With dozens of enemy squads fast approaching, my men dug in and prepared themselves for what I knew would be a massive counter-attack by German forces. Hotkeys were pressed almost instinctively, and my mouse clicked more times than I even knew was possible. From the intel reports, I fully understood I was outnumbered at least three-to-one. Unfortunately, I had already taken a beating earlier in the mission and my squads weren’t operating at max capacity. Things were bleak to the point that death seemed all but certain for my small, battered group of Russian soldiers. But, my men hailed from the Motherland; so they, and I, knew that retreat wasn’t an option. Thus, we waited. I felt like I waited with them. We anticipated the end, together. As scores of soldiers began approaching on our flanks, panzers rolled down the town’s main street. Intel hadn’t called for that part. Yes, this indeed was it for my ragtag group of valiant comrades.
But then the snows came, and they came with an unforgiving kind of force. That’s when the tide of battle shifted. The Germans didn’t know how to handle the cold… But my men did. We were Russian. Carpe diem; it was time to seize the moment and use this debilitating blizzard to our advantage. And that’s what we did: we held those Germans off; took down squad after squad as they scrambled to fight the bitter winds, cold and the bullets from the hot barrels of our rifles. One tank, two tanks – immobilized and now useless to the enemy. As panic set in, we took further advantage of the situation, lobbing grenades and setting fire to buildings where Wermacht snipers perched. I saw a group break off on the left. A second followed. The ones on the right tried to do the same, but we shot them as they ran. Only traitors run from battle, that’s what we had been told prior to the mission. In 1940s Russia, you shoot traitors. So that’s what we did.
Needless to say, we had overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds. My men may have been broken and exasperated, but they were also victors. As the “mission complete” words flashed across my screen, I rolled back in my chair and took a deep breath. Only in Company of Heroes can such a situation, and resulting feeling of utter triumph, occur. This is the type of thing that defines Relic’s sequel. This is the type of experience that makes Company of Heroes 2 a truly spectacular and near unrivaled video game.
Company of Heroes 2 is what many might expect from developer Relic: it’s a World War II RTS that emphasizes tactics over base-building — though the latter is still intact — and feels polished through and through. Looking first at the gameplay, veteran fans will immediately recognize the title, right on down to its interface which remains fairly unchanged and only marginally upgraded from the original Company of Heroes. Nevertheless, the gameplay here is what any strategy fan would expect, which in this case, is a great thing.
Company of Heroes 2 places players in the role of Lev Abramovich Isakovich, a fledgling soldier in a Stalin-run Soviet Army. Naturally, the game focuses on a different theater of operations than usual: the Eastern Front. Unlike previous efforts that concentrated mostly on the US’ involvement in the conflict, COH2 delivers something that feels refreshing by letting the United States sit this one out and putting the spotlight on the oft overlooked Russian combatants of the second great war. Consequently, folks will take control of and build Russian units and structures to repel the Germans from their homelands. The core gameplay itself goes down as it always has. There are buildings to construct through resource gathering and capturing points on the map, troops to train and upgrade and plenty of enemies to shoot. It’s in this refined concoction of elements that COH2 shines. Better yet, Relic’s titles have always encouraged its players to understand battlefield tactics well, as much of how the game unfolds will do so in fire fights and clever troop movement, and that developer staple is abundantly present here.
Thus, a typical match will go down like this: players begin with a handful of units and maybe a structure or two at their disposal. To build more, they’ll venture out in the wild to find strategic points that must be captured and controlled in order to requisition resource points. From these totals, they can then erect more buildings and units. Units come in the form of either troops or vehicles, with both offering an assortment of types. To make them unique, each one possesses their own strengths, weaknesses and situations in which they perform best. Subsequently, understanding the battlefield and its dynamic, back-and-forth nature will allow players to appropriately allocate resources to build the right unit for the right situation. And picking the correct detachment, or assembling the best structure for the scenario, is a critical component in finding success in Company of Heroes 2.
With these mechanics firmly in place, it’s easy to see that Relic’s baby is a fairly conventional RTS — at least upon first glance. At its very center, it plays things safe, but then it adds its distinct elements into the equation that make the game play differently from the competition. For starters, there are new tactical options for controlling squadrons. Small implementations such as being able to vault over objects and into cover seems insignificant initially, but when players are in the middle of a fierce firefight — and are in search of some kind of fortification and can simply leap over obstacles to get there all the more quickly — their integration is felt with profound weight. And there is the inclusion of persistent tracks, as well, thanks to the use the Truesight and ColdTech systems, which essentially grant folks the opportunity to be mindful of enemy movements as well as their own as they traverse the countryside and watch for marks in the snow to indicate the location of their foe.
One of the biggest additions to the formula, however, is the dynamic weather. During combat, weather conditions can change on the fly. While this may not sound impressive at first, it becomes vital to consider when in battle. Extreme cold can render a soldier nigh useless, and dense snow storms can make visibility a hassle. Keeping these facets in mind is an important part of COH2′s strategy. Then there’s the enhanced destructibility to evaluate, making it possible to level buildings entirely, burn trees to the ground and deform terrain at will. These new options make the game actually play quite differently, and add another layer of tactical depth to the proverbial cake, as players have to be on their toes to ensure they are using their environmental surroundings to their best advantage.
