There is perhaps no better choice of setting for a real time strategy game then the Eastern Front. Fought between two forces representing diametrical opposites on the political scale, it's generally accepted to be the deadliest conflict in human history. Company of Heroes 2 brings the absolutely brutal nature of this conflict to light with a campaign that shows just how little regard both sides had for human life, as well as a combination of multiplayer and AI skirmishes designed to push you to your breaking point. And that's before General Winter has its way with you.
"As a result of the cold, the machine-guns were no longer able to fire...the result of all this was a panic...The battle worthiness of our infantry is at an end" - General Heinz Guderian, November 1941
With the Russian “Red Army” as its star, CoH2 brings its brand of tactical World War 2 strategy to the other side of Europe. The game spans the entire length of the conflict through its different modes, offering a diverse set of looks and set pieces, especially within the confines of its campaign, which center on the career exploits of Lev Abramovich Isakovich.
Told through flashbacks, a now familiar trope, Lev's forced look back at the war and the atrocities committed begins a year after Operation Barbarossa, Germany's stunning entrance on to and through the Eastern Front. Stationed at Stalingrad, Lev and his troops are naturally instrumental in routing the Germans, or as High Command refers to them throughout the course of the game, the Fascists.
While there is a tutorial mission, as well as numerous tactical readings available to serve as a introduction for new players, CoH2 uses its first few campaign missions to introduce you to some of the changes from its predecessr, with the two most important being TrueSight and General Winter.
TrueSight changes the battlefield by simulating actual battlefield sight lines from the troop level. Rather then the “sight circles” from the previous installment, TrueSight allows for more clever uses of buildings and terrain, offering the ability to hide units and emplacements behind structures. This adds some true strategy to engagements, and its really easy to rush in, thinking you have the upper hand, only to find a heavy machine-gun nest or, even worse, a flamethrower equipped half track staring you in the face.
I found the fourth mission in the campaign an exceptional teacher regarding TrueSight, as well as a horrifying introduction to the perils of winter. Lev and his small force are set to meet up with a group of Russian snipers. Beginning the mission with two squads of standard conscripts, you lose an entire squad within the first fifteen seconds to the deadly white stuff, watching as the individual soldiers stumble, fall, and die. Its a sobering lesson, and one easily repeated without careful watch of where your soldiers are left.
The snipers, luckily enough, are immune to the effect of General Winter, and their specific portion of the mission focuses on using sight lines, stealth, and a handy flare ability to disable an enemy camp. I found it a rather odd lesson for an RTS, the use of stealth to actually scout a location, but I think it serves as an effective reminder that this is not the game to go rushing blindly ahead.
The campaign really escalates in both size and difficulty from there. There are some really excellent set pieces, as well as some that are just poorly executed. In opposition to the skill and strategy of the sniper mission, the escort of a captured and repaired German Panzer through an occupied township turns out to be nothing more then a race. Its a wasted opportunity, especially given the build-up to the capture, where the Panzer chases your ground forces through that same township while you search for weapons capable of taking it down. Shown as a symbol of terror in the beginning, you are given no opportunity to turn that around on the German forces.
This situation especially serves as a metaphor for the campaign. It represents a hard, brutal, and unforgiving fight with no room for grandstanding and zero allowance for heroism.
"Goddam it, you'll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole! Follow me!" - Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, 13th January 1943 (Guadalcanal)
There are times to take things slow and consider your moves, and times when decisions must be made with lightning quickness and pinpoint accuracy. While I am not the person you want making those decisions (my standard reflex is to stare at the screen, mouth agape in both amazement and defeat, as my base falls down around me), CoH2 gives you plenty of opportunities to be on both the receiving, and giving, end of that equation.
Theater of War mode offers both single player and co-op opportunities to test your mettle. Measuring progress on both the Russian and German sides of the war, challenges presented include defending a command points against waves of enemies, as well as fulfilling “insane” requirements with the smallest offering of troops imaginable. For those into that kind of challenge, this mode offers some real doozies, and does a fine job extending out the content past the multiplayer/skirmish mode.
