Operation Watch on the Rhine, more popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge, caught the allies napping. With resources stretched to the limits after months of rapid advances, the allied forces hunkering down during the worst of the winter weather and with little air cover as a consequence, allowing the German forces to achieve near total surprise.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault – a standalone single player expansion – retells the story of the Ardennes Counteroffensive, but does so in a way that has not been tried before within the series, handing control over which engagements to take on, and when, to the player. You’re not just managing your troops on the ground, but also manoeuvring and coordinating the three companies under your command on the game’s meta-map.
It opens on a placid winter’s morning, with one unit taking over the watch from another. Suddenly, the Ardennes forrest is alive with enemies, and this first mission does a quite excellent job of not just introducing or reintroducing you to how Company of Heroes plays, but also gives you a whistle stop tour of the different companies and their commanding officers as you fight a battling retreat with a Panzergruppe tearing through your lines.
The three main companies cover the main three archetypes, with Fox company a fourth unlockable for pre-ordering that I didn’t get to try. Though the core units persist, Able Company’s Airborne focus alters the abilities you can call upon during battle, letting you call in paratroops (which is especially useful when you turn on blind drops), Baker Company has more mechanised support, so you can call in tanks quickly, while Dog company’s all about support and artillery barrages. They sound subtle, but do figure into how you tackle a particular type of mission and objective, especially once you’ve used Requisition points to upgrade the abilities.
These sit atop the American army that recently featured in the multiplayer focused Western Front Armies expansion. Base management is reduced thanks to giving you a simple and upgradeable circle encampment, with access to more advanced units unlocked by buying officer units – Lieutenant, Captain or Major – for everything from half tracks to howitzers and the famous Sherman tank.
With a mixture of missions and more freeform engagements on the map, Ardennes Assault always keeps you on your toes. One mission will have you pushing through enemy lines to meet up with trapped and besieged allies, another and you’ll need to sneak through enemy territory at night to ambush a supply convoy – going head on will simply get you killed. Meanwhile, engagements put interesting spins on skirmish maps, with standard control points to capture in one or needing to capture abandoned vehicles and kill enemies with them in another. On top of this, randomised optional objectives will help to spice things up further, and even early on can prove to be very difficult to tackle.
It’s very easy to find yourself getting bogged down and faced with a near impossible situation, as German forces build up and strengthen ahead of you. Sometimes, having learnt from your first foray, it can be better to withdraw and start over, getting on the front foot and keeping up the pressure until you win. This also has the advantage of minimising that company’s casualties, which plays into the overall war effort.
A company can even be wiped out completely if a particular battle drags on for too long and you lose too many units, with that threshold much closer if you’ve only started at half strength to begin with. You can spend requisition points to reinforce the company, rather than upgrade, but it really hammered home the need to send weakened units retreating back to base and heal them back to full strength. Additionally, reinforcing a company will sap its experience and veterancy.
Though simplistic, the meta-map does pose quite a few challenges of its own. Starting at three different corners of the map, you move each company in turn, picking and choosing which enemy point to tackle and in which order. The key thing here is that though the missions and engagements remain the same, the enemy strength ranges from one to five crosses, signifying more difficult opponents. Viewing each area, you can see that these might mean veteran units, flak cannons, air cover and all manner of extra things.
Beat a mission, and the enemy forces will flee to try to reach and reinforce nearby locations. Take out a mission with three crosses and that’s potentially making three missions harder to tackle, or when there’s a King Tiger involved, borderline impossible. However, you can block and destroy retreating forces by carefully encircling territories, so that none can escape, so carefully managing this and weighing up your options will be key. Occasional bonuses for capturing a particular territory – such as unlocking a new tank or adding better weapons for riflemen – simply make those decisions trickier.
It was disappointing that the AI sometimes didn’t match up to the supposed challenge, then. Yes, during my campaign on standard difficulty, I did find myself caught out by some missions and had to up my tempo when trying again, but on others, I’d go into a level 4 engagement expecting to get a severe kicking from heavily mechanised opponents, and be able to hold the three capture points with relative ease. There just seemed to be a kind of inconsistency or a lack of aggression.
Yet, when I did get my comeuppance, I found myself a tad annoyed by the lack of saving and versioning in a campaign – outside of manually duplicating and renaming save files and folders. I understand why this is the case, so that every win and loss has a meaning, but when it’s a simple case of me not having understood how I ought to go about a particular objective, or I simply wanted to explore and experiment, it felt more punitive.
A nice touch that almost comes off – and could have made me want to accept my failures a little more – is with the after action reports from the respective company commanders. Hailing from three very different backgrounds, I liked the differentiation between the gruff WWI veteran of Kurt Derby, the foul mouthed borderline illiteracy of “Lieut… ah, screw it. L. T.” Johnny Vastano and the formal letters home of Bill Edwards. Though reports change, depending on how you did in battle and how many soldiers you lost, they came across as a little stilted and not quite as flexible to your actions as they could have been.
The meta-map and the elements of persistence between missions make every decision you make count to a much greater degree, whether picking which mission to tackle next to knowing when to break off an assault and retreat. Though it’s pitched as a standalone expansion pack, and one that retains the Company of Heroes 2 branding, Ardennes Assault is full of new ideas that means it can quite happily stand on its own two feet.