Company of Heroes 2 PC Review
World War 2 is back! And you know what? I kind of missed it. It’s an era that most gamers grew tired of – it was pushed down our throats, similar to how the modern military setting has ruled this generation. It’s been almost seven years since gamers got the chance to boot up Company of Heroes and test their mentality as a general and command troops to successfully overthrow the Germans in the Battle of Normandy and the liberation of France. Company of Heroes was a brilliant entry in the real-time strategy (RTS) genre; some would argue one of the best to this day. The game showcased Relic’s mastery when it comes to RTS games – with their intelligent design and superb gameplay mechanics that didn’t follow the norm for RTS games. Company of Heroes 2 is here and it captures everything that made the first game fantastic, but my time spent with the sequel feels all too familiar and lacks any revolutionary features this time around.
The campaign moves away from the Allied forces in France and focuses on the Russians and the Eastern Front theatre of World War II. The story is told from the perspective of Lev Abramovich Isakovich, a Russian lieutenant currently locked up at a gulag in Siberia. His ex-commander arrives to question him about his involvement during the theatre, which leads to the game’s missions appearing every time Isakovich has a flashback. Most of the story scenes are portrayed through CGI animation and covers topics one would expect from the horrors heard about the Eastern Front. The game doesn’t give you much time to grief, care for the characters (you’ll easily notice which ones are assholes though) or take in the horrible consequences of war, as the scenes move so fast that you are soon back into the action and carrying on your role as the commander.
Anyone who has played the predecessor or any of its standalone expansion packs will instantly feel right at home in the sequel. The core mechanics are virtually identical, with resources based on manpower, munitions and fuel returning and once again used to gain units and activate powers. The campaign does wonders to teach you the mechanics of the game. The early missions are tailored to focus on the units you are given and learn how to use cover and position to gain advantage on the computer AI. At first, it seems you can get away with simply clicking on enemies and letting your Russian comrades units fire at them, but once you hit the more tasking campaign maps this no longer becomes a viable means to get through the game. The key to winning in Company of Heroes 2 is position and tactics. Getting your units dug in for protection or flanking the opposition with a surprise attack will get you much further than heading a direct assault. It’s the complete opposite to the tank rushing – thanks to Company of Heroes 2’s limit on population – that comes with RTS titles like Command & Conquer, and just like Company of Heroes, the sequel feels great to play because of this exhibition of strategy being the forefront of everything else.
Spanning over the course of 14 missions and four years of war, the campaign covers important battles over this time frame and is full of variety that barely ever constructs its mission structure like a multiplayer match. In one mission, you will have to defend against Germans as your engineers are trying to dig out a captain; in another mission, you find yourself blowing up your own weaponry to stop it falling into enemy hands. A new addition to Company of Heroes 2 is snow, and it demonstrates how destructive this weather can be. The intense cold weather was a major factor during the Eastern Front, and in this game it is also used as a hazardous problem for both armies to protect themselves against. Rivers and streams are frozen, which help as additional bridges to get across rivers, but can be blown up with grenades and other explosives. Tanks will lose traction and slide, and also weaken the ice as they drive over it, making it easier for the opposition army to bombard the weaken substance and sink an entire squad before they even make it to the banking. Using frozen rivers is a risky move that can save time to reach a destination, but requires players to keep a look out for anyone coming to stop the movement and spoil it with a well place artillery strike.
Cold temperatures are also another variable to keep watch on, and it also adds authenticity to the setting. Any human unit that isn’t protected by shelter or stationed in a vehicle can freeze to death. A tiny thermometer displays next to the unit when they are losing heat, and if it goes on for too long a unit will drop a soldier, keep this going and eventually all six units in the squad will die. To stop this from happening, soldiers need to be moved to heat sources, or have one of the engineers build a fire to keep them warm and alive. It’s an additional micromanagement added on top of an already very complex and strategic game, and I enjoyed the extra danger it brought. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but players aren’t forced to play these maps when playing multiplayer, so I don’t see it a problem being included in the campaign.
When the campaign is over, players still aren’t done with the content of Company of Heroes 2. Sitting alongside the campaign on the main menu is Theatre of War, a mode that consists of single player and cooperative player challenges. Unlike the campaign, the Theatre of War has content for both the Germans and the Russians. These challenges are more focused than the campaign’s missions. One such example is the challenge called “Winter Defense,” which requires the player to protect one capture point for the duration of the mission. You’re given limited troops and must wait for support to come as you fend off waves of Germans. Disappointingly, there are only four cooperative missions out of the 18 available, but SEGA has confirmed that downloadable content will arrive in the future to add more missions. Since all the missions in Theatre of War take place during 1941, it is safe to assume that the downloadable content will cover 1942 and onwards.
Competitive multiplayer is the final piece of content for the game. The premise for the multiplayer is the same as the original Company of Heroes. Of course, there are new maps, units and power-ups added, but the task of taking over control points to earn resources and having limited units active at one time is still the main concept behind its multiplayer. This lets Company of Heroes 2 allow veterans to have no trouble jumping right into the multiplayer from the get go. Twitch.TV is even integrated into the game, allowing for anyone to stream or watch other gamers streaming their matches. In regards to multiplayer, I confess that I am not the best RTS player, so I am not sure how much this might affect the balance of the game, but one of the new aspects of Company of Heroes 2 is the unlock system and its streamlined Commander Abilities.
A new feature for Company of Heroes 2 is the level up system. Every time you finish a mission, whether it is single-player or not, your commander profile will earn points and eventually level up. This falls into similar territories as the Call of Duty experience system, where each level grated you a weapon or a skill in that game. In Company of Heroes 2, each level will either grant a new camouflage gear, a commander or a stat bonus for a unit, such as 2% additional accuracy for basic units or 2% health increase for tanks. Up to three buffs can be equpped at once, so you have to be selective on what units you want to be buffed. To me, 2% sounds like a tiny increase, but to the hardcore this might come off as an unfair buff which dilutes the perfectly fair playing field for everyone.
The Commander Abilities have changed as well. Rather than offering a skill tree to unlock, the game instead offers choices of commanders that each come with a set of skills that unlock as you gain commander points in battle. It comes down to picking which commander has the skills you want or prefer to use, and not about the current situation in battle and what unlock might help you at that given point. It’s a commitment choice, and I’m not entirely sure I like it this way. My other concern is that there is a lot of DLC, and with future DLC planned, I hope they manage to keep all commanders within check and not have one that is “pay to win,” because of some foolishly overpowered move.
The original Company of Heroes was a damn fine looking game on its release, and it even got a DirectX 10 patch a year later that made it look even prettier. Company of Heroes 2 is pushing some nice effects on screen that add to the overall gorgeous look of the game and its top notch presentation. While the great texture work, weather effects and particles can be seen at any height, the real detail isn’t realised unless you zoom in. Snow will deform when humans and tanks plough through it, and watching a tank or two drive through buildings is a sight to behold. These are, without a shadow of a doubt, the best visuals for a RTS game to date. My only problem is I wish the interface wasn’t as cluttered. It’s covering too much of my screen. This seems to be a theme throughout the game – just look at the main menu and everything that is splatted all over it. That is too much for my personal taste.
Company of Heroes 2 might tread familiar ground, but that ground is an amazing foundation. This sequel doesn’t bring much new to the table, but takes most of what was great about the original game and does enough with it to likely satisfy fans. While the innovation isn’t quite as strong, the core gameplay and robust focus on strategy makes this sequel a deep and engrossing time that’s worthy of one’s investment to learn what makes Company of Hereos 2 do strategy so well.