I recently read an article suggesting that given the slew of modern military shooters, a game set during World War II would actually be a breath of fresh air.  Well, RTS giants Relic Entertainment are back, fresh air in tow, with the sequel to their 2006 critically acclaimed hit Company of Heroes.  After a 7 year absence does the shift of focus onto the USSR’s Red Army justify a new instalment or is it simply an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the 2010 Eastern Front fan mod?

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Release Date: Out Now
Format: PC
Version Tested: PC
Price: £39.99

Unfortunately, I never got to play the first Company of Heroes. I always wanted to; it just came out at a time in my life when I didn’t have the money – and to some extent the desire – to convert my PC into a decent enough gaming device.  By the time I did start buying individual parts and tinkering about inside the black box under my desk, Company of Heroes had just taken up residence on my “I’ll get round to it” pile.

That being said, it’s nice to be able to come to the series with fresh eyes as it attempts to handle a lesser frequented and much more ominous side of the war.  The events on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945 don’t tell a tale of righteous defence against tyranny.  In black and white terms this isn’t the good guys versus the bad guys, but the collapse of an ill-fated alliance between two oppressive powers that lead to the largest invasion in the history of warfare and the deaths of almost 5 million people.

It’s a morose subject to tackle and one Relic does with the respect it deserves.  Whether through the lengthy campaign, theatre of war scenarios or via the multitude of factual nuggets littered amongst the loading screens, unit descriptions and even the idle chit chat of soldiers on the battle field Relic allows the player chance to experience life from the point of view of those on the ground.  Presenting the player an opportunity to perhaps establish a degree of empathy with the situation and recognise the humanity of those involved, but without ever letting them forget the context of the bigger picture.

[On the cry of ‘Urrah!’] “A Russian writer said: ‘There was something terrible but also something sad and melancholy in this long cry…You could hear the sadness of a soul parting with everything it had loved, calling on its nearest and dearest…to lift their heads and hear for the last time the voice of a father, a husband, a son or a brother.”

This level of immersion is amplified by the excellent quality of the graphics and audio production.  Explosions are visceral and loud, tanks smash through structures with a noticeable thud and infantry units are spectacularly animated as they strategically move between cover points or – as fans of the MegaDrive classic Cannon Fodder will appreciate – roll around injured crying for help on the battlefield.

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Though in the same genre as games such as Red Alert and StarCraft, Company of Heroes 2 presents a unique take on the formula by introducing a more granular focus on tactical warfare.  As battles tend to be a lot smaller in scale, there is as much focus on the movement and positioning of squads as there is their composition.  As such, the battlefield itself is as much a character as the Russian or German armies.  Almost everything in the environment, from fences and trees to blown up trucks and ditches formed by artillery rounds, can be used to gain some degree of cover – which itself has a directional aspect, opening up the possibility for flanking manoeuvres.

On top of this you’ll need to keep your war machine alive by managing a more complex resource pool of manpower, munitions and fuel gained by controlling strategic points on the map, divided up in a way not unlike the board in a game of Risk.  As the effective leverage of combined arms capable of dealing with any threat – infantry or otherwise – is pivotal to success, this adds an additional level of tactical depth to gameplay as you’re able to break enemy supply lines and deny your opponent of a resource needed to fuel a particular play style, making the whole thing feel more like a chess match than a simple clashing of horns.

When it comes down to it, your ability to survive is going to rely more on your preparation, awareness and ability to cope under pressure than it is on the volume of your numbers or reaction speed.  Success will come to those that are able to control their opponent’s movement around the battlefield as much as possible without over-stretching their own forces.  It’s an evolving organism and you’ll need to have a keen awareness of both what is happening and could be happening as even on the easiest difficulty, the game can be punishing of mistakes.

Death is not the only outcome to an engagement on the battlefield in Company of Heroes 2.  While squads are subject to being suppressed, pinned or forced to retreat via various methods, the two biggest contributors to the evolution of the battlefield come from the addition of the Essence 3.0 engine that showcases the new line-of-sight technology “TrueSight”, incorporating weather simulation and destructible environments into this mix.

