Saved from the abyss of development hell by Sega following THQ’s demise, Relic’s Company of Heroes series is back in its second outing, and Company of Heroes 2 shifts the focus from the European theatre of war to the brutal Russian conflict.
After initially signing a peace treaty with Russia before the initial invasion of Poland, Hitler decided to make perhaps his biggest tactical faux pas by invading Russia. This not only broke the treaty, but eventually forced the Nazi forces into a conflict that was, for all intents and purposes, military suicide.
Whilst the Germans had the technology, better training and more powerful weapons, Russia had the sheer weight of numbers, and the viciously cold climate, something the Nazis simply couldn’t overcome, at least in the long run. We all know how things ended, but Company of Heroes 2 aims to give you first hand experience of these events from the Russian point of view, showing the terrible events that unfolded, and the hardships the Red Army had to endure, not only at the hands of the Germans, but their own commanders too.
Via a series of flashbacks narrated by disgraced Soviet Army lieutenant, Lev Abramovich Isakovich, the game’s single-player campaign starts with the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the German advance into Russia, and runs all the way to the fateful Battle of Berlin, by which time the Red Army had battered the Nazis out of the Motherland and was staring the Third Reich down in its own front yard. It’s been done before, sure, but it’s still arguably more interesting at this point, given the over saturation of the traditional European settings.
Boots on the ground
Events are played out in an instantly recognisable manner for CoH veterans, and for the most part, little has changed from the previous outing. Relic certainly hasn’t spent much time reinventing the wheel here, and what we get is a tweaked and tuned RTS experience that capitalises on the series’ strengths. This may sound like a cop out, and some may instantly be disappointed that Relic hasn’t spent time adding more new content, but the original didn’t win so much critical acclaim for nothing, and frankly, it still shows.
CoH was, and still is a distinctly different RTS title that puts much more of a focus on unit micromanagement than base building or whole armies of troops. Instead of making you feel like a omnipotent general overlooking a whole battlefield, the game drops you right in with each individual squad, and tasks you with making unit-by-unit decisions, and with keeping each soldier alive and kicking.
Manage to keep your units going, and they’ll earn experience, becoming better, more accurate shots, and gaining a better resistance to damage. This means you’ll become attached to your experienced, crack squads, and so the need to carefully consider your moves and use the correct tactics is always paramount, lest you lose vital units.
These tactics aren’t simply limited to how many troops of what kind you send into a fight, but instead drill right down to individual corner-to-corner battles. Pinned down by MG fire? Then you’ll need to find a way to flank it so you don’t send your men into a killzone. Need to take out that tank without heavy weapons? You’d better start planning, taking in the local resources, and skills of your available units.
This small, squad-to-squad play is certainly CoH2‘s greatest asset, and the smaller scale only helps to promote far more detail in battle. You’ll have to use any and all cover to keep your guys alive, and buildings and other parts of the battlefield become essential tactical strong points.
Individual unit skills and specialisations are of prime concern too, and most missions will require you to maximise your specialists’ abilities. For example, an early mission where you have to pull out of a town whilst defending a retreating train and armour division requires accurate use of engineers to lay mines, soldiers to provide cover and marshalling of reinforcements to pick up any slack. It’s a skilful balancing act, and you have to constantly be on the ball, trying to be several moves ahead, and that’s before the enemy AI throws in surprise attacks and flanking manoeuvres, which can always take you by surprise and scupper your best laid plans. If you’re clever, though, and prepared, you’ll always come out on top.
Luckily, the unit AI has been enhanced, meaning that they’re better at finding and using close cover as well as being better path finders, and units can cope a little better with unforeseen events, even when you’re busy elsewhere. That’s not to say the AI is perfect, though.
Several times I witnessed my units struggling to manoeuvre correctly in order to follow commands, and tanks can be a pain to move around the battlefield at times, especially in cramped locations like villages. Generally, though, the AI is better than it was previously, and once ordered, you can usually depend upon them to get the job done, and they can often hold things together until you get chance to drop by and help them out.
Unfortunately, the control scheme and menus don’t boast the same level of competency, and I found that the overly dated menus and clunky camera often hindered progress. Some commands, such as calling in conscripts and using special skills are fine, but other abilities, like upgrading weapons are placed in unnatural locations on the menu display. When you’ve got so much going on at any one time, the controls need to be second nature, but this isn’t so with CoH2, and it’s one area where Relic really needed to spend more time in my opinion.
It’s not just menus that cause problems, and it can also be tricky to select a specific squad in a hectic battle, and such commands as getting troops to man an AT gun or Maxim MG can require several clicks to get right.
