2006 seems like a very long time ago. Seven years is a long time to be AWOL for a gaming series that boasts the accolade of “the highest rated strategy game”. Yes there were two standalone expansions to the first Company of Heroes, but even the most recent one came out nearly four years ago. Understandably there was a sizable amount of anticipation building as Company of Heroes 2 inched ever closer to its release date.
And then that thing with THQ happened. Developer Relic Entertainment lost their publisher during the final stages of the development cycle. There must have been a lot of uncertainty during the last months leading up to what should have been the initial release date for Company of Heroes 2. Luckily, SEGA rode in on a giant chequebook and snaffled up Relic from the dying clutches of THQ. Still, Company of Heroes 2 feels like a game that’s experienced some difficulties during the production time. It feels like a game that’s had a few budget cuts, and the result is a sequel that doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first Company of Heroes. Is it bad? Absolutely not; in fact quite the contrary. It is, unfortunately, a sequel that has buckled under the weight of series success, and while it gets a lot of things bang on target, it stumbles in other areas.
Company of Heroes 2 attempts to weave a narrative into the game by following the wartime stories of Lev Abramovich Isakovich – a Russian lieutenant turned journalist turned penal battalion soldier. He’s a drab Russian caricature with far too much conscience for the Russian brass’ liking during a period of World War II when the USSR was responsible for some of the most brutal war atrocities in the name of Allied victory. As such, there’s this contrived and overbearing sense of angst that pervades all of Isakovich’s post-mission dialogues. Making matters worse is the incredibly hammy cut-scenes themselves, chock-full of jerky animations, bad lip-syncing and terrible voice-acting.
The whole package is rather awkward to watch; the cut-scenes turning into those uncomfortable B-grade movie moments that are supposed to be dramatic and heartfelt but instead leave you cringing because of how badly acted or directed it is. One could argue that you don’t play an RTS game for the single-player storyline and characters, but one need only look back at StarCraft II to see how it IS possible to get this right. To me it felt like Relic (which is, let’s face it, a master of the RTS genre) was a prepubescent teenager with a video camera trying to capture his first feature film during the school holidays: the good intentions were there but the practical application was woefully lacking.
The single-player campaign plays out over 14 missions portraying numerous Second World War battles fought by the Russian army. It’s probably because I haven’t played a Company of Heroes in years, but the opening three or four missions felt utterly chaotic. There’s very little in terms of explaining (or reminding you of) core gameplay mechanics so newcomers to the series will likely be overwhelmed. However, nestled in the very untidy main menu is a button marked “Tactics”. Heading over there will take you to a tutorial mission to learn the basics. Obviously, for newcomers to the Company of Heroes series I recommend you start there.
Gameplay has stayed largely unchanged since the first games. There’s still an emphasis on unit micromanagement and you’ll still need Fuel, Manpower and Munitions to acquire new units, activate special abilities and build base structures. This might be a sticking point for some people: the original Company of Heroes made monumental strides in the RTS genre. For Company of Heroes 2, that ethos of innovation is very difficult to find. It can be found, however, in the much lauded “ColdTech” and “True Sight” mechanics that have been added to the game.
Seeing as how many of the Russians’ bloodiest battles took place in the middle of winter, Relic developed “ColdTech” to (we were told at preview events) govern the game’s weather system. It does a good job of doing that in the missions set during winter, but that’s pretty much it. The missions in which you need to alter tactics to prevent your men from freezing are by far in the minority. It seems odd that Relic touted this ColdTech addition only to utilise it in a handful of missions.
The same thing happens with the gameplay application of the historic “Order 227”, in which Russian commanding officers were instructed to shoot any retreating penal battalions. The moment you spawn a penal battalion to the field, a commanding officer will sit patiently at your HQ (for a set amount of time) ready to shoot any would-be deserters. The only thing is that they won’t retreat unless you tell them to. If the squad’s moral could break, forcing them to retreat, then Order 227 would be a mechanic with actual ramifications, but as it is implemented here it’s nothing more than a nod to historic context.
“True Sight” is different, as that mechanic permeates the entire game. It’s a neat addition to the generic fog-of-war found in most RTS games: your troops require actual line-of-sight for any enemy units to appear on screen. This makes close-quarter fighting in the war-torn city streets of Leningrad extra tight when it comes to sphincter-clenching.
The missions themselves are quite varied, and the moment you feel as if you might be reaching some sort of “generic RTS mission fatigue”, the game presents an objective that mixes things up a bit. Some of the standout scenarios included: clearing a destroyed urban area of six hidden snipers; fighting across a frozen river to liberate Leningrad from Nazi occupation; and disabling and capturing a German Tiger Tank using only a handful of men. That last one turns into an elaborate game of cat and mouse played out in the wintery streets of an abandoned rural village; it’s wonderful and really shows off just how flexible each unit in the game can be when the odds are seemingly insurmountable. And then, if you know your World War II history, the final mission is a lengthy battle of epic proportions that does a stellar job of leaving a delectable taste in your mouth once those credits roll.
And once those credits do roll, there’s still a lot to satiate your Armchair General needs. Company of Heroes 2 includes a Theatre of War mode that not only covers skirmish battles against AI, but adds a number of further historical battles for you to play as either the Russians or the Germans. Basically, it’s like a whole additional mini campaign, just without the stitched-together narrative. What’s more, those extra historical battles include “Solo Challenges” designed to test your skills. Basically, they’re ideal for the hardcore Company of Heroes fans who want to push themselves further before heading online to play against human opponents.
As excellent as the gameplay remains and as interesting as True Sight and ColdTech are, Company of Heroes 2 is not without a couple of glitches. Ragdoll physics are occasionally laughable with corpses dancing and jiggling about for ages after the gunfire has ceased; at one point I instructed a pair of snipers to enter a building to which they audibly replied “boarding half-track”, which is a troop transport vehicle; and then occasionally a unit would completely spazz out and run around in a seemingly fear-induced panic thanks to the horrors of war (in actual fact it was more likely thanks to the horrors of late night programming – check our video below).
Company of Heroes 2 is undoubtedly not a bad game. It is still a rock-solid RTS experience, but it is perhaps one that is brought down by the shortcomings of its budget narrative, silly glitches and underutilised new gameplay features.
You know it’s weird: the last real-time strategy game I reviewed for NAG Online was StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. That was an expansion that I described as being more like a full-on sequel. With Company of Heroes 2 it’s the complete antithesis: this is a sequel that feels more like an expansion, and one that doesn’t offer the innovation that gamers have grown to expect between sequels. If I’m honest, I expected a little more from Relic.
Company of Heroes 2 is out now. Head over to your nearest retailer right now, or grab it via Steam if you’re so inclined.