How the west was won - with the not very careful application of super-heavy tanks
Company of Heroes 2: The Western Front Armies has perhaps the most self-explanatory title I've ever seen from a game. A standalone DLC for RTS sequel Company of Heroes 2, The Western Front Armies gives players another way to experience the chaotic, action-packed battles of the original game, by adding in a bunch of new content and two brand new armies; the US forces and a German elite armoured division, the Oberkommando West.
As you'd expect from developers Relic and Company of Heroes, both armies have a very distinct feel. The US forces are all about speed and adaptability, lacking the super heavy tanks and brute-force infantry of their German rivals, but with a lot of customisable units that can be outfitted with a variety of different tools depending on what you need from them; their key unit is probably the paratrooopers, elite multi-purpose units that you can drop anywhere on the map. They pack a variety of weapons for pretty much every eventuality, and they'll make short work of any unsuspecting opposition. Deadly as they are though, they're vulnerable to massed assaults and dug-in defences. Intelligent movement, quick-thinking deployment of your special abilities and smart use of CoH2's cover system are key for the Americans.
Expect lots of forests, which funnel tanks and provide ample opportunity for sneaky ambushes
The Oberkommando, meanwhile, have all the lovely heavy armour you could wish for. The standout is perhaps their King Tiger tank, a armour-plated behemoth with a quite ridiculous main gun that will pop Shermans like overripe cantaloupes. Support by a unit of Sturmpioneers, mechanics who can effect quick battlefield repairs, these things are incredibly hard to counter. Relic, as always, do a great job of bringing these lumbering monstrosities to life, with excellent animations and sound effects. When a super heavy rumbles over the horizon towards you it's hard not to panic at the mere sight of it.
Both armies have their own tricks and quirks. The US make use of a tonne of air over, including some gloriously satisfying rocket-spewing P-47 Thunderbolt flyovers, which can really ruin an opponent's day if they lack anti-air support. They also require you to have the right command structure in place before you can requisition units; you'll need to earn enough to purchase a Captain unit before you can call in you tank support, for example.
The Oberkommando forces, meanwhile, make heavy use of customised half tracks, which they can use to set up forward HQ posts. They start off with one base, but can set up a second using a special half-track, provided for free at the start of the game. To get their elite units they'll have to set up three such separate posts. This mobile, makeshift setup is a move which is intended to reflect the scrappy, makeshift nature of the Axis supply lines in the late 1940s. They have various other neat options, including a Sturm Commando unit, a kind of hero soldier who can inspire his men with bravery, as opposed to the bullets of a Red Army Commissar, and an infra-red half-track, which uses a searchlight to scan for enemies hidden in the fog of war. Very neat. It's impressive just how different each army feels from the core Russian and German forces of the main game. These are no mere reskins.
Shermans are cheap, but hopelessly outmatched against heavy armour
Relic are vocal about their desire for players to experience the wide selection of community maps currently available, but they've gone ahead and added eight of their own as well. The fields, woods and villages of the Western Front might feel comfortably familiar, but the new maps do a good job of providing a slightly more fast-paced and brutal experience than core CoH2. There's a couple of new 1v1 small-scale maps, alongside huge 4v4 levels that showcase the game's most ridiculous battles. Stand-outs include the bracketed forest mayhem of Hurtgen Forest and the urban slaughter of Ettelbruck Station. Relic continue to create some excellent backdrops for their unique brand of action RTS gameplay.
The developers have also overhauled the game's progression system. Thanks to the new War Spoils system, you can expect each victory (or more likely each crushing defeat) to reward you with a few bits and pieces, from new commanders to new skins and 'intelligence'. Skins are cosmetic, but commanders and intelligence bulletins change your force setup in pretty key ways; the former are a holdover from CoH2, with each commander providing a slightly different focus for your army in the form of set battlefield powers and special units, while the latter provides a passive buff during the next battle, such as quicker reloads or slightly faster units. It's a nice way of further customising your favourite faction, and one that hopefully won't be undermined too much by inevitable micro-transaction additions.
Outside of new content, the matchmaking system has been reworked to provide less frustrating one-sided battles, and the user interface has been tidied up somewhat. To be honest it's still something of a clustered mess in the game's main menus, but in-game it's mostly clean and functional and that's where it really counts. Still not sure I'm a fan of the clustered unit list in the top right corner of your screen, but generally the GUI makes handling things pretty simple and responsive. In another welcome addition, you can now start searching open public games from the main menu, which makes loading in and jumping straight into a game nice and easy.
Artillery and massive explosions; two must-haves for the turtling coward
So two very different armies with their own distinct feel and personality, a bucketload of maps and various improvements to performance and presentation. And all available with both new armies as a combination pack or individually, choosing one only for half the price. Obviously you won't get the core campaign for Company of Heroes 2 (it's not all that great anyway) should you pick up this without owning the original, or the 'Theater of War' mission mode, but you can skirmish or go head-to-head online against any other army. If you're looking at this DLC as an owner of the original game, it's a nice bit of quality optional extra content that won't affect your game should you decide not to buy it. If you're new to the series, you can pick this up for an affordable $20 and jump straight into some satisfying and exciting online battles.
COMPANY OF HEROES 2: THE WESTERN FRONT ARMIES VERDICT
Relic’s approach here brings to mind a free-to-play game, with players able to buy a full multiplayer experience with their choice of faction, then pick up other armies at a later date should they wish. You don’t need to own any other army to play against them, which neatly avoids splitting the player base. While issues of army balance will inevitably rear their head down the line, it’s a smart concept that gets off to a good start with The Western Front Armies. If you’re yet to try out Company of Heroes, which is one of the best multiplayer RTS experiences currently available, this is a great opportunity to do so. Just bear in mind that aside from skirmishes you won’t get any singleplayer options.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Getting your King Tiger into play just as the enemy seems to be gaining the upper hand, then chortling as it slowly dismantles their armoured attack.