Company of Heroes 2 review
Relic Games may have been one of the casualties from the demise of publisher THQ, but luckily Sega was on hand to rescue the developer in time to see the release of Company of Heroes 2. As the labour of love sequel to an incredibly atmospheric and deep 2006 strategy game, Company of Heroes 2 moves the war to the Eastern Front and retains the same gritty, intense gameplay as the original.
The 14-mission campaign tries to give context to the Eastern front through a series of flashbacks that throw you between pivotal points of the conflict, starting with ground troops and unlocking heavy armour as you push the Nazi forces back through Russian territory. Levels are separated by CG cut-scenes, but the animation and voiceovers aren't anywhere near as engaging as Relic's Warhammer 40K games.
For Russia, World War 2 was a bitterly cold war of attrition, fought by conscripted soldiers that were woefully underequipped to take on the Nazi war machine. The sheer number of Russian forces played a big part in winning the war, and it becomes a critical mechanic throughout the game's campaign. Conscript soldiers can be called into battle quickly and cheaply, letting you bolster your squads if you take heavy losses.
It's a counter-intuitive way to play at first, as losing the majority of your forces usually means imminent defeat in other strategy games. However, you soon begin to rely on near instant reinforcements and become detached from your squads as you push them forwards against entrenched enemies – there's a disconnect here that mirrors the actions of the officers in charge during the actual conflict.
Managing your economy is still the most effective way to maintain battlefield superiority, as capturing the fuel and ammunition dumps scattering across each map rewards you with additional resources to spend on unit upgrades and reinforcements. Heavy machine gun teams can make quick work of enemy ground troops, and equipping conscripts with grenades lets them take out entrenched enemies from relatively safe distances.
Cover still plays a major part in keeping your troops out of the line of fire, with mortar holes, blown out buildings and crumbling brick walls providing defensive bonuses when assaulting entrenched forces. You'll also have to make liberal use of covering fire and flanking manoeuvres if you want to succeed, as advancing on bunkered enemies is a sure-fire way to lose a squad of conscripts.
Even on normal difficulty, Company of Heroes 2 is a punishing game, but you can at least appreciate the gorgeous visuals as your squads get obliterated and you restart each mission for the tenth time. Although strategy games aren't always renowned for their graphical fidelity, Relic has done an incredible job with the game engine; snow blows across the battlefield, individual units have an impressive amount of detail when you zoom in on them and buildings crumble under artillery fire. You'll need a seriously powerful PC to run it on maximum settings, with our GTX Titan struggling to maintain a smooth frame rate.
Snow looks spectacular, but it also creates a tactical challenge during gameplay. At certain times, each map can experience blizzards which greatly reduce your units' line of sight. Leave squads out in the cold for too long and they'll freeze to death, so you'll have to build fires, take shelter in buildings or ride in vehicles to keep warm.
This mostly applies to the multiplayer mode, which suffers from an overreliance on Call of Duty-style unit upgrades and unlocks. Each one requires you to complete specific challenges, which won't often come up during regular play, so it quickly becomes a grind if you want the maximum number of boosts and bonuses.
There weren't a huge number of players online during our time with the game, and we doubt it will ever match the likes of Starcraft 2 in terms of popularity, but there's a dedicated following so you should always be able to find a match. Skilled players will quickly steamroll newcomers though, so it's worth putting in a lot of time offline before trying you luck with human opponents. The Theatre of War mode provides an ideal training ground, with varied tactical challenges to be played alone or with friends.
At best, Company of Heroes 2 matches the original in terms of gameplay and bests it for graphical fidelity. However, the new additions don't alter the formula dramatically, begging the question why this wasn't released as an expansion pack during the first game's heyday. Strategy fans will still appreciate the campaign and Theatre of War missions, but it's an inconsistent experience that can't compete with the likes of Starcraft in terms of multiplayer finesse.
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