Company of Heroes was released in 2006, followed by two add-on packs and some of the highest critical acclaim heap on any strategy game.
It remains a classic and developer Relic has quite a responsibility to deliver a sequel that can match the first. But has it? Is Company of Heroes 2 the game we have all been waiting for?
What made the first Company of Heroes such an enjoyable experience was its incredibly balanced gameplay style. There was no single strategy which would result in victory. The standard “build more than your enemy” approach wouldn’t work, as skilled players could easily wipe out whole waves of units if they knew what they were doing.
Thankfully, all this has been translated across to Company of Heroes 2, but with even more. Players now have to contend with varying terrain types, which can slow down or speed up units. There's also greater emphasis on smaller squads with more diverse sets of skills. If micromanaging is your thing, then CoH 2 will be a game you enjoy.
The gameplay consists of three fairly distinct unit types, each of which operates better against another. Squads of soldiers tend to fare pretty badly against armour, but then a tank can be destroyed almost instantly with a well-placed piece of artillery. It’s this vehicle against soldier against ranged unit process which the whole of CoH 2 hinges on.
If you get it wrong, then units get lost very quickly. The game will punish you for not supporting soldiers with ranged units and can stop an assault in its tracks if you come up against a vehicle which you are incapable of taking out.
On top of all the unit planning, you also need to make sure you manage the movements of each individual squad. Cover plays a big deal within CoH, as you simply left click near to an object and soldiers will automatically hide and fire from behind it. Getting soldiers positioned correctly can mean the difference between winning or losing a battle.
Then comes the dynamic weather, which in the Winter stages of CoH 2 can destroy any advance you might be planning to make. As soon as a blizzard starts soldiers’ temperatures will start dropping. Marked by a small temperature gauge hovering around each unit, the colder they get, the closer to death they become. You can lose entire squads to the cold.
This can be fixed by building fires, getting them inside vehicles or into houses. The problem is that all can be destroyed. The trick to winning then, in the colder stages, is to destroy any means the enemy has to keep warm. Cruel but very satisfying.
Perhaps best of all is the way that the scenery reacts to the freezing cold. A highlight of our time spent playing the game so far has to be when we trapped a German tank in the middle of a frozen river. The more it struggled to escape, the more the ice below it cracked, until eventually it was swallowed up by the river below.
The game’s true line of sight mechanic also deserves mentioning, as it’s rather clever. Units under your command need to be able to see the enemy in order for you to be able to see them as well. It works and more often than not led us into an unfortunate ambush.
Unit cap has been lifted a lot higher for this game, up to 135 soldiers at points, which can test even the best of micromanagers. The game will also scatter battles across multiple fronts in both the single player and skirmish modes, which can be extremely tough. You really need to get good at grouping units together, hot keying them and then skipping between each in order to win.
Back from the last game is the need to gather resources by capturing waypoints. Fuel, ammunition and manpower all govern what units you can build. The Russians have an extremely cheap to produce unit: conscripts, who can be used to create overwhelming numbers to capture or defend a point. By themselves they are useless, but the rapid build speed and low manpower requirement means that conscripts speed up the rate at which you have to play. This is a much faster game than its predecessor.
But really, CoH 2’s gameplay hasn’t changed much from the first. While this isn’t a bad thing, the original did come out in 2006. We would have liked to have seen something dramatically different rather than what feels to us like a Company of Heroes 1.5.
The same can be said of the game’s looks, which make it feel more like an add-on pack than a completely new title. At times it looks beautiful, but the Total War series and the fact that PC graphics cards have come a long way since the first game, makes it graphically very disappointing.
Cut scenes in particular are unbelievably bad. The single player, which follows the horrors of the Eastern front during World War II, is almost comically narrated by CG sequences that would have looked better had they been rendered in game. In fact, given the detail of some of the units, we really don’t understand why each mission wasn’t just book-ended by a quick video using units on screen.
The weather details are the strongest point. Frozen rivers and flecks of snow on soldiers' boots are great little details. We love how you can use snow to track vehicles across a map and the explosions and building destruction are as good as ever.
Compared to other recent strategy games, however, Company of Heroes 2’s graphics just aren’t really up to scratch. The soon to be released Command and Conquer, or even titles like World in Conflict, are much more impressive to look at. It’s a shame really, as when the original CoH was released, it was a graphical showcase for the time.
You might be wondering why we left the story side of things to the final section of our review. Put simply, it’s the weakest part of the game and we didn’t want to distract you from the excitement of a new Company of Heroes game.
Set on the Eastern front, the game tries to convey the horrific ordeal that Russian soldiers went through trying to put a halt to Germany’s advance across Europe. It’s an exercise in "shock by numbers". The game repeatedly reminds you just how many people died on the Russian side in World War II, through the medium of those poorly animated cut scenes, or missions that charge you with taking a point using little more than an unlimited supply of conscripts.
Fairly soon into the campaign, the laughably bad CG sequences left us wanting to skip any storytelling and just get on with enjoying the gameplay. There are some standout moments during CoH 2’s campaign, but expect yourself to be creating them, not the story.
What works best - and to our mind is the game’s strongest single player point - is the Theatre of War missions. These can be played as co-op challenges, by yourself or against AI. You play short and sweet missions on both the German and Russian side which vary from moving a small squad around to stealthily destroy a tank, to managing part of a large army-wide advance.
The real enjoyment of Company of Heroes comes from its multiplayer. Without the game's fairly questionable AI, this is where it can truly shine. Every single game mechanic, from repairing enemy tanks to use as your own, to hiding snipers in buildings, needs to be used in order to beat your foe.
The German and Russian sides are both very balanced and require their own skill sets to be mastered. There could do with being a few more maps to choose from, but what’s there is very good, especially the winter versions of the larger eight-player maps. Battles on these can go on for several hours, with the final win being extremely satisfying.
New for Company of Heroes 2 is the ability to upgrade and customise your army. You are assigned a set of generals that bring unique abilities, just like in the first game, the difference here being that you can choose the abilities yourself. It allows you to tweak the game further to your own play style and works particularly well the more time you devote to the multiplayer.
Company of Heroes 2 irritates us nearly every time we play it. For all intents and purposes, it’s the same game as the last, bar a few clever gameplay tweaks. Because of this we love it, just as much as we loved the original. But then the moment we stop playing, we get angry because we think of what it could have been.
It’s a lesson in playing it safe, narrated by some very bad CG cut scenes, with some incredibly enjoyable strategy gaming thrown in between. This might not be the exciting new game Company of Heroes fans were hoping for, but after an hour's play, that sense of familiarity will have you coming back for more.