It took seven years for Company of Heroes 2, the sequel to Relic’s massively popular World War II-themed PC-exclusive strategy game, to hit the shelves. But was it worth the wait? Six reviews say yes.
Even though CoH2 has its problems — a clunky interface, a problematic and at times suicidal AI, and a clichéd story — it builds upon the strong foundation laid down by its predecessor, and ultimately improves on it with its own additions. This is what six reviews had to say:
There’s a war raging in Company Of Heroes 2, and it’s not the one you’re thinking of. Entrenched on one side is developer Relic’s desire to tackle the hardships and tactics of WWII’s Eastern Front. On the other is a well-oiled war machine comprised of components taken from the best RTS of 2006, whose innovative technology and nuanced strategic options revitalised a then staid setting, and whose qualities continue to hold up seven years on. Across COH2’s three separate modes — a story-driven singleplayer campaign, the expansive multiplayer and the Theatre Of War challenges that draw ideas from both — the battle lines shift and reform.
Although fatigue with Second World War games in general meant that the original Company Of Heroes never gained quite the success it deserved it was widely hailed as the most innovative and cinematic real-time strategy of its time. This sequel focuses on the Russian front and the appalling weather conditions under which the bloodiest battles of the war were fought. Even with games as simple as Command & Conquer many people worry that real-time strategies are too complicated or slow-paced, but Company Of Heroes 2 is neither. It goes to considerable effort to teach its systems and mechanics to new players and only gradually introduces elements such as resource management and building construction in later missions.
The Soviet war effort hinged on the country’s ability to spit out prodigious amounts of young men and women to fight and die for their motherland. That quirk of population translates to game mechanics: as Soviet general-in-the-sky, I had a near-endless stream of people I could click on to send to their doom. In most missions, squads can be trained at your home base or brought into battle as conscripts. This second type of soldier gives Company of Heroes its Soviet tinge, and can sometimes make it unsatisfying to play. Squads are better trained, tougher and specialist in application. Encompassing groups as varied as mortar crews, snipers and shock troops armed with smoke and frag grenades, they formed the scaffolding of my armies on which I hung the meat of my forces: the conscripts. Conscripts can be brought in from the edges of the map every 30 seconds. At their lowest rank they’re weak against almost everything, but they’re quick to produce and essentially free, limited by just two of Company of Heroes 2’s four resources: manpower — which is almost comically quick to regenerate on medium difficulty — and the population cap.
Once base building, resource management and multiple objectives come into play, so too does Company Of Heroes 2 as an RTS monster. Even though most campaign missions can feel more like complex puzzles than truly open-ended skirmishes (there’s online for that), there’s enough scope to try out all manner of tactical approaches. One memorable mission saw an incredibly brave team of gunners take over a Nazi half-track vehicle and plough through one of their camps single-handedly, just managing to survive long enough for a team of grunt reinforcements to arrive and move the hell out of the way before a German artillery strike destroyed everything in its wake. It’s breathtaking stuff; the kind of drama you’d expect to see in a Battlefield game, but with the scope of an RTS.
Campaign play translates quite well to multiplayer, such that the strategies needed to carefully balance territory and positioning learned alone will often work against human opponents. Execution challenges like those found in some of today’s more popular strategy games and MOBAs aren’t as big here. Instead, victory will typically rely on your ability to out-think your opponents. That focus on strategy and tactics is refreshing and brings CoH 2 in line with games like Civilization, though with a clear emphasis on the brutality and despondent tone of that particular era of history.
While this point may ultimately prove to be a non-issue, there are a couple of odd glitches at play in an otherwise honed gameplay experience. Using hotkeys to jump between units consistently results in weird bouncing objects, and the Havok physics engine occasionally fails in hilarious ways. More disturbing though is the duality of save-game woes. You can’t save over old save games, meaning regular savers may have to think up new save-game names, while saving too frequently can really chew into the hard drive space because Company of Heroes 2 save files weigh in at around 30MB each. These gripes really do pale in comparison to the overall achievement of a sequel that is absolutely well worth the wait.
Company of Heroes 2 isn’t the revolution its predecessor was. Too much remains the same (down to the battle UI), and too much of the Soviet faction, particularly its employment in singleplayer, is a disappointment. But you know what, that’s OK. There are many, myself included, who would argue the basic design underpinning the original was almost perfect, and it’s still there. Adding more stuff on top of that, some of it not so great, most of it (like theatre of War) excellent, is about what you’d expect from a video game sequel. In the end, then, think of Company of Heroes 2 as the embodiment of the thing it’s trying to recreate, namely the Soviet’s advance into Germany. Blunt, and wasteful in parts, but in the end an overwhelming success.
Top picture: Gergő Vas