- Format: PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: Relic Entertainment
- Players: 1 – 8
- Site: www.companyofheroes.com/uk
No one is saying that World War II was particularly easy on any of its massive war fronts, but Company of Heroes 2 is eager to point out that the harshest warzone of the lot may have been on the eastern side of the conflict. The Russian side of the war wasn’t just a battle against bullets, but it was also a matter of surviving the weather and Stalin’s ever-popular morale booster, Order 227, which had those who decided to retreat shot on the spot.
These complicating factors have been neatly meshed into the gameplay in Company of Heroes 2, leaving your slightly squishy squads of men at the mercy of just about everything. They’re amongst some of the incredibly neat ideas that help distinguish this game from its peers and prequels, but unfortunately never feel enough to be complete game changers for the genre. Chilling blizzards mean keeping your infantry close to fires or indoors, for example, whereas the “no retreats” rule is only enforced if you’re very unlucky and choose to flee whilst the relatively brief Order 227 timer is on screen.
However, despite their slightly less than revolutionary inclusion, it still goes a long way towards setting the scene and the harsh conditions that were really faced out there. This is backed up by the brief pieces of information that lead into each mission, giving you a fascinating bit of historical context before you lead a squadron of flamethrower-wielding engineers on their human BBQ expedition.
Gameplay is your usual style of Relic RTS affair, directing squads of units into the optimum cover that allows them to shred the enemy team into bite-size chunks. It’s everything that was good about the original and more, reassuring us that the studio certainly hasn’t lost their touch since they were acquired by SEGA. One particularly good addition is the line-of-sight field of view, a more realistic depiction of what your troops can see that replaces the slightly more psychic-like fog of war.
In a highly convenient twist that allowed the developers absolute freedom with mission, chronology and environmental flow, the main campaign is framed around the interrogation of Lev Abramovich Isakovich, as he recounts his various war experiences. The story is completely forgettable, but it does mean you get a nice array of missions that vary in structure, pace and setting. One scenario will see you battling down to your last man waiting for reinforcements, whereas the next will see you navigating a team of snipers through the woods and absolutely decimating unsuspecting German patrols.
It’s this incredible mission variety and the tactical options the game affords you in every encounter that are the real strengths in Company of Heroes 2. Every situation has multiple approaches, whether you want to carefully position a few choice squads in optimal positions, or just want to steam through with a massive tank and infantry doom cluster. Both options are perfectly viable (more so on lower difficulties), especially with the flexibility of your cheap and cheerful conscript squads.
Conscripts can be summoned virtually cost free and will often form the backbone of your army. They’re fairly unfocussed as opposed to the more specialised units you can train, but they’re useful for replenishing numbers or providing a little more meat padding to your troop columns. However, when they come across dropped or abandoned weapons in the field, they can become a scary force to be reckoned with. Machine guns, mortars, panzerschrecks, anti-tank rifles and more can be picked up and used against the enemy, really turning the tide of some engagements.
It’s these little things that provide just the right level of micromanagement, with some items unlocking new abilities on the user interface that strategy veterans can put to good use, but won’t isolate newer players struggling to remember button shortcuts. In fact, if anything is going to isolate RTS newbies, it’s going to be the UI.
The interface is a fairly cookie cutter example of what you would expect from a strategy game, but it doesn’t look any different to that of a ten-year-old title. Useful abilities are hidden behind tiny icons, lost in a sea of other tiny icons. At moments of real panic, it can be like searching for a needle in a wire wool haystack – whilst being shot at. There are brief tutorials that highlight the buttons, but the uninitiated are in for a sink or swim crash course, probably in a very similar fashion to a fresh conscript on the eastern front.
Other issues plaguing this bloody winter wonderland include a very limited camera that doesn’t rotate around the battlefield. This can make getting troops into cover a nightmare worthy of Freddy Kruger’s evil(er) twin, with squads often bumbling around on the wrong side of walls and piles of rubble. These are mostly minor nit-picks though, as the game plays more than competently and will be instinctive to Company of Heroes veterans.
Once you’ve finished the lengthy 12 hour campaign, the Theatre of War mode is there to give plenty more life to the game with several scenarios that can be tackled solo, or with the help of a co-op partner. There’s also your more standard skirmish mode against the AI or human opponents that end up like typical rush of micromanagement madness. You probably already know if you’ll like this style of multiplayer, or even if you have a chance of competing within it.
Overall, Company of Heroes 2 is a very worthy sequel to the fantastic World War II strategy series. Whilst it doesn’t shock or innovate the genre, it does what it does very well and will definitely satisfy RTS fans, even those more casual players. It has its flaws, but focussing on them too much is like abusing a horse because it can’t speak Spanish. This does everything you’d expect from a Relic strategy title, which is as good as compliments get in this increasingly crowded genre. Now go and make Homeworld 3, please.