, certainly the most rewarding part.

COH2 (like many games set in World War II) features an orchestral score that is tied to the game as the explosions, gunfire and the cries of the soldiers. The score unsurprisingly has a Russian influence which while obvious is still a perfect fit. As unromantic as war really is, the score still has its place here and as it is so fused to the atmosphere it is hard to pick out a particularly memorable track as it is to choose which explosions I like best. The one thing I can say is that score always gave me a sense of urgency that the utterly clear and constant orders to move forward and attack did not. It was not until late in the campaign that I finally realised that time wasn’t nearly so sensitive as I imagined.

It has been a long time since I’ve played an RTS that after exiting the game thinking I had played enough, I ended up turning on again fifteen minutes later. It is also not often that I play a game that will have me addicted enough to risk missing the train to work in the morning, but COH2 certainly caused this change in my behaviour. This is the best RTS game I’ve played since Command & Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour. That game came out close to a decade ago. When I’m finished with this, I’ll be moving on to the original and wondering why I ever overlooked it.

4 Stars

July, 2013

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