Relic’s sequel to their 2006 hit Company of Heroes is a game with the weight of history firmly on its shoulders. Thanks to the change of warzone there is almost always a deep moral quandary over some of the actions taken as the Russians struggle to win the war in the East.
The introductory mission takes place on a hectic Stalingrad battleground, pushing a handful of units up the river banks and into the heart of the city as part of a massive assault. It serves well to reacquaint you with the particular brand of combat which Relic are so renowned for but is merely a brief glimpse of battles to come later, as you’re soon thrown back in time to the fierce rearguard actions of the Russian forces, with the Germans making rapid headway during Operation Barbarossa.
It puts you under intense and unforgiving pressure, as ever larger waves of German troops and machinery comes at your undermanned and under-equipped defences, dividing your attention between two and then three defensive points. This is where the game really excels, with a palpable feeling of impending failure as you are forced to fall back from yet another line of defence.
As the war progresses from defence to offence, summer to winter and countryside to cities, battles are cherry picked from across the entire front, swinging from using the might of the latest Soviet tanks to smash the opposition, to controlling just a handful of soldiers in a tense and atmospheric Tiger tank hunt in the snowy winter around Leningrad.
The scale of the war affords Relic the ability to have you engage in gritty urban warfare with a sniper or machine gun around every corner, hiding away your units as you are restricted to more realistic lines of sight, before giving you a very different battle in the next mission.
At every turn this forwards an overarching plot, with Lieutenant Lek Isakovich serving as the narrative centre over several years of conflict, unlike the original which followed a single company through a single campaign. Years after the war he is being held in a Siberian Gulag, where he is visited by Colonel Churkin, arguing the moralities and necessities of the war efforts with his former commanding officer.
Each battle you take part in sees some of the measures to which the Soviets went in order to win, with the almost callous scorched earth policy during the fighting retreat making way for the infamous Order 227, where any retreating soldier would be shot. Whilst these manifest themselves through mission objectives, or the need to avoid retreating units for a period of time after summoning conscripts, they hit home most strongly during the cutscenes, succeeding in delivering a few twists and turns within a war that everyone is familiar with.
The graphics engine behind the game is excellent, and though in-engine rendered cutscenes show that it’s nowhere near as highly detailed as a shooter, is able to push quite a bit of detail even when you zoom in or move the camera to a different angle. Running with middling settings I was impressed by the detail on show, though you will need a fairly powerful machine to achieve even this, and this was only furthered as environmental effects came into play.
During the winter months snow comes into play, slowing down units who have to wade through deep snow drifts, but also introducing the need to keep them warm. Blizzards can kick up, meaning you’ll need to set up and move towards camp fires, or hole up in a building to keep from freezing as the snow closes in around you, restricting your vision.
Lakes and rivers freeze over quite beautifully as they shimmer in the weak sunlight. Although once frozen solid you can move units across them, you will have to be very wary of what is on the other side. When you’re defending you can take great delight in breaking the ice with shelling or the excellently rendered Molotov cocktail and flamethrower fire, but being on the receiving end of this isn’t quite as much fun.
Although these kind of environmental elements translate well to the multiplayer and AI skirmishes, it needs pointing out that the online game is quite a different beast to the single player, and considering that my only real criticism of the campaign is that on occasion the pacing can drop off quite noticeably when you are on the offensive, there’s a steep learning curve from one to the other.
On normal difficulty there is rarely any concerted attempt by the defensive German AI to push back at you, and as a consequence there is rarely any reason to hurry your preparations and rush into battle. Doing so is fairly likely to just get your men killed, so when there’s a lack of urgency it just gives you no reason not to “turtle” or gradually build up a mass of armour and artillery to go against the set defensive positions.
Certainly these are valid war tactics, and the occasional pacing hiccup is a fairly minor issue overall, but it contrasts to other sections of the campaign where it does give you a time limit to capture an objective, and how fantastic it is at putting you under pressure in a variety of different situations.
Translating these tactics to online and AI skirmishes is particularly tricky, since the campaign teaches you things in isolation without asking you to put them all together at the same time. Once removed from the campaign you’re suddenly asked to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time as whistling and humming, coordinating attack, defence, base building and resource management against more dynamic foes.
There’s quite a wide gulf between being able to complete the campaign on normal difficulty and facing off against normal difficulty AI, and this is something which will take practice to really master, gradually working up from lower difficulties. It’s something which many RTS games struggle with, and part of why playing cooperatively with a friend against AI has been so popular within the genre. It’s also a factor behind the Theater of War DLC, which has been bundled with pre-orders for the game.
Thankfully for those familiar with the original, the Axis forces are set up similarly to their first appearance. You need to work your way through battle phases during a skirmish in order to unlock the next set of units and vehicles, and each unit you have is more precious. They stand in contrast to the Russians, who can quickly reinforce a position and merge conscripts into more experienced units to keep them fighting.
It adds a lot of variety to have such different feeling armies, but this layer of depth is added to further by being able to customise your army. You can pick from a selection of generals with their progression of differing abilities made available during battle, from artillery barrages to special units. On top of that you can pick three minor Intelligence Bulletin boosters for your forces, all of which are continuously unlocked as you play the game in any mode.
For example, killing a certain number of enemy tanks and infantry with the IS-2 heavy tank might let you build IS-2s 10% faster, or you can increase a unit type’s weapon accuracy by 2%, health by 5% and so on. They don’t seem to be that major and shouldn’t affect the balance of online play drastically, as you can only choose three perks at a time, but could certainly tip a close battle in your favour with a complimentary style of play.
- A realistically dark and oppressive single player campaign and story, spanning the entire war on the Eastern Front.
- The Soviet Red Army contrasts strongly with the Axis forces’ style, and also to the Americans and British from the first game.
- A great looking engine even on lowered settings, with excellent game-changing environmental effects, particularly on the Winter battlefields.
- Some minor pacing issues during the campaign.
- Even with the Theater of War DLC to help, the learning curve from single player to online and AI skirmishes is steep.
- The graphics don’t hold up quite as well when delivering the story’s cutscenes.
Company of Heroes 2 breathes a new life into the World War 2 setting, as the more desperate and brutal conflict on the Eastern Front is depicted with a particular feeling of authenticity. Throughout the story, Isakovich and Colonel Churkin argue the morality and realities of how they feel the war should have been fought, and this is a balance echoed by the two very different armies which face one another.
Relic have taken the formula of the original Company of Heroes, updated it and transformed it into this very worthy successor: a game which puts you at the heart of a conflict as you agonise over the loss of your men.