TrueSight is used to more accurately reflect a unit’s line of sight on the battlefield, shifting the focus from a traditional “fog of war” aerial view to that of the men on the ground.  This means that any object taller than the soldier or any opaque material (smoke, bad weather, blazing fires) will obstruct their field of view.  In its simplest terms, this means players will have to be alert for squads waiting in ambush in forests or behind buildings.  Of course, there’s nothing stopping you levelling any structures you come across but that also denies you a potentially lifesaving cover spot should the need present itself.  It’s a gratifying tactic to pull off if you manage it, but an infuriating one to fall for at the same time.

As well as having an impact on a soldier’s line of sight, the snowy landscape of 1940’s Russia adds plenty of opportunity for Mother Nature to step in and mess with an otherwise well thought out battle strategy.   Icy lakes can quickly turn from a handy shortcut to a watery grave if you’re caught off guard by an enemy patrol and deep snow not only slows units but leaves tracks that may as well be a giant neon sign to the astute hunter.  Furthermore, squads caught out in the sub-zero conditions will freeze to death unless kept warm by fire and the periodic blizzard conditions that occur on the maps seriously hamper troop’s ability to move, let alone see.   This, of course, can present a great opportunity to turn the tide of battle if you’re appropriately prepared for the meteorological shifts.

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For those new to the series the game comes with a decent amount of tutorial material.  There’s a comprehensive list of hints, over 17 minutes worth of instructional video and even a mission to get you started.  It’s not a stretch to say that the vast majority of players will want to jump straight in and get their hands dirty with gameplay, rather than reading or watching videos, and to this end the tutorial mission is a little short.    Whilst it could be argued this is a minor point as it tells you enough to get you off the ground and that the rest is essentially taught by the campaign, the two sides do have a rather distinct feel to them and the remaining tutorial material doesn’t do this justice.  Instead it will fall to the post-campaign skirmishes to highlight the contrast between the efficiency of the Axis forces and the sheer manpower behind the Russian colossus.

Thankfully, Relic Entertainment has put a lot of thought into the life of Company of Heroes 2 beyond the solo campaign.  To keep things going the standard skirmish mode makes its requisite appearance offering 2 game modes and 8 maps – some with summer and winter variants – for competitive, cooperative or solo play against AI bots.

Beyond this, there’s also the Theatre of War where historical battles from a particular year of the war can be relived alone or cooperatively with a friend.  This game mode also offers players the opportunity to take on a series of special challenges against AI that has a particular personality, perhaps favouring a more aggressive play style or a particular type of unit.

Whatever mode you chose to play in Company of Heroes 2 you’ll not only be gaining various medals to reflect your achievements but you’ll also be accumulating experience points to level up and unlock extra abilities to outfit yourself with in the Army Customiser.  Here you’re able to choose everything from particular unit perks to the various commanders you take into the battlefield and even the camouflage on your vehicles.  These choices are important as your actions on the battlefield will earn you command points that can be spent to utilise the abilities of one of the different commanders you selected to lead your army.  A prepared player will select commanders with a mix of offensive and defensive capabilities in order to be able to appropriately react to events in the field.

The addition of recorded replays and direct integration with TwitchTV gives players the opportunity to refine and show off their combat skills, earn bragging rights or even just sit back learn a thing or two from watching the pros.

There’s an absolute tonne of content to be explored once the campaign is cleared, and I fully anticipate that this list of additional features will be extended further down the line.  

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Overview

Talking to friends that were fans of the original it seems that, unfortunately, Company of Heroes 2 suffers a bit from to the context in which it was released.  The first game in the series was an amazing accomplishment and, as such, an incredibly difficult act to follow.  Given that we find ourselves in a time of repetitive annual releases with minor updates, the expectations built up in that 7 year gap can’t be doing it any favours.

I say this not to deter you from the game, but to encourage you to get your head out of the mind-set the endless yearly releases of certain franchises has forced the games industry into.  Though this is my first outing with the series, based on my time with Company of Heroes 2 and what I’ve seen of the original, I’ve come away with the feeling I’ve played a game that has been given the due care and attention it deserves, ensuring you’re getting the best experience on offer.

The elements introduced with Essence 3.0 manage to expand the game in a natural way. COH2 has been given the respect it deserves, showing that a spectacular title doesn’t and shouldn’t have to come with gimmicks that mess with a successful formula in order to get you to buy it.

They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and Relic Entertainment haven’t tried to.

Company of Heroes 2 is out now and absolutely worth picking up.