In the 69 years since the end of the second world war, “Battle of the Bulge” has slowly but surely come to more commonly mean a man’s attempts to avoid having a beer gut, rather than the famous staving off of one of the last major assaults the Germans made. That’s not why Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault eschews the nickname though, that’s more down to the major departure that the game takes from the more traditional formula.
Interestingly, Ardennes Assault is a single player only affair, following on from the multiplayer only The Western Front Armies. It reveals the true plan behind creating the US Forces and Oberkommando West for that expansion, as it applies them to this new situation. However, the real hook with the standalone expansion is that, rather than following a set series of missions and a story that takes direct inspiration from historical events, it instead allows you to zoom out from the field of battle and take command of three separate companies of troops on a map of the whole region. It’s on this Risk-like meta map that you manoeuvre your three companies, to the various missions and engagements against German controlled regions, picking your battles and the overall strategy of the predominantly American forces’ counter attack.
As you defeat the enemy in each successive mission though, their units flee the battlefield and regroup in nearby regions, fortifying those areas and making the missions more difficult. But this isn’t just throwing more units in your way, as each of the set missions in each location on the map has tailored obstacles that it will throw in your way as more German forces inhabit it. Tank traps come to block roads, you’ll face more anti-tank weaponry, you could expect to see a counter attack try and push back at you, even.
Making your job of picking which company to use even trickier are the harsh weather conditions sapping a company’s strength each time they move. You’ll need to use requisition resources, earnt from victories in battle, to strengthen your forces but also upgrade them.
However, each company is a different twist on the US Forces model. Dog company is all about support units, Able the more infantry-based Airborne while Baker company features mechanised infantry. With different abilities to suit, it’s bound to be tricky to know which to use for a particular mission, who to upgrade, how much to spend and so forth.
Helping to make each feel even more distinct will be the three commanding officers, lending your decisions a more personal touch, even if they’re not linked together in a predefined story. The fictional characters of Kurt Derby, Johnny Vastano and Bill Edwards not only hold a mission briefing before you head into battle, outlining your objectives in their own particular way, but will also dynamically report on your actions, your successes and failures at the end. It’s an interesting move, and if done right could ground your decisions better and make you look after your troops for a little more than just gameplay reasons.
Regardless of the company you pick, trying to fight through the town of Houffalize is a brutal war of attrition. You can try the “zerg rush” style tactics of building a critical mass of units, but this won’t get you very far even on the easiest difficulty levels. Company of Heroes is much more about carefully managing and protecting your units.
The war on the ground, with the sample mission taking the form of a fight through a Houffalize blanketed in snow to meet up with the besieged American forces on the other side, showcases a quite familiar mixture of fragility and a war of attrition. In the tight streets of the town, a so-called Zerg rush won’t work, even if your foot soldiers are supplemented by a handful of tanks. You’ll find yourself butting up against German units that seem to take an age to wipe out, and later on against formidable German tanks like the King Tiger that seem easily capable of demolishing whatever you throw at them.
The mission sees you need to capture German artillery and turn it back on them, to bombard their forces which attack your compatriots. It pushes you to juggle several things at once, as you need to remember to regularly pound the enemy on the other side of the map, manage an assault down the two paths through the town, capturing control points, as well as tackling a side mission if you can, which can lead to gaining more perks over the course of the campaign.
Since you need to keep as many units alive as possible, in order to preserve a company’s resources and veterancy, it really hammers home one of the core principles of the series, to pull your units back from the front line to your main base and restore them to full health. Looking after your units will come to pay dividends as you get later into the campaign.
Not only will units that you build have a much higher chance of arriving on the battlefield with veterancy, but it also means that you don’t have to spend as many requisition points on restoring the company’s health before battle and can instead apply those to upgrading the company abilities that you can call in during a mission. Tanks become more heavily armoured, bombing runs do more damage or have an extra pass, and so on. It’s even more vital, considering that requisition needs to be shared between the three companies at your disposal.
From the meta map and determining the overall strategy for yourself, to the greater imperative to look after your troops and pick the right company to tackle the right missions, there’s a lot of new elements at play in Ardennes Assault. Some of these changes really stand out, but in truth it’s the combination of all the tweaks and new ideas which could potentially shake up and rejuvenate the Company of Heroes series as a whole.
Our time with Ardennes Assault and our upcoming interview with Campaign Lead Mitch Lagran came from a trip to the Bastogne Barracks that were a cornerstone of the defensive battle. Travel was provided by Sega and I got to see some actual tanks.