Some seven years after it caused a minor revolution within the real-time strategy genre by doing away with resource management and focusing instead on map control, the Company of Heroes series returns.
Acclaimed for its gritty and hectic depiction of World War II battlefields, as well as for emphasising the “strategy” in real-time strategy, Company of Heroes remains the highest-scoring RTS of all time. The original Company of Heroes leaves epic, General Patton-sized boots for its sequel to fill.
If war is hell, the Eastern Front is its deepest circle. This is the grim theatre of the conflict that Company of Heroes 2 drops players into, charging them with command of the Soviet Red Army as Nazi Germany ramps up Operation Barbarossa, its 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
A former Soviet officer named Lev Isakovich frames the singleplayer campaign as a series of recollections conducted under interrogation by his former commanding officer in one of Stalin's post-war gulags.
Those au fait with the first Company of Heroes game will be in very familiar territory. Players command a mix of infantry and vehicle units. Initial deployment is limited at first by mission parameters, and later by a population cap and the availability of manpower, fuel and ammunition.
These resources can sometimes be found on the ground as supply dumps, but a much more common way to obtain additional resources is to have an infantry unit capture and hold the strategic points marked around the battle map, which increases the rate at which the resources generate. New in the sequel is the engineers’ ability to build either a fuel or ammo dumps at strategic points, prioritising the generation of a preferred resource.
Cover plays an integral role in the survival of the player’s troops, as does the rock-scissors-paper nature of the unit types – shock troops for example will typically make short work of opposing artillery crews without too much difficulty, but are in potential trouble themselves when an armoured car shows up – unless they’ve backed up their advance with some of their own artillery pieces, because a couple of these working in tandem can quickly reduce most vehicles to flaming wrecks. Combating enemy forces is therefore a constant juggling act for the player, who must try to ensure that whenever possible, they meet enemy forces with the right type of unit to inflict the most damage.
Isakovich doesn't have a lot of happy memories. The campaign doesn't shy away from the brutal realities of the Eastern Front, or the way in which the Red Army often conducted the war – throwing huge numbers of often under-equipped troops at the enemy so as to win through sheer weight of numbers alone, and fatally “disciplining” any soldier that questioned orders or thought to retreat.
Significantly, some of these realities have become new facets of the gameplay. As a Soviet commander, the player can regularly call upon conscript troop squads to enter the battle. As a unit, the conscripts are not particularly effective fighters, but they can be called upon to merge with other units, making up the numbers in any specialty infantry squad that has taken casualties, and also arm themselves with superior German weaponry pilfered from defeated enemy troops.
As one of the most bountiful resources available, it’s often an uncomfortable convenience to send these peasant conscripts to preoccupy an enemy tank or machine gun nest. As they do so, they scramble desperately to reach and equip weapons that will give them at least a fighting chance.
Each time a unit of conscripts is ordered onto the field, Stalin’s infamous “Order 227”, whereby Soviet “blocking detachments” were ordered to fire on any of their own men who tried to retreat, is put into effect. This takes the form of a timed period during which a political officer lingers next to the player's home base, waiting to summarily execute any Soviet troops who are ordered to retreat while he’s on the lookout.
It’s in an interesting idea, but since the actual “retreat” order itself is very rarely used in gameplay, and manually ordering troops to move back to the base area doesn’t seem to trigger executions, it ends up having a negligible impact on the game.
More interesting are the new effects of frigid weather. Another nod to historic events, this system (only in place on selected and appropriately wintery maps) will cause infantry units to literally freeze to death if they spend too long exposed to the brutal Russian winter. Infantry movements must therefore be carefully managed as bunny hops between heat sources and buildings where the long-suffering grunts can thaw themselves out a bit, or conducted with the use of troop transports.
It’s a simple little mechanic that adds another layer to the battlefield strategy. Sap exposed attackers long enough, for instance, and inclement weather might do the job of defeating them without the need for bullets. It’s a shame that it’s used only briefly in the campaign and then promptly discarded, but it adds a twist to selected scenario and multiplayer maps. Frozen rivers must also be carefully negotiated – they may support the weight of a tank or other armour initially, but a well-placed artillery shell or demolition charge can crack the ice and send the vehicle to a watery grave.
Nonetheless, the campaign leaves a little bit to be desired. The cutscenes are shabby when one considers the highly detailed presentation of the game itself, and the story is entirely predictable. Perhaps the bigger issue though is that the missions start at the point in the war when the Soviets are mounting a desperate defence against the German invasion, and continue on as they eventually halt the Nazis and then drive them back into Germany. Bound and blinkered by a desire to be historically accurate, the more interesting missions occur mostly early on in the campaign, when the player is pressed for resources and forced to mount seemingly hopeless defences.
Although cracking a German fortified position is its own reward, going on the attack simply doesn’t have the same sense of heroism as those moments when the ragged remains of the final squad desperately limps toward the last functional piece of field artillery as a German Panzer rolls up the street.
Beyond Isakovich’s story players can tool around with “Theater of War” scenarios that offer challenge missions based on historical circumstances such as defending a crucial choke against waves of enemies, or enacting the “scorched-earth” policy ahead of a German advance – as well as co-op scenarios and AI skirmishes.
The game and its systems are strongest in multiplayer, where players must account for human ingenuity and error. In victory point mode, teams of up to four must vie for control of command posts that, when captured, increase the enemy’s ticket degeneration. The first player or team to hit zero loses. In addition, the need to control strategic points around the map to generate additional resources becomes a more difficult challenge, as does keeping these segments connected to provide an uninterrupted supply chain.
Company of Heroes 2 is not the paradigm changer that the first game was. The series’ second entry sticks closer to its knitting than many might have liked, and has fewer new ideas than it needed. Even so,the graphical improvements and minor gameplay tweaks, will no doubt satisfy existing fans and conscript a more-than modest following.