The classic RTS returns and is better than ever, and with a whole new raft of challenges.
In a gaming world where the rushing-tactic realities of StarCraft II’s gameplay formula are the norm for real-time-strategy titles, it’s about time there was a contender to the RTS crown where brains matters a whole lot more than digital brawn. Company of Heroes 2 is the long-gestated sequel to one of the most critically revered strategy titles of all time, and while a lot of it is familiar – albeit in a very, very good way – there is certainly more than enough here to warrant the ‘2’ and push it far beyond what could have otherwise felt like Company of Heroes 1.5.
Even as a game set in the familiar locale of World War II, Relic Entertainment treads fresher ground by exploring the rich and tragic history of the battle for the Eastern Front in Soviet Russia. While a Western company’s exploration of wartime Russia, in what eventually led to the beginnings of the Cold War, could have been both exploitative and disrespectful, Relic treads a respectful path, even if the game-engine-powered cutscenes do lack the visual oomph that the rest of the game oozes. For a game that tells the story of an underdog Soviet officer who constantly battles with a vicious political hierarchy, this is a crucial consideration, especially considering Soviet military deaths were more than twice the number of any other nation in World War II.
As with the original game, authenticity is a core concern and is evident in Relic’s attention to detail with unit design, historical accuracy and what will surely go on to be award-winning sound design. Cleverly, Relic has avoided the sim-like realism of Close Combat and forged a title that almost perfectly merges balanced gameplay with historical realities. This is no small achievement, particularly given the inclusion of one particular game-changer for the RTS genre: TrueSight.
This technology – which, by rights, should have been integrated into strategy titles years ago – applies believable real-time line-of-sight restrictions to troops. Put simply, if there’s an obstruction in front of your soldiers that’s higher than eye level, they (and you) won’t be able to see anything beyond it. This rule also applies to vehicles, which means there’s no longer a persistent line-of-sight circle that can see through absolutely anything. Ambushes are now a deadly reality that potentially lurk around any corner; a logic that cuts both ways and can be used with deadly effect against careless opponents. Old habits do die hard, though, and it does take quite a while to get used to this brilliant new inclusion.
There’s also a whole lot of rejigging of the Company of Heroes formula at play here, in ways that feel both organic and yet still make it seem like applying the familiar logic of ‘like riding a bike’ to the leap from pushbike to motorbike. Commanders make a welcome return, but they all come with fixed tactics: a mixture of units, passive abilities and manually activated tricks that complement particular play styles. Units can now capture points in generously sized zones, meaning troops are no longer mortar-fodder when capping, while Engineers can construct fuel or munitions upgrades on generic control points to boost income. All units also arrive from a predetermined map location, effectively negating tactics of old whereby buildings were placed as close to the frontline as possible for speedier troop deployment.
More controversially, Company of Heroes 2 includes an ‘Army Customizer’ feature that allows players to perform aesthetic tasks such as unlocking and applying vehicle skins, but also enables the application of so-called ‘Bulletin’ buffs to personalised Commander load-outs. These Bulletins need to be first unlocked by achieving certain in-game milestones (which are earned across modes), but then provide a marginal competitive edge for particular units. While this does allow a welcome depth of progression for fans that will sink scores of hours into Company of Heroes 2, it does present potential headaches for future balancing on the hardcore competitive space.
Couple this with a universal experience system that may artificially matchmake (no server browser this time around) players at a higher level simply because they finished the campaign, and relatively green competitive players have the potential to be pitted against elite Company of Heroes veterans. On the plus side, latency concerns are seemingly a thing of the past, with an alpha- and beta-refined netcode that offers smooth gameplay, even against international opponents.
Thankfully, the multiplayer-cautious player can enjoy dozens of hours of gameplay before heading online. The first few missions of the 14-mission campaign act as extended training beyond the single tutorial mission and static training videos, but then the real game begins. Campaign missions can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on your skills and preferred tactics: aggressive play styles are often quashed by incredibly intelligent enemy AI, while defensive tactics can make maps run for hours. Throw in a variety of Skirmish maps and ‘Theater of War’ mode that offers co-op, skirmish and specific timed challenges, and there’s a whole lot by which to be impressed in Company of Heroes 2. The wait was well worth it.