More Info: Company of Heroes 2
In the main single player campaign you are always commanding Red Army forces, and it’s tempting to characterise this 14 mission, 12-15 hour, operation as an extensive tutorial for the skills required in multiplayer. The succession of missions centered around the correct usage of a particular unit type (sniper, heavy artillery, how to deal with German Tiger tanks) supports that theory to a degree, but that doesn’t preclude them from being engaging and enjoyable in their own right.
Single player hits almost all of the expected historical beats of the Eastern Front: Operation Barbarossa, Stalingrad, the lifting of the siege at Leningrad, Soviet counter-attacks through Poland and the Red Army’s march into Berlin. This is all portrayed in curiously antiquated cut-scenes featuring a Gulag-consigned Lev Abramovich Isakovich (very loosely based on real-life war reporter Vasily Grossman) and his visiting former commander. The pair conduct a sort of ongoing Socratic dialogue, with Isakovich disgusted at the disregard he saw for Soviet lives during wartime and his officer arguing for the ends justifying the means.
This framing device, the missions themselves and some of the single player game mechanics lean too heavily on the “endless Red Army soldiers tossed under vehicle treads by cold-hearted officers” end the narrative scale, with nary a hint of the period of Soviet tank mobility. For a while the Russian T-34 was the envy of the battlefield, but you would never know it from CoH 2‘s portrayal.
Ultimately, Relic’s narrative efforts expose the impossibility of trying to cram all aspects of a complex, brutal war into your RTS title about moving little groups of men around a battlefield. Even as Isakovich passes moral sentence on the Red Army command, you, as the player, are enacting the sort of senseless atrocity that haunts him. Reducing Stalin’s Order 227 to a gameplay mechanic where commissars will execute retreating troops for a set period of time just feels trite, no matter how you try to frame it.
But there’s no denying that the endless stream of cheap conscript squads available throughout the campaign, combined with their flexibility of use, benefits gameplay. Conscripts can merge to reinforce depleted units and, best of all, make use of almost any discarded battlefield equipment. This gives rise to scores of heroic actions, where a lone squad of conscripts captures an AT gun, uses it to cripple a tank and then (with the help of some engineer repairs) rides that tank to snatch and consolidate a victory point.
CoH 2 handles this kind of unit interplay extremely well, and it rarely gets old to use a sniper flare or recon plane to highlight an entrenched German position, shell it with long-range artillery and then storm what remains with (when the occasionally patchy pathfinding allows) a cleverly co-ordinated infantry maneuver.
The conscript system also means the Red Army is rarely in any danger of running out of troops, which can make eventual success in campaign missions seem a bit of an inevitability. At times, the game has to resort to time limits just to exert the pressure of failure. A late map based around the city of Poznan, in which the player is given a substantial AI ally, almost seemed to play itself on the mid-level difficulty. Even the final Reichstag mission feels close to a victory lap. Appropriate in a way, but not too challenging.
For more of a test, the stand-alone challenges and skirmishes in the ‘Theatre of War’ mode should suffice. As well as giving players the chance to try out the German forces before hopping online, this selection of missions offers co-op scenarios (rather than just generic comp-stomping) and further moments from the wider conflict. You may be tasked with a tower defense-esque holding of a river crossing, or deft use of some hit-and-run Katyusha rocket trucks. Progress in these challenges takes you through the years of the war, and it’s an area that looks ripe for periodic expansion through (hopefully free) updates.
My somewhat creaking i3-2100 / 8gig RAM / 6850 set-up demanded that I ease CoH 2‘s graphics settings down to the mid-range for smooth play in 1920×1080, but in truth it’s the kind of game where you’re zoomed back just far enough that lowered details don’t make a dramatic difference. While fancy explosions and smoke effects have their place, the harrowing in-game aesthetics are as much down to the magnificent sound design and score.
The user interface (unaltered since beta) is a touch harder to put up with. It’s more cluttered and fiddly than it needs to be, seemingly determined not to offer the full range of options you’d need for truly fine control over your units. As an added insult, it’s kind of nuts that the rebinding of keys is apparently out of bounds.
Like Russia itself, the game is vast and expansive. Even if you were to avoid single or multiplayer portions entirely, there’d still be huge swathes of CoH 2 left for you to conquer. It’s also refreshing to see a title with enough vision to tackle WWII without including a single Brit, American or hint of D-Day, even if the portrayal of the Soviets feels uneven.
Although the pre-order/DLC situation could’ve been handled better, it’s to Relic’s credit that they’ve largely stuck to the traditional RTS payment model. Rather than being split into piecemeal releases (StarCraft II) or devalued in the name of free-to-play (Command and Conquer,) CoH 2 is a major, substantive title for a one-off payment.
Suggestions that it hasn’t advanced the game all that far from the original may be accurate, but they also rather miss the context of it’s release. There are precious few titles that approach RTS in the manner of Company of Heroes, so a sequel that delivers the same level of taught, frantic and mentally-draining gameplay should welcomed with open arms. General Winter is all-encompassing, and I’ve enjoyed the majority of my time his bleak, frost-covered embrace.