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Company of Heroes 2 delivers classic RTS gameplay on the Eastern Front

Hayden Dingman 2013-06-26

Full Review

Note: This review focuses on the single-player portion of Company of Heroes 2 because there were very few multiplayer matches running on the actual release code during our review period. If there are any huge problems we encounter after release, we'll update this review accordingly.

Company of Heroes 2, the long-awaited sequel to Relic Entertainment's critically-acclaimed World War II real-time strategy game, belies its name. Playing as the Soviets in the game's main campaign, there are very few times you'll feel like a hero.

The trials you'll face along the Eastern Front, from Stalingrad through to Germany, are a far cry from the original game's D-Day inspired rah-rah-palooza. The campaign in Company of Heroes 2 is a series of morally ambiguous situations where the guys you're fighting for appear just as bad as the enemy you're fighting against.

Back in the USSR

Even our protagonist, former Soviet lieutenant Lev Abramovich Isakovich, doesn't agree with his country's actions. The story is related as a series of flashbacks from his comfy home in a Siberian jail cell, presumably for rebelling against the Motherland. It's a gloomy set-up for a discomfiting game.

Relic definitely tries to capture what made the Eastern Front so horrific. No matter what obstacle you're facing, the primary solution is to throw more men at the front lines. Squaring off against the Nazis, you definitely come to understand this war involved a smaller, more powerful German force on one side and a meat grinder on the other

Your main special ability involves calling up conscripts--fodder troops forcefully drafted into the Soviet army that you can merge into other units to replenish their numbers or treat as disposable forces. These conscripts make poor soldiers, but there are certainly a lot of them to go around--a seemingly infinite number, in fact.

Who cares if the Germans have a tank? You have a hundred men, and a hundred more after that, and a hundred more after that--this is a war of attrition in its rawest form. Unfortunately, the emphasis on this "throw-more-men-at-the-problem" tactic removes any sense of real desperation from the campaign.

In one of the game's first cutscenes you see a line of Soviet grunts, many unarmed, charging a Nazi position. One of the Russian front-liners gets shot, and you see the man behind him scrounge the weapon from the corpse and continue charging.

Yet that never happens while you're actually playing Company of Heroes 2. You'll scrounge equipment from the battlefield occasionally, sure, but you're never leading a group of unarmed, terrified, underfed Soviets straight into a German machine gun until their bodies form a wall of cover for your remaining soldiers.

In fact, considering you're supposedly scraping penal colonies and other "undesirables" to make up the majority of your army, your soldiers follow orders remarkably well. Every time you call up conscripts, the game enacts Order 227--a real-life (though short-lived) edict by Stalin whereby retreating troops were shot on sight. While Order 227 is in effect, any of your troops--not just the conscripts you called up--who panic and flee will be executed.

It's a neat idea, but in practice it rarely has any negative consequences; in my time with the game I never saw anyone executed because of 227. It's just another timer to pay attention to, one more example that the horrific images conveyed in the game's scripted sequences rarely affect how you actually play--they're just set dressing. Given how linear most of the campaign missions are, Company of Heroes 2 ends up playing out like a weird Call of Duty or Medal of Honor strategy game where you aimlessly follow the game's directions with no real sense of why. Maybe that's meta-commentary on Soviet High Command during World War II, but I doubt it.

The AI difficulty is also frustratingly inconsistent. Playing on "Captain" difficulty (the game's equivalent to Normal) I alternatively felt like I was squaring off against General George S. Patton himself and a lukewarm cup of tap water. At best the missions are an exciting push-and-pull of tactics; at worst, your Soviet squads will frolic down the road right next to a bunch of Nazi soldiers, neither group acknowledging the other exists.

All this aside, the campaign isn't bad. There are a few stand-out missions, including an excellent scenario midway through the game where your small squad of infantry plays hide-and-seek with a German Tiger tank in a sleepy village, ineffectively chipping away at its armor with limited armaments. But that's the exception--most of the campaign is underwhelming.

Theater of War

There are very few set up a base, build troops, manage resources, attack scenarios in the main storyline; in fact, the extremely scripted and linear Company of Heroes 2 campaign gives you almost no idea how to jump into multiplayer with the exception of a few missions at the end.

Luckily, the Theater of War mode rectifies that shortcoming. Here you'll find co-op scenarios, solo challenges, and regular battles against the AI. As far as I could tell, all scenarios are based off actual events during World War II, lending the battles a nice veneer of authenticity. Theater of War is also the only place you'll be able to try out the German forces in single-player.

Theater of War mode is where Company of Heroes 2 shines, at least as far as single-player is concerned. multiplayer formula is essentially an adapted version of the system in Battlefield: each team has a certain number of tickets when the game starts, and various command points are scattered across the map. Control more of these areas than the enemy and their ticket count gradually decreases. When you run out of tickets, you lose.

It's a tried-and-true formula that still makes for great games--battles evolve into a literal arms race as you counter the enemy's tanks with AT guns and build bunkers encircling your favorite regions, trying desperately to take one more point and expand your supply lines. Throw men in cover and wait for the enemy to fall into your trap, or funnel their tanks into your deftly placed minefield. Theater of War mode encourages the sort of tactical decision-making that isn't really required to complete the campaign.

And that's a shame, because it's in those moments when you're quickly making difficult decisions that you really feel like a wartime commander. Battles are frantic and very deep, though newcomers may find it overwhelming to manage all this information at once.

Right now Theater of War mode contains 18 missions--nine Soviet, nine German--though Relic plans to expand this content later (through paid DLC). It looks like packs will be organized by year; the game ships with scenarios from 1941.

Old General Winter

Relic adds a few new features to Company of Heroes with this sequel. Most touted is the new ColdTech system, which fits well with the Russian setting. Here's how it works: during certain matches troops fight in blizzard conditions. Your units will get cold over time, courtesy of "General Winter," eventually dying from exposure if you don't huddle near a bonfire or sequester them in a building.

Deep snow slows down your troops while also leaving tracks for the enemy to know where you're headed. Frozen rivers and lakes can be blown open with mortars or mines, turning unlucky units into unwitting Titanic reenactors.

Relic also does an excellent job with its sound design, rivaling DICE (Battlefield series) for wartime audio. Everything sounds crisp here, from the tank rumbling through the silent, snowy village as your troops lie in ambush to the Stuka planes dive-bombing the battlefield.

A note on performance: the game runs fairly well on my PC--an i5 machine with 8 GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 7850 GPU-- though I experienced some slowdown during especially busy or explosive sections of the game. I also had odd frame rate hitching during the game's pre-rendered cutscenes. I'll keep experimenting with my settings to see if I can find a solution.

Bottom line

The best and worst thing I can say about Company of Heroes 2 is it feels like more Company of Heroes. That's not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it's a testament to how ahead-of-its-time the original Company of Heroes was--or perhaps an indicator of the glacial pace with which the RTS genre evolves.

However, this is a sequel to a seven-year-old game that plays almost identically to its predecessor. Oh sure, it's pretty and it sounds great, and the winter effects add a new tactical layer, but it's essentially a big expansion pack.

If you're a diehard fan and you've been waiting years for this game, great. I want to stress, Company of Heroes 2 is still objectively one of the best RTS games out there, and I certainly enjoyed my time with it. The formula was nearly perfect last time, and it's just as good this time around.

It just feels kind of like the original Company of Heroes died, dropped its gun, and the sequel picked it up and kept running in the same direction.

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