As one of the only developers still making real-time strategy (RTS) games in the mould that rose to prominence in the ‘90s, it’s great to see Relic continuously shake things up and take chances with each release. From the way they gradually changed the Warhammer-based Dawn of War franchise into this often-amazing RTS/Action-RPG hybrid or even with the original Company of Heroes, which itself redefined the resource model to focus on strategic point capture and defence. They each play differently, even if they happen to feature the same isometric perspective. Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault is no different, as the game introduces something that usually gets lost in the heat of an intense skirmish - and that is, the big picture.
Based on the title, you can guess that Ardennes Assault is an expansion to the critically acclaimed 2013 strategy game. And much like the trend these days it’s stand-alone, meaning you don’t have to own a copy of the original to play. It’s also strictly single-player, focussing on the Allied forces in the famous Battle of the Bulge that took place in the forested regions of Belgium, towards the tail end of World War II. Although the Company of Heroes franchise has always leaned towards the weight and sombre mood of something like HBO’s Band of Brothers, the narrative always took a back seat to the intense and often incredibly hectic battles found in each mission. Ardennes Assault for the most part is no different but, with the focus shifted to specific squads and their captains, it’s as close as the series has even been in capturing that iconic mini-series’ feel.
As a single player game, Relic have forgone the standard linear mission structure seen in earlier entries for a more dynamic, and welcome approach. Presented in a fashion not dissimilar to the board game Risk or a giant map on a table surrounded by cigar smoking generals, players get to control specific captains and their squads, deciding on which locations to mount an attack. Each squad and captain also represents a different play style, so with an airborne squad you’ll then need to adjust strategies to factor in calling in additional paratroopers and coordinating airplane rocket attacks. On the other hand the more defensive squads will have specific artillery strike capabilities and other defensive bonuses.
Using these specific captain or commander abilities, which gradually unlock during the course of each battle, represent the majority of the different play styles that the series is known for. One of the great things about this approach, is that it manages to instil what has made the multiplayer side of Company of Heroes so rewarding into a single-player campaign. The other side of this is that as players get to decide which regions to attack and try and take a hold of, the game adds seemingly randomly generated missions with varying objectives that feel as dynamic and varied as a list of different multiplayer modes.
Sitting alongside the expected and cinematically structured story-based missions, you’d think that they would come across as obvious padding. But they work wonderfully in extending the scope of the game beyond a simple slew of extra missions, and you could say that they add weight to the feeling of being in the midst of a brutal war.
Battles on the other hand will feel familiar to those who’ve played a game in the series before. Putting a squad of riflemen out in the open and not behind any cover is basically sending them to an early grave. As is setting up defensive positions behind cover with only heavy machine guns. Any sign of German armour means you’ll need at least two or more squads equipped with rocket launchers and an additional anti-tank gun to boot.
This in itself is a hallmark of the series that goes back to the original Company of Heroes, if you see a German Panzer Tank, start running. But, taking control of the Allies (i.e. Americans) in this entry does bring some changes in the form of how units are requisitioned and what their specific capabilities and strengths are.
So with a new faction and some missions playing out like multiplayer skirmishes and others with varying objectives both primary and secondary, even if you’ve played previous entries you’ll quickly come to realise that this feels like the most varied game in the series to date. With a map that changes according to player decisions, squads and captains that can die or live to receive a promotion (in the form of upgrades trees and unlocks), the stakes going into a battle with odds heavily in favour of the enemy have never felt higher. And with this new structure Ardennes Assault represents the best single-player experience seen in a Company of Heroes title to date.