Company of Heroes 2 [Review]
“War is Hell.” It is a saying that any soldier who has been in combat can tell you is true. Video games have tried to replicate that feeling many times, often through attempting shock and awe moments, and the original Company of Heroes executed this feeling with subtle brutality. Can its sequel manage this as well as the original did? Can Company of Heroes 2 maintain some relevance in a gaming era where WWII games are a thing of the past, or does it freeze to death in the cold, competitive world of the RTS genre?
There is no denying the original Company of Heroes was one of the greatest-looking RTS’ of its time, and to this day still is one of the most graphically impressive RTS’ on the market. While Company of Heroes 2 still looks very good and does look superior to its predecessor, it is not the huge leap forward that the original was in its time. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some impressive moments. The amount of detail to be found within the landscape itself still looks fantastic, and the environments are completely destructible.
One moment that wowed me was when I called in air support. My plane destroyed the target but it was destroyed in the process as well. The jet came tumbling out of the sky, smashing into a nearby bell tower which sent rubble flying in every direction while my little soldiers continued to battle on the ground. The facial detail on each individual unit is also astounding — a soldier will be shot, and you will actually be able to see the pain on his face if he is not dead. The particle effects from explosions are rendered wonderfully, and the amount of action taking place on screen at any given time keeps the game feeling intense and immersive.
Taking place on the Eastern Front during WWII, Company of Heroes 2 gives you control of the Soviet Union during the last Great War. It was a freezing warzone where dying from the cold was just as likely as dying from a gunshot and Company of Heroes 2 reflects this. Units outside of combat rub their hands together to keep warm, and if given enough time will slowly begin freezing to death if you do not find proper shelter for them.
The game does an excellent job at making these nameless soldiers feel alive. Your units will hunker behind any sort of cover they can find when they are shot at, adding a realistic sense that they actually want to live. Soldiers can get pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, as a result they will refuse to move from their safe position until you find a way to take out the heavy machine gun. Little additions like this do an excellent job of making your soldiers feel like real people.
What is even more disturbing is the sheer brutality the game conveys. Limbs will fly from artillery strikes, grenades, and mines, and through the campaign we are constantly reminded that the Soviet Union was simply the lesser of two evils. You’ll be shown cutscenes many times of commandants executing fleeing soldiers. The idea that it was fight or die is smashed in your face repeatedly, making the setting for this WWII game consistently grim.
The dark setting is enhanced with excellent use of sound effects; each effect complimenting the other in a stunning display of chaotic cacophony. The pop of gunfire realistically drowns out the shouts of soldiers, and the eerie screams of the dying soldiers can be heard within all the noise. The game also has excellent voice acting for the single-player campaign, further immersing you into the game’s narrative. As excellent as the sound is, nothing spectacular stood out in the musical score.
The controls in Company of Heroes 2 are what you would expect from a typical RTS. It doesn’t have a particularly steep learning curve, allowing many to pick up and play it easily. While there are tactics to the game, it plays much like the original did back in 2006. While some may find the lack of innovation a flaw, Company of Heroes 2 manages to keep a great sense of pace to the combat. The game does borrow some new aspects from Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II: Retribution (Relic’s other RTS title), such as how each squad is displayed on the right hand corner of the screen for you to manage your units: allowing you to have them fall back, group up, or execute a list of other minor commands.
One of the key changes to the RTS formula is the Command Abilities system. You are given a set line of abilities that you can later unlock to aid you during the game. These can range from artillery support to calling in extra allies to press your advance. You pick these trees in the early parts of the game, limiting you to their specific branching abilities so the game remains balanced. This does prevent you from being able to alter your strategy during the later portions of the game, however, each track is balanced against the others so none feel too powerful.
Like Warhammer, Company of Heroes 2 has a strong emphasis on keeping your men alive when possible, as each unit levels up during combat; increasing the squad’s effective accuracy and damage. This adds a sense of tension to the game not often seen in other RTS’, and you may find yourself growing a connection to your squad after they’ve taken down their fifth enemy squad or destroyed their second tank. You can use these squads as your trump cards against the enemy’s forces if they are upgraded well and, above all, kept alive.
Base building does exist in Company of Heroes 2, however, it is not as expansive as you may be used to. You make your buildings that create vehicles and units, upgrades, and things of that nature, but there are no “homes”, for example, to increase your population cap. In many RTS’ you find yourself constructing tiny, city-like bases, but Company of Heroes does away with that, feeling more like a military Forward Operating Base. The emphasis of the game is placed far more on capturing strategic objectives to increase your resource cap. When a squad captures a point, depending on the point’s focus you may increase your munitions cap or be able to create more soldiers. This style of capturing and securing objectives makes troop movement essential; you cannot remain in your base, turtle your defenses, and expect to win.
That is not to say there are not defensive strategies. Maps are large, and to prepare for incoming assaults you can set traps like mines, sandbag cover, or even barbed wire to prevent enemy soldiers from crossing. Players can set up choke points to pin soldiers down with heavy machine gun fire or create anti-vehicle emplacements and mines to take out impending vehicles. There are many different ways to trap your enemies into a fine little kill box.
The maps vary in size and scope, each offering different tactical advantages for players to exploit. You could find yourself fighting in the crowded, cramped streets of Stalingrad, or fighting on the frozen wastelands that made up most of the Eastern Front. Whatever your tastes are, the map variety allows for new and refreshing ways to play the game as the environments can act against you. Rubble from destroyed buildings can come crashing down onto your soldiers below, or they can find themselves freezing to death in some of the winter maps.
There is excellent multiplayer for up to 8 people, allowing for some really intense gameplay experiences. While Germany is heavily armed with the greatest tanks during WWII, Russia more than makes up with it for its sheer mass of numbers. The game feels like a constant tug-of-war as you and your opposing team try to capture strategic points from each other. As your units upgrade the battles become more intense, especially when the larger, more powerful vehicles come into play.
At the end of the day, Company of Heroes 2 is a refreshing return to the WWII front in a gaming world where everything felt like it had been done before. The game does not diverge too far from its original, and in many ways the game feels more like it is an expansion pack to Company of Heroes rather than a full, standalone game. However, with a moderately long campaign of 14 missions, each of which is executed with sickening, yet grimly effective, realism, the game manages to find a strong place in the RTS genre.
I am curious to see what will be added in terms of DLC for the game as well as possible expansion packs. I would love to see a possible expansion for the game that adds the Pacific Theater, but maybe we’ll see that in Company of Heroes 3. Until then, stay warm and enjoy the chaotic battlefield that is presented to you, in Company of Heroes 2.