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. But it’s the singleplayer game that suffers the most collateral damage. The first cutscenes introduce you to Lev Abramovich Isakovich, a former Soviet officer locked up in a gulag in 1952 after losing his faith in the cause. He’s being questioned by his ex-commander, causing him to relive memories of engagements from the attack on Stalingrad to attempting to break the Leningrad blockade. These scenes are played earnestly, full of cliché-ridden contretemps, and drenched in accents as thick and convincingly Russian as black treacle.
Each exchange is merely an excuse to cut to scenes from the Eastern Front. Here, Relic seems intent on emphasising the horrors of war, but does so with little exploration of the impact of the events depicted. You’ll see the infamous Order 227 enacted when a Commissar instructs a machine gunner to mow down retreating comrades. The gunner opens fire without question or visible turmoil. Then a quick cut and you’re away to the next scene. You can almost hear the pen scratching a tick in the ‘Order 227’ box on Relic’s checklist.
The framing of scenarios through Isakovich’s jaded eyes implies judgement on them, but the grandiose presentation and weak script (everything is done for the Motherland, everyone’s a comrade) can make it seem uneasily like glorification. Conspicuous by their absence are many of the human-rights violations the troops committed, or a full examination of the living conditions they endured. Relic seemingly wants to tell a hard-hitting story, but it’s tough to deliver powerful blows if you won’t take off your heavy, fur-lined gloves.
The story, tonally unpleasant guff as it is, wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t leading up to perpetrating these acts yourself. But it seems unwise to pass comment on the practices of the Red Army and then weave them into the missions. This goes double when they come at the expense of enjoyment. The first three of the campaign’s multipart levels, for instance, focus on Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht push into Soviet territory. This translates into a lot of doomed defence operations across multiple fronts, forced retreats and enacting Stalin’s scorched earth policy as a pair of mission objectives, one of which is burning a few houses to the ground. These are emotionally pyrrhic early victories, more sapping than rewarding.
Things pick up soon after, when Relic allows its proven systems to shine again. It may take newcomers a while to get used to Company Of Heroes’ trademark brand of hyperkinetic squad micromanagement, but the interlocking web of unit abilities is as potent and enjoyable as ever. With practice, you can orchestrate cerebral moves, such as using scout snipers with hold-fire orders to send up flares, illuminating troops within the TrueSight fog of war for mortar crews to scatter, then freeing the snipers to mop up any stragglers.
Emplaced weapons are another returning signature of the series, with distinct firing arcs and setup times meaning they require precise placement to be effective. And heavy weapons don’t just whittle down a health bar faster – they’ll cow and pin troops, devastating squads foolish enough to come within range. What’s more, infantry can occupy many of the maps’ intricately destructible buildings, affording units inside greater protection and line of sight at the cost of mobility.
So the campaign’s 14 missions are of uneven quality, but there are flashes of greatness. Hunting a powerful Tiger tank with limited resources and a handful of infantry squads is fantastically tense, asking you to gather anti-tank rifles and mobile AT guns under constant threat until you have enough firepower to turn the tables. Battling snipers across a ruined city is another memorable moment, forcing you to consider your approach and to mistrust the open air. Such missions remind us why we love this series so much, as Relic’s audio team deafens us with mortar fire and our minds race to solve the problems its mission designers pose. For every such gem, however, there’s another base defence mission or drawn-out tussle to undermine it. This is a campaign that will last you a good 12 hours, but would be so much tighter if its more repetitious sections had been cut – perhaps a sign of COH2’s publisher troubles, which saw it move from THQ’s command to Sega’s during development.
Another problem that afflicts too many missions can be traced back to Relic’s misguided desire to stick to its theme: conscript squads are plentiful and easily called via a shortcut icon, but there are disappointingly few engagements that can’t be rendered trivial with sheer manpower. Meat grinding is a valid tactic and suits the nature of this conflict, but it rapidly sucks the fun out of COH’s interaction-intense nature. Part of the issue is that the camera can’t zoom out wide enough to make handling lots of troops effortless. The minimap helps, as do certain keyboard shortcuts, but it chafes after the freedom offered by the likes of Supreme Commander.
Multiplayer avoids many of the campaign’s excesses, and is far better for it. Following in the footsteps of the original game, two sides in teams of up to four fight for control of a map covered in territory points. Some give you fuel, some munitions and others manpower, but you must ensure your supply lines are safe to earn their benefits, which means keeping your territory connected. Play against the more aggressive enemy AI and you’ll find this a challenge, with computer squads pushing deep to cut off unprotected points. Success, meanwhile, is dependent not on base destruction, but holding special victory points that force down your opponents’ ticker. If theirs hits zero before yours, the day is won.
It’s here that some of the new systems really come into their own. The exposure technology, for example, makes for one decent showcase campaign mission where you’ll learn to respect General Winter, but sets a new rhythm in multiplayer matches. Sporadic blizzards strike, during which troops must get out of the cold or find campfires and wait out the storm lest they freeze to death. The weather offers moments of comparative calm, and encourages the use of troop transports in a way that normal skirmishes don’t. TrueSight tech, meanwhile, rewards canny placement, requiring generals to get eyeballs on enemies in order to ferret them out.
We played during the open beta, and some balance issues were evident, as is perhaps to be expected with two such wonderfully asymmetrical sides. We’ve seen mortars overused, bombarding all around them to oblivion and requiring too much hands-on direction to overcome relative to their cost, while the race to get tanks out dominates matches. We found the short early game was curiously decisive, too – we’d usually won or lost within ten minutes, although the seesawing of territory points and army sizes continued for 20 more. Still, Relic has a proven track record in patch support, which gives us hope for the future.
The dated unit AI is less forgivable, with tanks in particular subject to dodgy interpretations of orders. We’ve had to stop one of our Panzers from trying to occupy the same space as a friend’s tank, leaving both unable to move. And we do wish our armour wouldn’t rush forwards to go turret to turret with foes – it makes them harder to defend. Likewise, squads seem to take the path of least geographical resistance by default, even if that means strolling past an enemy gun emplacement.
A glut of Theatre Of War missions – 18 free, bolstered by a mini pack with preorders and certain editions that’s DLC for everyone else – rounds off the package, collecting together solo and co-op challenges, plus skirmishes with the computer. Each introduces new rules, and it’s here where Relic has allowed its mission designers to run riot. One match might pitch you against a force of experienced units, while another gives you a time limit to bring down a number of German structures with rocket artillery. After the clunky story, it’s a refreshing change of pace, and the one-shot structure makes it great to dip into.
Taken as a whole, COH2 has advanced on some fronts but lost ground on others. Attempting to explore the Eastern Front thematically proves misjudged, while persistent unit stupidity is wearing thin after seven years and four games. Counteracting that are the core mechanics, which are as enjoyable as ever, and there are smart new missions to test series veterans. It’s not a glorious revolution, then, but COH2 is a solid continuation of the finest WWII RTS around.