Platform: PC

It’s hard to determine exactly why World War Two has been romanticised by Hollywood and novelists alike and why so many are obsessed with every part of it; from heroic tales of valour to weird and wonderful military inventions. Perhaps the root of this obsession is the ease with which sides can be picked and a popular history which for many years presented nations involved as representing either good or evil? Perhaps it is the prevalence of views which insist that the reasons for fighting were just and honourable? Whatever the reason, the Company of Heroes 2 from Relic Entertainment provides a dose of WWII nostalgia that is hard not to fall in love with. As well as adding to the plethora of games based on this conflict however, the game does do something new; it bases itself on two nations which are for most of us in the UK not as easy to identify with as those featured in most Hollywood films. It introduces a new idea, how does a player from the UK view armies of two nations that have traditionally been presented as being on the greyer side of the conflict? No war is simple and evils exist on all sides but only a fool would not admit that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in modern history. It will be interesting to see how the lack of the traditional ‘good guys’ will affect the reception this title receives.

 photo coh-01_zps09ce5140.jpgIt is refreshing to play a game centred on WWII which is not filled with “what oh” Brits, “schnell” Germans and “let’s go shoot those darn Nazis” Americans; although admittedly it does have its share of German and Soviet stereotypes which are hard not to enjoy. A healthy dose of exploding vehicles which sometimes blow up like a firework after being shot with an anti-tank rifle, engineers capable of fixing a tank with a welding torch in a few minutes and soldiers able to withstand several blasts from a tank’s main gun make for some fast paced and exciting battles. This certainly is no history book and neither is it a battle simulation, but what is taken away from realism is retuned many fold in playability and fun. The game’s designers have made an effort to put a human face on the soldiers and officers of the Red Army; perhaps to justify casting them as the lead for the single player campaign? The very fact that a game has been made shows the growing popularity of this part of history but the moral dilemma is evident; how to sell to someone the idea that he/she is controlling the armed forces of a nation responsible for the murder of millions of people in forced labour camps? This also applied to the first game of the series where players controlled the forces of Nazi Germany, except this time the Soviet army is the focus of the game.

So enough pondering on the moral dilemmas faced by players and developers and on to the game itself. Red Army Choir-like music keeps the tension and atmosphere while orders screamed in the midst of battle and constantly changing game environment make the campaign feel fast-paced and exciting. A lot of RTS (Real Time Strategy) games have a tendency to lose pace after the first few missions. The Soviet campaign doesn’t fall victim to this and has a feel of being a desperate struggle to defend territory against a remorseless enemy onslaught. One of my favourite missions is entitled “Support is on the way”; it features a desperate defence of the town of Mtsensk by infantry units supported by a few artillery squads, the town is almost lost when at the very last minute a cavalry charge by T-34 tanks saves the day. It is hard to lose this particular fight, even on ‘General’ (Hard) difficulty but it is nevertheless incredibly exciting. When winter sets in it is hard not to feel a sense of desperation from the hard punishment dished out by Mother Nature. The developers have made a great job of trying to replicate the weather and hazards associated with it that soldiers on the Eastern Front faced.

 photo coh-02_zps0606201e.jpgThe single player campaign is enjoyable and immersive but the multiplayer arena is where the real test of strategic prowess occurs. The Artificial Intelligence of computer controlled units is challenging even on ‘Standard’ (Normal) difficulty but easy enough to be enjoyed at a non-break-neck pace; Hard and Expert difficulty AI opponents are surely reserved for very dedicated players. This is definitely where the game’s strength lies and as with most RTS titles, the real pleasure lays with the open ended multiplayer skirmish maps where a player is free to make his mark in any way he wishes. The game features a custom skirmish builder where the player can face off against computer or human controlled forces with a range of maps accommodating up to 8 armies in 4 vs. 4 battles. Most maps have a summer and winter version with the weather system adding an extra dimension to battles. A new feature has been added to the incredibly enjoyable game modes described above; now in Call of Duty style there is a single player as well as co-op challenge mode missions/maps where the campaign and multiplayer modes are combined; the name of this game mode is Theatre of War. The scene is set with text as with campaign missions and there is slightly less free reign than in a skirmish map but the combination works remarkably well.

