The real-time strategy genre is very under-represented these days, with three of its biggest players being Blizzard with the Warcraft and StarCraft series', Creative Assembly with the Total War series and Relic Entertainment with... let's just say that Relic has been making strategy games for a really long time. All of them have their own specific take on it too, with Blizz opting for the traditional base-building and army-building gameplay and Creative Assembly going for massive scale.
World War 2? In my strategy games?
On the other hand, Relic's strategy games, ever since the first Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, have always had the same distinct style to them: less resource management and more focus on the combat. The RTS veteran continues this tradition with its latest outing—Company of Heroes 2. First, however, a quick primer: Company of Heroes 2 is a real-time strategy game set during World War 2, much like the first CoH. When the first game was launched, it made a giant wave in the strategy genre because of how much it truly refined the systems that Relic had set in place with Dawn of War. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's move on to the actual review.
The single player of the game is divided in three parts—the campaign mode, versus AI skirmishes and the single player missions in Theatre of War. The campaign focuses on the story of a single soldier of the Red Army—Lev Abramovich Isakovich (we'll call him Lev for purposes of brevity)—with the rather interesting "interrogation" framing device that we've seen in other war games such as Battlefield 3. Lev is languishing in a Siberian labour camp because of the contents of his journals, which have deemed to be worthy of treason charges because of his negative protrayal and questioning of the Soviet Union during World War 2. Each mission is Lev explaining his side of the things in events that take place during the war. Despite it being the same old World War 2 story that we've heard countless times, it feels fresh because of the framing device.
The campaign attempts to ease players into Company of Heroes 2 mechanics, but doesn't manage to be graceful or elegant about it. New gameplay mechanics are constantly added into missions and you are forced to use them, but most of the information is lost in the chaos that generally takes place in and around a battlefield. Often, it is left to the players themselves to figure things out. The first few missions are quite simple and linear as a result of this. However, once you get deeper into the campaign, things do start opening up; maps become more expansive and missions get challenging. There is even a bit of room for creativity when taking on certain objectives, letting you flex your inner Armchair General.
The campaign eventually opens up to allow more creativity and tactics
For the history buffs, there's the Theatre of War, which has a bunch of scenarios from 1941 for both German and Russian armies. There are separate scenarios for single-player and co-op, and each are challenging in their own way. They essentially put you in situations based on real-life events during World War 2. Single-player is fun, but co-op is definitely the best way to experience the Theatre. Rounding up the list of single-player modes is the versus AI skirmish mode, which can also be played co-op. Simply put, it pits you against the AI in multiplayer maps and lets you get some practice before you hit the Find Match button in multiplayer. Again, co-op is the most entertaining way to play, but if you're into 1v1 battles, those are available too.
But, let's face it... real-time strategy games aren't exactly popular for their single-player, since there's only so much enjoyment to be had from beating predictable AI. No... what you want is something more challenging. You want to play against actual people who can see your strategies and plan around them, forcing you to improvise. For this, Company of Heroes 2, like any good RTS, has multiplayer. The game's got a simple automatch interface that lets you set options like player count (divided in 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 matchups) and other matchmaking options, for instance, whether you want to play with players in the same skill range or those better than you.
Gameplay itself revolves around capturing points that automatically keep giving you resources such as man power and gasoline. There are two types of games—Victory Points and Annihilation. Victory Points revolves around players scrambling around to capture the titular victory points and hold them for a certain amount of time. There are always three victory points in any given map, and the player who holds at least two of them for a certain amount of time wins. Annihilation is pretty self-explanatory—fight to the death where the last man standing wins. Depending on the game mode, you'll have to make many tactical decisions that mostly have to do with keeping your soldiers alive while you scramble for resources to get reinforcements.
Snow... snow and death...
Speaking of keeping soldiers alive, Company of Heroes 2 has a new gameplay mechanic that makes doing just that even more challenging. As if an average soldier's lifespan in an RTS wasn't already short enough, Relic went ahead and added a new temperature system to the game. Players have to keep a track of their soldiers' temperatures and make sure that they don't freeze to death. To make this even harder, every once in a while, a map is hit by a blizzard. Apart from the obvious problems to visibility, the blizzard also starts the slow and painful-looking process of freezing your soldiers to death. You have to either garrison them into some kind of building, recall them to base, or have them stand near a camp fire to ward off the cold.
The snow, and everything around it, looks quite gorgeous thanks to the new Essence 3.0 engine that Relic has been talking about leading up to the release of the game. The engine is quite adept at capturing the chaos that would generally ensue when one tries to manoeuvre six of his rifleman squads so that they can try to take out a tank with nothing but grenades. The foliage looks beautiful and raining down artillery on a shack brings it down as realistically as one would expect. Even the sound in the game is great. Gunshots sound realistic and the random things that soldiers sometimes say are a nice touch, even funny sometimes. You get a different perspective on war when you see a soldier respond to his comrade's death with the line, “Damn! He owed me money!”
With all the good, however, there is one major point against this game. It has DLC that blocks off some of the abilities that you can use in the game. Sure, you have a lot of abilities to choose from by default, but a lot of players have been complaining that the DLC abilities are overpowered. Unless Relic rebalances them, this remains a point against the game. Despite my hatred for launch-day DLC, however, I am willing to let this slide, since the game on its own is so filled with content. I just hope that Relic gets around to patching the imbalances out before people start shouting “pay-2-win” at the company.
The tank doesn't know that the people running behind it aren't looking for a hug
Company of Heroes 2 is an oasis in a genre that is akin to a barren wasteland. It has compelling gameplay as well as great depth. The concepts in the game are easy enough to understand, but pulling them off while trying to manage not dying is a different thing entirely. The game's focus on offense and tactics rather than resource-gathering and base-building also come as a breath of fresh air. After further refining the gameplay system in this game, we can only imagine what Relic might have in store for us further down the line, maybe even with a new Dawn of War game.