The Russian war effort in World War 2 was a retreat filled with desperation. Operation Barbarossa brought the Soviet Union to the brink of defeat, and in response they turned to absolute measures. Scorched earth, massed barely-trained conscripts, no retreating -it was all or nothing.
Whereas the first Company of Heroes was able to follow a small group through a series of battles during the Battle of Normandy, Company of Heroes 2 takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on a single operation we’ll see many snapshots of the war, and instead of a single company in a war where the rate of troop turn over was excessive, we follow a single officer, Lek Isakovich, and his commanding officer, Colonel Churkin.
This change allows for a deeper narrative, a look at the wider war, and highlights many aspects of the brutal measures the Soviet command felt they needed to take to combat the invading Axis armies. You see how these orders affect the troops under Isakovich’s command, as well as Isakovich himself.
Naturally, as D-Day features as the opening set piece to so many Western Front games, the turning point at the Battle of Stalingrad is the grand opening and introduction to Company of Heroes 2. You initially take just two units and shepherd them up the river banks and deep into the city.
There are plenty of reinforcements on hand in case you err, but you learn over the course of the level the basics of troop command, which should be familiar to any CoH fan. Taking cover, using grenades, acquiring battlefield equipment on the fly and basic flanking tactics are all taught to you in quick succession, but this is just the beginning of your education.
In keeping with the more narrative approach, this first Stalingrad level is a taste of the battles to come, and quickly makes way for a trip further back in time to experience the Soviet defence of Operation Barbarossa. I had been curious to see how these missions would be handled, and Relic very quickly start pulling your attention in multiple directions as you defend multiple points against German attacks.
You hold against ever increasing enemy numbers, before being pulled back. There is no victory here, but an organised defeat as the odds stack up against you. It would be easy to overwhelm the player, especially as further gameplay mechanics are introduced, but this oppressive and doomed feeling is almost certainly what Relic want you to feel. You should feel that you really are about to lose, that the next line of defence is the last you can hold onto before failure.
The brutal decisions made by the Soviet command in order to stave off this total defeat are visible everywhere. They range from core abilities like being able to reinforce any unit with cheap conscripts, allowing you to more effectively hold a line and retain the specialisations of your troops, to the objectives handed down to you, ordering you to burn buildings and fields while retreating.
It’s particularly saddening when this affects the troops you’ve tirelessly reinforced and looked after, but it’s not without rewarding moments when you finally stop retreating. The game quickly pushes through the months and the war’s momentum gradually swings from one side to the other.
The summer offensive of 1941 shifts to the bitter cold of winter depicted by ColdTech, forcing you to battle in snowy conditions, with frozen rivers acting as risk filled crossing points for you and your enemies. Well placed firing or mines will drop tanks into the water all too quickly, but this moment of fun will be tempered by deep snow slowing your troops and having to keep troops warm in a blizzard, huddling around a fire and putting a temporary halt to the fighting if you value your men.
Hunting a Tiger tank is a particularly nerve-wracking experience, when you only have a handful of troops to hand and few anti-tank weapons, none of which do much damage. It’s a particularly intimate level, after playing with tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers to pound the enemy into submission. You go from trying to juggle multiple prongs of an army, back to just a handful of units.
The TrueSight system helps add a lot of weight to the atmosphere too, as the fog of war wraps around buildings and large objects, taking into account unit type and the weather conditions rather than being a simple circle of sight. The grandiose music of assaulting Stalingrad is gone, leaving you with the distant sounds of artillery and the muffled sounds of the Tiger, haunting your every action.
When a near unstoppable foe could pop out of the fog at any moment, there’s a palpable sense of danger to every action you make in this situation. The deep snow slows your units, all of whom could quickly be wiped out if you don’t sneak and use cover to avoid the tank.
Company of Heroes 2 is really at its best in those moments. It manages to cling onto this intimacy in battle, of a fight in the middle of a warzone with your command standing at just a small handful of units. I found myself wanting to preserve those squads, too, reinforcing them when possible, and keeping them alive. So when you see things like Order 227 coming down, and Isakovich shaking his head at the mandate never to retreat, you can’t help but sympathise.
Company of Heroes 2 is set for release on June 25th for PC.