While on the topic of new additions, Company of Heroes 2’s single player campaign is better than ever. Not only does it pack 14 missions and approximately 15 hours of actual gameplay, but the story takes center stage, providing a narrative that is gripping, raw and unapologetically human. Seeing as the game follows one man for the majority of the adventure, players are treated to watching just how impacting the effects of war can be on a single person. In the beginning, we see a lively and passionate Lev, who doesn’t question his commander’s orders, but after a series of battles and decisions that too often result in him having to kill his own men, his perspective on war, and life at large, begins to shift. It’s this intense inner struggle that we’re treated to that feels so damn personable.
The horrors of war are fully put on parade in COH2, and because of it, the story and its characters are all the better for it. This is by far the best tale a Company of Heroes game has ever told, and one of the most effective military stories told in this medium, period. This all is made more compelling when considering how unexplored the Russian involvement in World War II is in games, giving way to a certain sense of intrigue not found in the 1.4 million other titles narrowed in on the US military. These aspects, supplemented by some fine-tipped writing and truly believable voice-work, make the campaign absolutely worth playing.
Outside of this, though, there’s also the Theatre of War mode to consider, which exists somewhere between the campaign and multiplayer. This feature is comprised of single player challenge missions, AI skirmishes and co-op battles, handing out a varied experience that feels like a nice change of pace from the plot heavy campaign and competitiveness of the PVP. In this specific mode, players are treated to unique locations and scenarios along with additional objectives per scenario for an extra level of challenge. Seeing as the game ships with 18 of these ToW missions (nine Soviet, nine German), there’s roughly another 12 – 15 hours for players to sink their teeth into. Better still is the fact that new Theater of War content will be available to download post-launch, giving folks an even bigger reason to keep playing.
And then we come to the multiplayer — arguably the most important feature of any Company of Heroes game. In this sequel we’re treated to 13 original maps, which feel meticulously balanced and crafted, that consist of a bevy of modes for one-on-one on up to four-versus-four matches. The Victory Point and Annihilation modes are back, granting players even more diversity in their online endeavors. Following the trend of most multiplayer games these days, Relic has again incorporated a leveling system, which entails 100 levels through which to progress via xp earned in matches of any mode type. While some have argued against the use of this mechanic in games outside of RPGs, it certainly gives players a purpose in logging on each day and getting in at least a game. Though, with how COH is designed, playing just a single match feels nearly impossible, thanks to how dynamic the combat is.
Then there are the commanders from which to choose for each match. Players can pick the type of commander they take into battle, which essentially decides the type of gameplay style for that player. There are also intel bulletins which provide small perks to enhance specialized load outs, troop skins to unlock, maps that change depending on the time of year they’re played and Twitch integration. I mean, the list just goes on and on. The sheer amount of stuff available at one’s finger trips is staggering.
Other than all of the packed in features, Company of Heroes 2 is just downright slick in its presentation. Firing up the game for the very first time makes this extremely clear, as the opening cutscene, that is finely directed no less, seamlessly rolls into the title screen and main menu. While the game’s primary HUD doesn’t look all that different from the first game’s, it has been streamlined with incremental enhancements. The graphics are something to get excited about, too. With Direct X 11 support, environments, destruction, animations, effects, textures, lighting and models all look wonderful, definitely so with the sliders cranked all the way up. And with a host of graphical options to tinker with, it’s easy to find a setting that works for a range of rigs. We did experience some issues here and there throughout our play, mostly in the form of pop-in and drops in framerate (these issues were present even when specs were dropped well below our computer’s capabilities), but they happened fairly infrequently. Though there have been some early reports of the game not running entirely smoothly, regardless of certain setups meeting or exceeding requirements, so hopefully Relic will get that nipped in the bud.
In addition to the aesthetics, the audio is top shelf stuff. The soundtrack is especially astounding, putting on display arrangements that are both moving and sweeping. In fact, many of the scores reminded us of Band of Brothers by filling our ears with melodies that were epic in scope and sound. As mentioned, the voice-over work is superb to boot, with a believable cast delivering heart-wrenching, emotionally-charged lines to remind players that war is hell, and was particularly so for the men under Stalin’s rule.
The only complaint we can levy up for Company of Heroes 2, aside from those aforementioned graphical hiccups, is the fact that, on the surface, it looks and plays like the previous games. Thus, some may feel that the title is more of a COH 1.5 rather than a full-on sequel; it certainly plays things a little safe with seemingly mere marginal upgrades here and there. But while the game at large hasn’t undergone any radical changes, the new aspects are delightful, but indeed easy to miss or understate.
All in all, Company of Heroes 2 is undoubtedly one of the best games to be released this year. It’s also one of the best RTS titles to come out in a long, long while, perhaps even besting Blizzard’s efforts with Starcraft 2. It offers small changes that ultimately add up to a big experience. Truly, this is the total package, and one that clearly was made out of love and respect for its fans. Its features are robust, its gameplay as solid as humanly possible and the narrative is heavy with thematic undertones, a great main character and some memorable lines and cutscenes. The multiplayer, in turn, is as strong as ever and offers some of the most action-oriented combat in the genre. It’s fast, tactical and utterly satisfying on every conceivable level with a slew of customization options, and better yet, isn’t overly nuanced to the point of scaring off newbies. Make no mistake; this is a delightful game that should be played by every PC gamer, regardless of whether or not they like the subject matter or genre. If nothing else, Company of Heroes 2 proves that Relic really is in the top eschelon of RTS developers. This is the crème de la crème, people. Do not be the one to pass it up.