Company of Heroes returns, but can it improve on an already winning formula?
For those of us not inclined towards a combination of the words 'Star' and 'Craft', Company of Heroes is perhaps the finest traditional RTS of the past decade. It's taken almost seven years for a full sequel to arrive, yet with Company of Heroes 2Relic haven't so much innovated as returned to the formula that made the original such a joy to play. But is that enough to allow Company of Heroes 2 to take its place in upper echelons of the current crop of RTS games?
The answer to question posed above is broadly - yes. Starcraft aside, base building RTS games have fallen away from popularity. While games like the Total War series have seen armchair generals catered for, if you're hankering to a return to the more traditional scorched earth warfare of Company Heroes, the sequel offers pretty much everything you could want - with a varied campaign, great multi-player options and challenging AI.
Despite a worrying resemblance to the KKK, Russian Snipers are a potent tool when used correctly
The single-player campaign eases us back into Company of Heroes' particular brand of resource collection, micro-management and strategic positioning nicely. Early missions are a little too directed - more a case of following the directions you've given than actual decision making. But they're a good showcase for the engine improvements over the 2007 original, with the sound and fury of warfare on display front and centre. At first glance, graphically, Company of Heroes 2 remains similar to the original, yet subtle improvements to the destructible environment as well as smoke effects help add the sense of utter destruction. The sound too is excellent, as tanks thunder, ice cracks and soldiers scream – it all helps to create a sense of chaos and destruction that you'd expect of a game featuring some of the most brutal battles of the second world war.
The campaign improves quickly, as Relic demonstrate some of the lessons learned by Dawn of War II with some of the missions requiring you to take objectives with a relatively limited number of troops at your disposal, including an excellent early mission that introduces the new weather mechanics as you use the cold-immune Russian snipers to forge a path into hostile territory. Weather is one of the major new features of Company of Heroes 2 (sadly the retail version doesn't have a bullet point on the back of the back of the box that just says 'Snow!'), adding further micromanagement concerns as well as strategic options. Infantry have temperature gauges on many of the maps that you'll need to keep a close eye on, if soldiers are left exposed away from fire or shelter for too long, they'll drop dead where they stand. Blizzards can sweep over the battlefield, slowing movement, impairing vision and will require you to react quickly to stay on top of your opponent. It can be a little annoying to lose an elite infantry squad to the weather, but few enough of the campaign missions feature the weather heavily that usually it adds a welcome new dynamic to the strategy.
A seven year gap has allowed real advances in the technology of stuff exploding
One aspect of the single-player campaign that doesn't work so well is the story. The protagonist Lev Abramovich Isakovich is supposed to represent the player as he narrates the events of the war, ruminating on loss and sacrifice. Yet, the story is at odds with the actual playing of Company of Heroes, we're rarely given incentive to feel much for our soldiers, as orders are belted out at us to secure key strategic points. It's pretty much the central concept of the RTS that your troops are tools at your disposal and that victory is victory no matter the cost. Cut-scenes inviting us to care will fall on deaf ears, no matter how well presented they are. Yet despite some story concerns, the single-player campaign is strong throughout, varied enough that you'll want to see it to completion and a good introduction to the mechanics of the game that will serve you well should you head into the multi-player and skirmish options on offer.
On first examining the multi-player menus, I was gripped by a cold fear that they'd somehow managed to CODify Company of Heroes, with XP and achievement based unlocks. While that remains true to an extent – you level up and can unlock special bulletins for minor unit specific boosts – it's feels like a minor niggle, allowing you to customise your army in a slight way to better suit your strategy. Really though, it's just a side-show - an incentive to keep you playing, where none is really required. The multi-player features 8 maps, going up to 14 if you include the wintery editions, from small scale battlefields for 2-4 players, going up to the massive City 17, which can house 8 players (or AIs) at once. Again, there's more of a twinge of the familiar here to Company of Heroes Veterans, the game retains the Victory Point or Annihilation objectives of its predecessor, with capturing nodes that give you resources key to your success.
The new armies and choice of commander help to differentiate Company of Heroes 2, as powerful abilities unlock based on your decisions. Both the German and Russian forces are enjoyable for their quirks. For instance Russian conscripts are cheap and able to reinforce depleted squads (including any elite and experienced units you may have), while the Germans have smaller squads, higher costs but superior fire power. I've a particular fondness for the Russians, it always feels as though you have enough men to man equipment left on the battlefield thanks to the conscripts and the proper armour and artillery support can turn them into a versatile fighting force.
Large statues are an excellent opportunity to try out the rarely used 'attack ground' command
For those of you who are terrified of interaction, or just feel they're not quite ready to face human opposition, there's a skirmish mode on offer, where you can fight with and against AI of varying difficulty. While they do still have a slightly annoying tendency of swarming capture points with weak units, they put up a good opposition and do a particularly good job of combining arms to great effect. The 'Theatre of War' is a new addition to Company of Heroes 2, offering co-op battles against the AI, challenges that offer you limited resources and tight objectives, as well as set piece AI battles, where your opposition fights with a specific style (some of the aggressive German AIs here are absolutely terrifying).
COMPANY OF HEROES 2 VERDICT
For Company of Heroes veterans, Company of Heroes 2 feels a little like coming home. Yes, the game sticks closely to the formula that made the original such a triumph, but in this case familiarity fails to breed contempt. Whether you’re coming to Company of Heroes for the first time, or re-enlisting, you’ll find a game that turns warfare into an art-form as infantry swarms across the battlefield, tanks churn the earth and fire cascades from the sky in stirring symphony. Warfare has been this good once before, but it’s not a case of diminishing returns.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Off-map artillery strikes onto thin ice, watching your opponent’s fruitless attempts to scramble away before they’re plunged into icy doom.