These issues can be overcome with practise, but if you’re new to the RTS genre, or even CoH, it may be a little off-putting. In fact, although the first few missions of the campaign are blatant training missions designed to get you used to the game mechanics, there’s little in the way of a gentle learning curve. Expect frustration if you’re a little green around the gills when it comes to real time strategy.
I can see clearly
So, the core features of the game have remained much the same, but we all like additions in our sequels, and thankfully, CoH2 does have a couple.
Aside from the obvious Russian twist, the game includes a new ‘TrueSight’ system. This replaces the older, outdated fog of war method of cloaking unseen areas of the battlefield, and means unit visibility and line of sight is improved as a result. Vision is affected by environmental conditions, not just if you’re behind a solid object or not, as well as unit skills. Snipers, for example, can see much farther than your standard grunt, making them much more useful than simply popping heads. They help you see what’s coming so you have time to react.
Another new addition is the weather system, ColdTech. Weather conditions are incorporated well, and play a big role in some battles. This is most notably demonstrated when fighting in extreme cold and snow. Troops can’t be left out in the open for too long, otherwise they’ll freeze to death, and blizzards not only hamper movement and vision, but also cover the tracks of enemy patrols and armour. Visually the conditions are excellently portrayed, and the effects on combat further enforce the harsh nature of the war.
The biggest change, though, is the setting, and with Russia comes a whole new approach to war.
A major focus of the game is sacrifice, both on the battlefield, and for those running from it. The infamous Russian military order to shoot those retreating from the battlefield, and its willingness to simply throw meat into the grinder is a prime feature, and is explored here throughout the campaign.
You’re actively encouraged to throw weaker conscripts to their death in order to bolster your war effort, and always have the option to send more troops into the fray for free (after a short cool down timer). This is an essential tactic, and can help defend bases and bolster attacking forces.
The problem here is that it’s a tactic the game paints as reprehensible in its storytelling which, of course, it is. However, as much as you’re supposed to feel emotionally impacted by this, with cut scenes of generals ordering their own men to fire on those retreating from battle, or blowing a bridge before your comrades can retreat to safety, you’re always encouraged to use the same, use ’em and abuse ’em tactics in battle, and you’ll always want to, as it’s a major strength against the odds you’ll be facing.
Indeed, much of your tactics will involve hurling men on a one way trip towards the German lines, if only to buy time for stronger units to arrive. This is the exact opposite of the US and UK-focused games where none are left behind, and to be fair, it makes for an interesting campaign.
The issue, however, is that in the end, you feel little emotional connection to the events, and the wonky, in-engine cut scene animation and overly thick Russian accents only serve to make the story even less appealing on an emotional level. This is a shame as it depicts one of the most horrific periods of war mankind has ever seen, but the impact Relic has strived for falls a little flat.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t succeed in other areas. Aside from the still impressive and deeply tactical gameplay, the audio direction is superb. Gunfire, mortar strikes and screams ring out in the middle of combat, and the visuals, although a little dated, help make events look and sound great. The camera once again lets you zoom right into ground level, so you can put your self right in the fray (although, tactically this isn’t recommended), and some battles really do look quite epic.
Alongside the main campaign, Company of Heroes 2 features a couple of other modes. The Theatre of War section houses a few smaller scale challenges that see you completing specific goals. These are both challenging and enjoyable, and can be played co-operatively too.
The Online and Skirmish mode is the multiplayer portion of the game, and as always, it’s here where the game will find it’s longevity. You can play up to four player battles against other human opponents or AI, and there are different generals to pick from, as opposed to the campaign’s solo offering. Each general has different special skills, and the CoH style of play makes for some truly tense and edge of the seat battles. You can also customise your armies and generals, picking different skills and even skins.
One thing’s for sure, though, if you’re new to CoH, prepare to be decimated time and time again by old hands. The game makes few concessions for newcomers, so you’ll need to train against AI before you tough it out online.
When you do go online, the game can also swing between great, tactical battles, and fights that simply boil down to who can get tanks into the fray first. It’s not the most balanced multiplayer RTS around in this regard, but it’s always entertaining and challenging.
At heart, Company of Heroes 2 isn’t a new game as such. Instead, it features a fairly meagre helping of real new tricks, and relies upon the winning formula of its predecessor to succeed. This is a gamble, and one that’ll pay off for hardened RTS fans and those who loved the original and expansions, but you can’t shake the slightly dated feel present.
Unlike many other RTS alternatives, CoH2 is a true tactical challenge where every battle needs a solid plan of attack, and there are no real short cuts to victory. You need to think, develop and execute your plans perfectly, and this will require some solid RTS experience, making it a definite recommendation for genre veterans, but a potential pitfall for those still in the genre’s boot camp.
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