I shouldn't say “past” the mulitplayer/skirmish mode. I should have said “in addition to” because there is nothing past the skirmishes. They are the heart of this game, and no doubt where the majority will spend the better part of their time. I want to say upfront that I did not get many chances to test the multiplayer out with other human opponents, so I cannot speak to any lag/connection issues that may or may not be present. I can hope, with a multiplayer beta running up until the day of release, that any issues would be ironed out, but I make no promises.
What I can speak to is the quality of the AI and their ability to deliver an absolute drubbing during skirmishes. As hinted at before, I get flustered when presented with too many things at once, and I often find RTS's extremely frustrating in that regard. I find it telling though, that no matter how frustrated I got, no matter how badly I got drubbed, I wanted to get back into the fight, even if it meant hitting the reset button and starting anew.
The AI, especially on the harder difficulties, really tests what your made of (In my case, its Dulce de Leche Jell-o pudding). It won't get caught by the same tactics multiple times, and tries its damnedest to make your life hell by using flanking and TrueSight to cover its motives.
With troops entering the battlefield from the same point each time, CoH2 has also even the field as far as building and expanding is concerned. It's now rather pointless to construct any kind of troop building structure outside of your main base, which in turn makes the holding of control points, and the resources they offer, even more strategic then before.
CoH2 has a leveling systems stretched across all of its modes, unlocking skins for vehicles, commanders with different troop effects, and Bulletins. Serving as buffs unlocked after hitting certain milestones, Bulletins are the only parts of the skirmish experience that seem a bit unfair, especially down certain available tracks. They're made available based on your level, but you can only use them after you've met certain milestones, like building a specific number of troops, or killing a number of enemy units. It remains to be seen whether the bonuses will mean much in the long run, but it can certainly stack the deck against new players.
"The Russian colossus...has been underestimated by us...whenever a dozen divisions are destroyed the Russians replace them with another dozen." - General Franz Halder,Army Chief of Staff, August 1941
Company of Heroes 2 can be a real beautiful game. Engagements played out without any amount of slowdown on my mediocre machine, and my complete meltdowns were a joy to watch, especially when my men were being rained down upon with flamethrowers. The obvious equivalent to actual molten lava, anytime you have the opportunity to arm anything with fire, take it. Not only is it beautiful, but the destruction it rains is epic to behold.
Buildings fall gloriously under the pounding of heavy artillery, offering a changing battlefield. This aspect leads to some interesting gameplay choices, especially when it comes to having to defend the same place you just finished bombing, once you realize that the buildings you just razed to the ground were pretty good defense options... which is probably why you're opponent was hunkered down in them.
I have some quibbles with the story cut scenes, as they are done using the same engine and models that drive the main game. From afar, and honestly from kind of close, active in game models look great in the heat of combat. Stoking the fires of intense conversation though, those same models looks stiff and uninteresting. Add to that the lame story of the one soldier who found himself at odds with the Red Armies tactics, and it leaves a lot on the table presentation wise.
There's also an awful lot of battlefield dialog that comes off as forced and stilted. I am sure there are tons of soldiers cursing in the extreme situations they face, but sometimes it seems that the developers were simply looking for ways to fit even more “adult” language in. I don't have a problem with it as much as it seems to just stand out, and as such I could have done without it.
I can't end things without mention of the sound design though. Yes, guns sound like guns, or atleast what I assume world war 2 era guns sound like, but the sound really adds a needed weight to everything. Motor shots sound off like pounding drums, and the combined fire of multiple armored tanks made me thankful that my keyboard wasn't equipped with the same rumble feature my console controllers are.
"If we come to a minefield, our infantry attacks exactly as if it weren't there." - General Georgy Zhakov,Red Army
With all the problems surrounding the collapse of THQ and the eventual purchase of developer Relic Entertainment by SEGA, I think that last quote holds a great amount of meaning. At once it expresses the absolute disdain for human life displayed by both armies along the Eastern Front, as well as an attitude of preservation despite adversity for the developers. While I may have issues with presentation and story on the campaign side, and some questions regarding certain aspects of multiplayer design, I have absolutely zero issues recommending this game to anyone who enjoys real time strategy. It's an strong addition to the genre, and does a fine job building upon the foundation set by the lauded Company of Heroes.
*first three quotes were taken from http://www.worldwar-2.net/famous-quotes/famous-quotes-index.htm, the last was taken from the game itself*