For a time it looked as if Company Of Heroes 2 would never see the light of day. Developer Relic Entertainment has had a rollercoaster seven years since the release of Company Of Heroes, unleashing a slew of expansion packs for its impressive roster of RTS games and another uncomfortable venture onto consoles – the fall of THQ could have been the end of the journey. Sega swooped in and saved the company, bidding 26.6 million dollars for the studio at auction, perhaps on the strength of the long awaited sequel to one of this generation’s most beloved strategy games.
Company Of Heroes 2 doesn’t set out to evolve the RTS genre, instead it strives to iterate on the solid foundation of its predecessor. Many will find this welcome news, but Company Of Heroes 2 has a tendency to reveal itself as a product of the early 2000s, instead of one from 2013. It’s unashamedly traditional in a sense; a love letter sent directly to the PC crowd that so desperately seeks out the hardcore heritage of RTS games long abandoned by other developers.
Shifting the fight to the Eastern Front, Company Of Heroes 2 boasts quite the theatre of war, letting players relive some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Taking up arms as a disgraced commander in the Soviet Red Army, it’s easy to applaud Relic for forging such a strong narrative through its lengthy campaign. The story itself is predictable enough, and not solely down to Relic ripping pages from a well-documented part of history, but because of the campaigns heavy slant on the futileness of war. Your squad will be torn to ribbons before your eyes, questions will be asked of merciless orders and the horror of barrier troops will be laid before you – the plot can be uncomfortable, but it sure is engaging.
Like its predecessor, Company Of Heroes 2 does away with the traditional rock-paper-scissors approach to combat, instead asking players adapt to using real world tactics to tackle objectives. In the battle for authenticity versus playability, Relic seems to have struck a comfortable balance. Facing an immediate threat head-on will often lead to disaster, so cover and flanks need to be utilised to survive. A full squad of infantry can be wiped off of the map in seconds by a well-positioned MG nest, and you’ll find men will need to be sacrificed to try and suppress the enemy whilst you send others to flank the position for a clean kill. It’s almost become a given in RTS games that a large army can turn the tide of battle, here it just leads to faster bloodshed – never have personal expectations been reassessed so quickly. Some occasional path finding issues did arise, however, with AI finding inventive (suicidal) ways to navigate terrain. Should waist high walls and fences not be specifically clicked over while planning a daring flank, everything will fall apart before your eyes. It, again, is another conceit of taking aim at the hardcore audience – in focusing on heritage over accessibility many of Company Of Heroes’ design choices will confuse new players, but likely delight veterans of the series.
Company Of Heroes 2 takes pride in cutting through battalions of your troops in a hail of bullets and blood, assured victory is always out of your grasp – with a well-placed mortar shell or Panzer tank reducing your steady advance to a desperate game of bunkering down with two fingers crossed. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially when you inevitably focus on violence instead of build orders, but it never feels unfair.
The same can’t be said for the few major additions to the flow of combat in Company Of Heroes 2. While a lot of the core mechanics have simply received a polish, the addition dynamic weather effects feel like a design choice informed by hardware, more than anything else.
Fog of war has been implemented, with the viewable map now restricted to but a few feet ahead of your frontline soldiers. Grenades and exploding tanks will bellow smoke across your field of vision, forcing both your troops, and the enemies, to explore new routes to conflict. Many games have implemented line of sight in innovative ways for years now, XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a recent example, but it certainly helps to ramp up the difficulty and welcomed stress of planning an assault in Company Of Heroes.
An addition that isn’t as welcome, however, is that of randomly generated blizzards that roll in across the battlefield. Anyone caught in the open will quickly perish as the harsh winds of the Eastern front freeze soldiers, the battle quickly shifts as players move to huddle soldiers around camp fires or inside buildings for cover. It unnaturally breaks the flow of battle, especially when you get inventive and use the time to sacrifice some men to hose buildings in fire as the enemy combatants helplessly burn inside. Die by fire or by ice, nobody said war was easy.
Company Of Heroes 2 will be a welcome return to a forgotten form of RTS for many. The games core mechanics and systems are easy to grasp, but new players will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the pace and brutality of the combat. In many ways, that’s okay – seven years waiting for the series to return proper and Relic know how to appease its fans, that much is certain. At the end of it all, Company Of Heroes 2 is the whole package. If your PC can handle it, expect a beautifully bloody trip through one of the most horrific times in history. From its thundering sound design to the intricately polished RTS mechanics, this is another unmissable release from Relic Entertainment