When THQ went under, it was a depressing day for gamers, but even more so for PC enthusiasts. THQ was a company that still respected PC as a viable platform and, when the lights were finally shut off, it also meant the future release of three of the most exciting and diverse titles for 2013 were thrown into doubt; two of which were close to finish. There was the first-person sequel Metro: Last Light that looks stunning on PC, thankfully saved and rescued by Deep Silver
; there was the comedic old-school RPG musings of South Park: The Stick of Truth, revived by Ubisoft; and last, but by no means least, the PC-exclusive strategy sequel Company of Heroes 2.
SEGA arrived on the frontline at the 11th hour to save Relic Entertainment’s promising RTS from tragic destruction and, despite several delays, its hour of release is finally nigh. Forget the Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers mirroring of the original Company of Heroes game, this time Relic Entertainment has expertly, authentically and, most important of all, respectfully set its story on the vicious struggles on the Eastern Front, as an aggressive Nazi Wehrmacht won early ground, was eventually subdued by a Russian winter, and finally repelled by the overwhelming numbers of the Soviet Army.
While veterans of Company of Heroes and its expansions will certainly find a lot of the formula familiar, Company of Heroes 2 is, in many ways, a very different beast to its preceding titles. Friendly units and enemy AI are less likely to ‘cheat’, with brutal Skirmish-level AI (which is now across all modes) that rarely tries the same unsuccessful tactic twice, and a game engine that actually respects objects that units can’t shoot through or over. All units spawn from a single designated spawn zone, negating any advantage for building troop-manufacturing structures closer to the front line, and you can no long convert buildings that can be garrisoned into frontline bases.
This means that keeping your units alive and tactically retreating them whenever relevant isn’t just advised, it’s essential to victory. The longer you keep your troops alive, the more they level up, meaning a three-star unit has better durability, firing rate and dishes out extra damage. Couple this with the presence of General Winter on frosty maps, and micro has never mattered more. General Winter is the Soviet name for the frostbite-inducing temperatures that Germans and Russians had to fight through, and it’s in full effect in Company of Heroes 2. Leave your troops out in the cold for too long, and they will freeze to death; and then there’s the sporadic appearance of blizzards which reduce freezing time and affect visibility. The appearance of a blizzard can all but halt the unprepared army, and it will also cover the footprints/tracks of enemy troop movements that allowed you to keep an eye on enemy movements pre-blizzard.
All of this is taught to you in meaningful ways throughout the campaign, but it’s well worth spending some time on the Tactics screen and going through the unfortunately static training videos that provide essential battlefield know-how. There is a single training mission that’s great for newcomers, but the real training takes place over the course of the campaign. Unfortunately, this is blatant in the first few missions, which act as obvious training scenarios, with very little evidence of the cunning enemy AI that kicks into full force later in the game.
The better missions are far more cunning in their training, but offer tactics—such as how to take down a heavy tank with infantry—that will be essential for standing a fighting chance in AI skirmish maps or, if you’re feeling brave, taking the fight online. Missions range anywhere from 20 minutes to, well, as long as it takes you to finish a map, depending on your strategies and how well you mix offensive and defensive capabilities. There were more than a few instances where I overzealously committed too many troops to a single area, only to have them wiped out by superior units, well-placed mortar rounds, or clever AI counter-attacks. Because of the level of micro troop management required, you really feel an awesome sense of accomplishment when attacking or defending across multiple frontlines.
Visually, Company of Heroes 2 both respects and surpasses the impressive visual standards set by the preceding titles. It’s just a shame the cutscenes also use the in-game engine, which makes them lose some of their emotional impact, given how unattractive things are from a cinematic perspective. During gameplay, though, it’s a guilty pleasure to zoom right in on the action, watching as a Katyusha rocket launcher fires off waves of rockets and, of course, the devastating aftermath of seeing those rockets hit. You won’t have much time to do this in the thick of things, but you will have time to take notice of the incredible soundscape. The team reportedly recorded authentic weapon sounds which translate beautifully, while moving your camera around in the fog of war is a viable tactic for hearing enemy movements.
Keeping track of your enemies is a crucial consideration, particularly when you take into account the genre-changing inclusion of Essence Engine 3.0’s TrueSight technology. This is a dynamic line-of-sight system that means units no longer have floating circles of what they can and can’t see, which aren’t interrupted by walls, buildings and smoke. Basically, if your units can’t see over an object, their line of sight will be broken in real time by anything that would obscure vision. This means that buildings are perfect for ambushes, making town areas dangerous places for vehicles to travel, while destroying vehicles will create a temporary smoke barrier that cannot be seen through. The fact that you can use heavy munitions to level buildings makes for a nice push and pull, but also means flattening an enemy’s defences with artillery means your units will not be able to take advantage of the same cover when you move in to take the territory. Forward thinking is always a must.
In this, the Company of Heroes series continues to separate itself from strategy titles such as StarCraft because it encourages dynamic tactics, a healthy balance of offensive and defensive tactics, and it isn’t about winning through sheer force of numbers. A single unit can change the course of a battle, as it did in my first 1v1 match-up against a Russian (seriously, he/she was from Russia) opponent playing as Wehrmacht. In a Victory Point map—where the objective is to count your opponents tickets down to 0 by holding a majority of three Victory Points—I dominated the early game with cheap Soviet troops, my opponent controlled the mid-game with mortars and heavy machinegun emplacements, and I ultimately won shortly thereafter by pushing an infantry-mincing APC and tank onto the field.
Even though my opponent was, assumedly, not in Australia (they didn’t seem to speak English on chat), the connection was smooth, and sporadic lag notifications were limited to sidebar text pop-ups, as opposed to intrusive warning windows that had to be manually interacted with to make them disappear. As someone who spent a lot of time in the closed beta and put some hours into the open beta (which is still currently available for download), Relic Entertainment has made a lot of subtle changes to improve balancing and ensure a reliable netcode. Unfortunately, it hasn’t included a server browser, which means you’re stuck making custom matches with friends or relying on a matchmaking system that may pit you against opponents well above or below your skill level thanks to a universal experience system.
The universal experience helps you unlock new commanders and other associated items, but the most controversial inclusion is different ‘Bulletins’ that can provide buffs to particular units once you’ve hit certain milestones. While the progression towards these Bulletins can be earned across modes, it really does seem to favour the player who sticks to a particular tactic, and also may result in an unfair competitive advantage down the track; particularly considering open beta progression counts towards the retail game.
While this point may ultimately prove to be a non-issue, there are a couple of odd glitches at play in an otherwise honed gameplay experience. Using hotkeys to jump between units consistently results in weird bouncing objects, and the Havok physics engine occasionally fails in hilarious ways. More disturbing though is the duality of save-game woes. You can’t save over old save games, meaning regular savers may have to think up new save-game names, while saving too frequently can really chew into the hard drive space because Company of Heroes 2 save files weigh in at around 30MB each.
These gripes really do pale in comparison to the overall achievement of a sequel that is absolutely well worth the wait. Even now, I can’t wait to finish this review and sink some more hours into the multiplayer which, coming from an avid admirer of the original games, is testament to how well Relic Entertainment has made a game for the fans, but also presented a whole lot more. The war for THQ may have been lost, but the posthumous battle for Company of Heroes 2 is a resounding victory that is, much like its predecessor, destined to impress for years to come.