Seven years is a long time to wait for any sequel, but particularly for one to a genre-defining game such as the original Company of Heroes. From graphical fidelity that made you genuinely feel like you understood the horrors of the beach at Normandy, to a unique cover system that also emulated the mechanics of real war, Company of Heroes 2 had a lot to have to live up to. Ironically, it’s the level of expectation set by its predecessor that hurts it more than anything.
In this iteration of well-told history, players lead the Soviet Red Army across various maps and battles of the World War II theatre. Initially one of the more strikingly odd things about the game is that there’s a story being told here; a story of a Lieutenant under interrogation for remarks made against the Communist efforts to win the war. It seems strange at first, because you already know how the war is going to end and Relic could have easily gotten away with saying, “It’s WWII, you’re the Russians, okay go.” But as you progress through the twenty-hour campaign, by the end you’ll surprisingly grow to appreciate what the developers are doing.
As the tale unfolds, Lt. Isakovich levels criticisms against the Red war machine and its policies of shooting any soldier who retreats, and its drive to overcome any obstacle through sheer numbers. The gameplay does a tremendous job of supporting the narrative, by giving you access to unlimited squads of penal soldiers (hindered only by a cool-down and population cap) while continually presenting you with challenges that force you to press on at the cost of soldiers’ lives, for the sake of expediency.
The concept of throwing manpower and human lives at a problem may be historically accurate, but one of the few criticisms to be said of the game is that it restricts you to a certain play style which not everyone will enjoy. Rather than focusing much on base building throughout any of the missions, or entrenching anywhere to hold out against some attack, you’ll find yourself constantly on the offensive throughout the course of the game. Again, this all comes back full circle by the end of the story, and the tale that’s told consequently has greater impact, but it’s something a consumer ought to be aware of.
CoH2 continues the tradition of bringing realistic aspects of squad combat into your living room by introducing a truer line of sight system that adjusts the fog of war dynamically; several units have abilities that influence sight range. And the infamous winter which did the Germans in rears its ugly head as you have to struggle to keep soldiers in the field from dying of frostbite. The issue there is that these intricacies (particularly the cold weather) aren’t used for much tactical effect; there’s actually only one stage where Jack Frost does anything to hamper you, and one other infiltration mission where snipers’ sights and camouflage become critically important.
By the end of the war you’ll have developed a pretty reliable strategy of producing one or two tanks to supplement your starting forces, then sending in prisoners to pick up the heavy weapons of defeated enemies. Again, while true and historically accurate, the enjoyment found there isn’t derived from successfully executing a strategy of what units you take into battle, but from the realization that in war a lot of scavenging takes place.
The flexibility of unit types can feel like a lack of specialization, which is unfortunate; you’ll only need Engineers to repair tanks, Snipers to spot for your troops, and then you’ll simply fill out the rest of your ranks with conscripts. In the campaign there’s almost never any reason to recruit an HMG or Mortar crew, despite their availability.
To supplement what feels like a lack of content (compared to the last CoH game you remember playing) there are unit challenges to complete which unlock skins and loadouts to use in AI and multiplayer skirmishes. Here the gameplay feels a bit more like the standard CoH experience, but even then there’s not a tremendous amount of distinction made between all the different units you can muster; of the four tanks you can choose from, one does well against other tanks, where the performance of the rest don’t really stand out as distinguishable.
Overall, ironically the most outstanding thing about this game is its story, and how intricately woven it is with the actual gameplay. If you’re the type to skip every cutscene then you’re not going to get the most out of this title. And if you’re looking for some massive expansion of options to tweak and soldiers to recruit, as compared to the last game in the series, you’re also going to be a little disappointed. Having said that, if the absence of either of those things causes you some disappointment, then you’re not giving the game it’s due. Granted, those features would have been phenomenal to see and, maybe if we’re lucky, the next entry in this series will be Company of Heroes: Black Ops (with Nazi zombie squads!). But until that time comes when our wildest dreams come true, this more-squad-based-than-RTS-WWII game will certainly do.
SCORE: 8.5 out of 10
A code for Company of Heroes 2 was provided to Pixel Related for review.