We’ve become accustomed to tales of the Allied advance into Germany. From Call Of Duty to Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers, scenes of the Normandy landings and Operation Market Garden have been hammered into our minds. As a fervour for torn-from-the-headlines Middle Eastern settings sweeps the field, Relic returns with a new angle on an old war, and a campaign that dives into the wintry mire of the Eastern Front.
The sequel will span the entire four-year conflict. A roaming war reporter serves as a unifying narrative device to embed players in the platoons that participated in defining missions such as Operation Barbarossa and the assault on Berlin. The campaign follows the Soviets exclusively, but Relic wants to focus on the lives of soldiers rather than the politics of the era. “We’re definitely not trying to make you root for an ideology,” says campaign designer Jacen Torres. “The guys on the battlefield are really no different than you and I, other than they went through some of the worst things people have ever seen, and they did incredible things.”
Relic wants you to care about your troops, which is why it’s so keen to generate a strong sense of authenticity on the battlefield. Gun sounds are recorded from working variants of the weapons the Soviets and Germans used. Artillery strikes are modelled from archive footage. It shows. Anti-tank shells ricochet visibly when they strike a tank’s sloped forward armour, snow melts due to flaming buildings and ice cracks under fire. There’s tremendous attention to detail throughout.
That authenticity runs deeper than visual polish. Company Of Heroes still feels an age apart from a traditional RTS. Success doesn’t flow from a perfectly executed build order or efficient resource management. Paranormal mouse dexterity isn’t needed to rustle your troops into attack formation. Turtling back at base to hoard forces for a big push won’t work here. Your aims and actions are driven by instinct and a desire to steal ground.
At its core, Company Of Heroes 2 is about taking and holding territory. Resources, normally confined to convenient clumps of all-purpose minerals, are scattered about the map as points to be captured, inviting players to form battle lines quickly. Conflict is never immediately decisive, even if the forces involved are horribly mismatched. There’s always time to retreat or shift the line to regain an advantage. Success and failure depend on methodical mastery of the terrain. It’s a less abstract simulation of warfare than many of its competitors.
The biggest additions to Company Of Heroes 2 are dedicated to making these vital maps more complex and changeable. The True Sight fog of war system only reveals the parts of the battlefield that your forces can see, which means you’ll have to carefully direct the sight lines of your forward troops to scout out the enemy before committing to combat. With it, winding streets and thick forests become instantly claustrophobic, and there’s a great strategic benefit to holding major highways and watchtowers.
The Russian winter also has the potential to change a battlefield entirely. Snow can slow troops down, while hypothermia can kill them. A thermometer bar indicates the dropping temperatures of men who spend too much time out of cover, buildings or vehicles. If that expires, they lose health, and will eventually curl up and die. Blizzards sweep in now and then with little warning. The flurries of snow reduce visibility, slow vehicles and kill your men even faster.
Company Of Heroes 2’s scraps feel wonderfully desperate, and the shifting battle lines give each contest its own narrative. The fight for an icy river crossing can escalate to a horrifying meat grinder in minutes, and there’s a kernel of chance at the heart of each encounter that allows the smallest squads to hold out just a bit longer than you’d expect, turning humble engineers into heroes. Senior games designer Matthew Berger lists this element of chance as one of the “quirks and peculiarities” of the series. In a genre awash with nostalgia, that shock of peculiarity is even more welcome.