Review: Company of Heroes 2 is more of the same, but with a chilling twist
The Eastern Front is often referred to as the largest and bloodiest theater of World War II. With over 30 million deaths as a result of the confrontation between Germany and the Soviet Union, it's generally believed to be the deadliest conflict in human history. This conflict -- this chilling warfare -- in which human life was so blatantly disregarded, serves as the backdrop of Company of Heroes 2.
I'm no historian, but from the perspective of a gamer with some knowledge of World War II, Company of Heroes 2 does a remarkable job of capturing the brutal nature of warfare. Soldiers on both sides are blindly sent into the frontlines as human meat shields, and the unstable mindframe -- the blatant disregard of human life in order to achieve a goal -- of the Germany and Soviet Union leaders, Hitler and Stalin respectively, are made apparent by how easy it is to simply bring in more troops.
The campaign of Company of Heroes 2 is told through flashbacks of Lev Abramovich Isakovich, a Soviet Army lieutenant currently in prison, as he's being interrogated by an officer for his actions during the war. His memories are highlighted and played out through the campaign's missions, which take us from Operation Barbarossa to the Battle of Berlin.
It's not the best-told story; the voice acting and dialogue can be painful at times, and cutscenes and cinematics more closely resemble that of an Xbox 360 game from years ago. But they serve the purpose which is to merely provide context to the battle that will soon unfold.
The 14-mission campaign, while entertaining, is largely an introduction to the gameplay mechanics of Company of Heroes 2. There's substance, but it's really designed as a tutorial. It's a fun tutorial, though, filled with search-and-destroy and holdout defense objects. The most intriguing missions are the ones that offer insight into the warped views of these said leaders -- burning your own supplies so the enemy cannot obtain them and killing your own troops because they are retreating are just two specific examples that come to mind, but there are plenty of other unbelievable moments that really capture the loonacy of Hitler and Stalin.
Company of Heroes 2 continues to emphasize the smart tactical gameplay of its predecessor, but does little to expand upon it. The focus remains more on combat and the positioning of your troops, and less on resource gathering like traditional real-time strategy games. Because of this, each mission in Company of Heroes 2 immediately captures your attention with action.
There is some resource management, though not in the traditional RTS sense. Company of Heroes 2 makes use of four resources: population, manpower, munitions, and fuel. As I mentioned above, the game is all about the brutal nature of the Eastern Front, so it wants you to call in troops. Conscripts, new units, can be called in every 30 seconds or so, with no real limitation beyond population and manpower resources. Munitions and fuel, meanwhile, can be acquired by capturing and holding various points of interest on the map. These are used to access more specialized units like mortar crews and snipers. Again, because these resources are obtained by capturing and holding certain points, it makes the game more strategic in the areas you choose to attack; sometimes it's wiser to go after a lesser-guarded supply point than attack an army head-on. It becomes a nice and bloody chess battle.
The new "major" mechanic introduced is snow. There's no denying the brutal cold had a major impact on the Eastern Front, playing almost as big a role in defeating the Nazis as the Soviets did, but at times it feels a bit like a gameplay gimmick. I get that snow is authentic to the setting, and while it does add beauty and diversity to the landscape, having to constantly stop to seek shelter or warmth from the snow does get annoying. Having to micromanage your troops, ensuring they are near campfires, takes away from the action gameplay.
As with most real-time strategies, the real meat and potatoes of the game lies in the robust multiplayer offerings. And in the case of Company of Heroes 2, the new Theater of War mode easily outshines anything the campaign has to offer. These missions, which include both single-player and co-op experiences, generally offer much more focused and interesting objectives than what's offered in the campaign -- like using a small squad of German armor to capture at least 10 points on the map. You become less concerned with map control and focus more on the objective at hand, allowing you to use creativity and wit in your tactical approach. This mode is also the only place you'll be able to lead the German forces in single-player.
Of course, there's also competitive multiplayer for those who prefer. I've never been a stud at online competitive multiplayer in real-time strategies, but the maps are plentiful and the matchmaking system is simplistic. Those who enjoy the competition of another human as opposed to AI will find the system to be competent. The addition of snow and a more accurate line-of-sight system requires more strategy in planning your next move.
At its core, Company of Heroes 2 is just more of Company of Heroes. The game still plays like its predecessor, with a few tweaks introduced to distinguish warfare on the Eastern Front of World War II. The campaign alone won't win you over, but once you get into the multiplayer side of things, you begin to see the more strategic, compelling elements of the game. If you've played the original, you'll have no problem jumping into this, but really it's just more of the same -- only with snow this time.