There’s a general consensus among those in the know that invading the the heartland of Russia is a risky affair, even at the best of times. Napoleon’s 1812 attempt was his undoing, resulting in the deaths and capture of almost all his Grand Army. Hitler’s attempted invasion was the reason the German’s lost the war; they made the mistake of awaking the mighty Russian giant. Company of Heroes 2 shows you just how the Motherland won their war, and just how many lives it cost to do so.
Telling the story of Isakovich, an ex-officer and former journalist of the Soviet Union who was imprisoned in the dreaded Gulag for reasons initially unknown, you play out his tales of the war through conversations with his previous commanding officer. Considering how little you really get to enjoy the depth of the story, it’s actually rather good. Usually it just amounts to a short cut scene before or after missions along with a few in-game scenes now and again. It simply isn’t enough to form a meaningful connection with the characters, but it is an RTS at the end of the day.
That said, it’s an understandably dark and heavy tale showing you the kind of ruthless brutality the Soviets employed to gain their victories and maintain discipline. Humor is non-existent, except for a couple of amusing responses your troops give as an indication of your command being received. Still, it’s difficult to take the game seriously when it’s all presented to you though largely prehistoric graphics. In-mission cut-scenes are pretty diabolical to boot. However, it should be said that pre-mission ones are much better, but still nowhere near modern standards.
Campaign Mode largely consists of irritatingly repetitive ‘take this position’ tasks with a smattering of more interesting missions thrown in for a little variety. But for the most part you’ll be sending in huge numbers of troops or a lot of armour (read: tanks) to take a position held my a stagnant force of Nazi. If your first attack fails, no matter, build up another and attack again. Once the position is yours, you might face a scripted counterattack, but all too often you simply have to move on to the next point. This is made worse by the fact that armour, in campaign mode at least, is drastically overpowered.
Using anti-tank guns is about as effective as trying to re-hydrate the Sahara by spiting on it; even the mighty 88-millimeter guns made infamous by the Tiger tank can easily be destroyed by driving around it. Taking two or three hits isn’t likely to destroy a tank unless it’s a light T-70 or something similar. This means that almost the entirety of campaign gameplay becomes about destroying small pockets of Nazi who are apparently always cut off from any reinforcements or any kind of communication with their command. Needless to say, it was a slog to play.
It’s not all terrible however, there are a few missions that reaffirm why you’re still playing. Taking control of Polish partisans as they sneak though the forests killing officers and escaping with a high value prize, all the while avoiding the various Nazi patrols was an absolute highlight. Some maps also proved to be quite the spectacle, the attention to detail is staggering too; although when making an assault on a huge fortress is something I would have loved to have seen from an angle not allowed by the restrictive camera.
As touched upon before, visually Company of Heroes 2 is unlikely to blow you away – unless you’ve just woken up from a mid-’00s coma and this is the first thing you lay eyes upon. They remain relatively unchanged from the first Company of Heroes, with what seems like only some small improvement in the finer details, with most work appearing to go into physics. Still, as said before, the attention to detail is remarkable. Fences, hedgerows, buildings, rubble, abandoned carts and forgotten belongings, all lie in wait for your discovery. Environments are convincing and dynamic meaning you can crush the fence, blow up the house or take cover in a crater made by an artillery explosion. That said, many of the maps aren’t nearly as verdant as those in the original title, but that’s mostly a reflection of the Eastern Front thank Relic’s imagination.
Many of the problems that afflicted CoH are still here, which is a little disappointing to see. Controlling large numbers of troops is unwieldy, requiring lots of micromanagement and tricky mouse work to get your men to do as you please. It’s such a pain that I found myself using tanks to get the job done – not just because they can do almost anything alone, but also because they’re a damn sight easier to control than the stubborn Soviet infantrymen. If your troops had greater free will to find cover, engage targets, reposition themselves and make use of their abilities it would not only make things far less tedious, but also allow you to concentrate on your grand strategy.
Pathfinding also seems to be an issue, especially with vehicles. There was more than a handful of times where I’d lose a tank or two when attempting a fast u-turn to escape AT gunfire. Instead of spinning around and out quickly, they’ll turn slowly on the spot, gradually exposing its weak rear to the enemy frontline. Not ideal really – just like the user interface for controlling all this on-screen action. It takes up an awful lot of screen space and, more often than not, doesn’t provide much purpose. These may all sound like rather small niggles, they add up to create a rather frustrating experience. Mind you, it could largely be fixed with a day-one patch.
This fussy and fiddly arrangement can be seen as both a blessing and a curse in the world of multiplayer. On the one hand it allows veterans of combat to really command the battlefield by using their hard-won experience and skill to defeat overpowered opponent. The flip side to this is that infantry is such a burden on your time, especially in larger battles, it’s almost impossible to orchestrate anything overly technical or impressive on more than one front. You time will be spent focused so much on one party that another squad could be entirely picked off by a sniper. But this is the learning curve of multiplayer and the challenge sets you up perfectly for any situation you could come across later to separate a good player from a bad one.
Multiplayer is essentially the heart and soul of Company of Heroes 2. It provides intense, addictive and thrilling matches that both satisfy and crush you to no end. Every defeat is a lesson on improvement and every victory a triumph to be proud of. One-on-one matches are almost personal as you go face to face with your opponent as you both struggle to break the stalemate. Two-on-two, three-on-three and four-on-four matches can be just as intense, but largely focus around forging a team to usurp your opponent. Cocking up in a four way usually means your team mate can take the slack while you lick your wounds and get back into the fight and you can also spend far more time honing your attack on one area rather than fighting on two fronts.
It’s not perfect though, as all your resources are evenly distributed between team members and there isn’t a way to give your ally more of yours if you have excessive amounts. It’s something that could really have helped out in an intense battle as you forged deeper battle tactics. That aside it’s just a couple of tweaks to the battle tactics and a blast of innovation to make it stand apart from its predecessor – still, that means this is one superb and utterly engrossing gameplay mode.
There are some welcome changes here from Company of Heroes, but don’t be fooled as they are more marginal than a huge leap forward. The ability to customise your army is a lovely touch, but it lacks the ability to really alter how you make use of strategies on the field. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. Altering tank camouflage seems little more than cosmetic, and it’s hard to say how much giving buffs to certain units really helps in battle – especially as only three can be taken simultaneously. The addition of a true line-of-sight system is a great feature as you can make use of the dense woodlands or snow to hide from approaching enemies. This means you’ll want to steer clear of open roads unless you like being spotted by men with rifles and machine guns. Finally, the wonderfully named ‘Theatre of War’ presents you with an enjoyable set of co-op or solo scenarios for you to play, which are arguably more fun that the campaign – so much so that I do wish it had been fleshed out an awful lot more.
Despite the niggles and complaints I’ve levelled at it, Company of Heroes 2 is an undeniably brilliant game. It’s been crafted into something that’s an absolute joy to play, especially in multiplayer. Because of this, and Theatre of War, it easily overcomes the tragedy that is the campaign. It may have barely changed in the seven or so years since its predecessor was released, it’s fair to say that it really didn’t need to as it’s still one of the best RTS experiences available today.
Audio/Visual – 4/5: Slightly below par, especially considering this area has barely changed since the original, but the intensely detailed maps and units bring this section from a three to a four.
Gameplay – 4/5: Solid, satisfying and skilful, let down only by the campaign and a few irritating problems.
Innovation – 2/5: very little new here compared to what came before.
Value – 3/5: Plenty of content and competitive price point, but you’re not getting a bargain here.