Similarly to the first game in the series, playing against other human players in CoH2 becomes a very calculated affair where timing and selection of units is essential to winning. Many relish this style of play and competition is fierce. I must admit that personally I prefer enjoying a skirmish mission against a computer controlled foe where I can take time to build forces and manipulate the battlefield. Now, Theatre of War might well become my second favourite aspect of the game.

When comparing Company of Heroes 2 to its predecessor, the sequel has some positive additions. The game environment not only responds to player actions where firepower and heavy armour can destroy most of the game world but also changes with the weather requiring the aspiring tactician to often alter the plan. Winter maps make battles a matter of survival, deep snow slows movement and an artillery barrage can break frozen rivers and lakes sending forces crossing it to an icy grave. The freezing temperatures affect troops caught out in the open and players must make an extra effort to protect infantry during blizzards. Then there are the sound effects: the orchestral score, the explosions and the shouts and screams of the soldiers add atmosphere and depth to the experience of playing this game and compared to CoH1 are a big improvement.

Other useful improvements include those to the User Interface; unit descriptions are available to view for reference during the battle and are easily readable with a summary of each unit’s strengths and weaknesses. The way the cost of each unit is displayed when the mouse hovers over it is quick to read which is useful in the heat of a player vs. player battle. Having said this, the design of the UI does feel a little unfinished and the fonts and icons don’t really match the game’s design overall; it has the appearance of a home-made ‘mod’. In fact the game’s design is generally a bit mismatched and as with problems described below looks like it could do with a final retouch to make it seem more like the finished product than a test version.

The game does have a lot to live up to and unfortunately as with many sequels fails somewhat at matching the greatness of the first game in this series. The tutorial videos are short and help to get new players off the ground but are a little too quick and some things are left unexplained which may throw those new to the franchise. For example the intelligence bulletin system is not explained in any detail and it forms an important part of tactical customisation of the player’s army. Although the single player campaign is fun to start off with, the plot does lack depth and the quality of cut-scenes which gave the first game of the series a ‘Band of Brothers’ feel is not great in CoH2. It seems that the developers spent a lot of time on the game’s meaty inner workings but rushed the finishing touches.

Then there are the extras; the first Company of Heroes game injected additional armies in expansion packs; by setting the game on the Eastern Front the developers have perhaps limited this possibility? While we are on the subject of expansions, there is an online store utilising Steam’s technology which jumps on the band wagon along with numerous other titles and offers gamers virtual products in exchange for real money. So far the only available items are fancy camouflage patterns for vehicles and hopefully nothing will be sold here which will give players an in-game advantage.

 photo coh-03_zps3d53ec82.jpgDuring the early stages of playing the game a considerable amount of crashes were noted. These occurred half way through the tutorial mission, when loading save games, restarting missions and attempting to quit to the menu. Also some glitches with unit movement were observed during campaign missions including units stuck next to buildings. Another peculiarity exists in the menu where the Theatre of War icon displays a progress bar but the single player campaign does not. These will no doubt be resolved with later patches but proved to be frustrating while playing the early release version of the game. Other features will hopefully also be added; it would be particularly useful if stacked actions would show on the map when ‘shift’ is held down as in more recent sequels of Command and Conquer. At the moment when a unit’s actions are stacked these do not show up in the UI in any way.

Overall the game is a good effort at a sequel to a title that would never be easy to match; after all, as the developers often quote, it was the highest rated Real Time Strategy game of all time on Metacritic. The basic formula remains the same and a few extras including a new graphics engine and weather system make it distinctive enough to be well worth a try. The initial niggles will hopefully be fixed though patches and the game will run smoothly. There is space for improvement and although the single player campaign cut-scenes will probably remain perhaps the User Interface will be revamped to achieve some aesthetic uniformity throughout the game. Unit movement, especially stacked actions, also need to be addressed to ensure that the game does not continue to feel unfinished.