Company of Heroes 2 is exhausting.
Each and every mission is a back-and-forth struggle over disputed, crater-poked tracts of land, demanding the mental fortitude to keep track of multiple fronts. Scores of units are at your command, each with its own set of abilities that are most effective when used in combination with another troop’s talents.
In this bleak and scarred landscape of the Eastern Front, the constant thump of heavy artillery, yelled orders and the moans of the dying are your main soundtrack. If you’re able to conclude an encounter free from any sort of mental fatigue, then you have more fortitude for the grim nature of war and the rigours of RTS multitasking than I.
That constant pressure, the need for serious concentration, is only intensified during multiplayer matches of CoH 2. There, instead of the worthy but predictable habits of the campaign AI, you’re matched up with a human opponent every bit as keen, cunning and willing to exploit ambush opportunities as you are.
For all the bombast and attempted historical significance of single player, it’s in the exhilarating challenge of multiplayer where the game will find its longevity. However, it’s impossible, at day of release, to critique how the multiplayer meta-game is going to develop and progress. That will require the type of community knowledge that only hundreds of matches, played out by just as many CoH veterans and newcomers, can bring. It’ll be an assessment made via Twitch.tv streams and in-depth forum discussions in the coming weeks and months.
That may sound dangerously like an abdication of responsibility on my part, but it’s also objective truth. Outside of any glaring problems at launch, long-term issues relating to balance, tactics and exploitation of commander abilities are beyond the scope of a lone reviewer with pre-release code.
No such show-stopping problems appear to exist, and it’s clear that Relic’s intent is to structure CoH 2‘s multiplayer for the same long-term support given to the original game. Patching and balance changes have already been made during the title’s beta period, most noticeably the reduction in deadly accuracy from mortar crews. The current source of anguish is high-level German players abusing cheap, map-wide strafing runs, but this will doubtless be counterable or lowered in power before too long.
Netcode in this pre-release version was patchy, with minimal lag between myself and General Tim McDonald while we played some co-op (even across continents) but regular disconnections during our later competitive efforts. This, hopefully, was either related to our press copies, or down to Steam server maintenence (which was certainly to blame for some of the issues.)
In CoH there isn’t a great deal of base-building in the traditional RTS sense. Your engineers/pioneers lay down a few unit-production facilities and then pretty much call it a day. It’s possible to add specific defenses like bunkers and barbed wire too, but full-on turtling is probably ill-advised due to the need to capture and hold resource-granting victory points. Rapid-fire mouse clicking will only get you so far (though it’s handy to be dextrous enough to zip around the map and micro-manage a unit when necessary,) and won’t give you a significant edge over someone with a plan who knows how to use their troops properly.
An excellent, in-built replay function provides the chance to see where you went wrong (and right) after the match, and Twitch.tv is fully supported for all your broadcasting needs. There’s ample opportunity to learn new tricks through viewing past encounters.
The German and Russian forces feel like actual, distinct armies with different tactics and play-styles. Sheer manpower is important to the latter, while the Axis have to escalate through battle-phases to get hold of their more dangerous armour. Aside from the aforementioned strafing phenomena, both sides are potentially well matched.
Regular play of either single or multiplayer will unlock progress towards individual ‘bulletins’ for each unit type. These provide minor (2-5%) boosts on selected units (mass usage of Russian guards, for example, may net you an option to give them 5% extra health,) but you’re restricted to selecting just three per loadout. It’s a way of nudging a specific play-style a little closer to your advantage; but since this advantage is effectively given to both sides it’s more of a meta-tactical choice than a risk to the balance of power.
Commanders, who each come with their own set of ‘doctrines’ (special abilities to use during play,) may turn out to be a little more problematic. Relic has taken the questionable decision to offer certain commanders as launch-day DLC. The same ones, in fact, that were available as pre-order incentives. Locking off a handful of commanders like this is an unwelcome development, as the multiplayer would be stronger if all players had access to the very same choices and abilities. Here, I wish Relic had stuck to cosmetic DLC like vehicle skins or single player extras.