Despite some fancy new additions, a lacklustre campaign and some worries about pay-to-win hold this title back.
By Alex Walker on June 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm
It boggles me why Relic doesn’t get as much credit as Blizzard for their efforts in the real-time strategy space.
I’m just as big a StarCraft fan as anyone else (you may have noticed), but Blizzard have the advantage of working with their established franchises. Relic, on the other hand, revitalised the Warhammer 40,000 franchise in video games, created one of the most acclaimed RTS titles in history, and were responsible for one of the most underrated games ever created, Homeworld.
Why on earth they never picked up the Homeworld rights themselves confuses me, but maybe it’s because they were too busy working on Company of Heroes 2. In fairness, the collapse of THQ did leave a scar: the game was pushed back from an earlier release date of March, probably a result of the studio’s $30 million sale to Sega.
You can actually see some of Sega’s influence straight from the CoH 2 start menu; the design looks reminiscent of Shogun 2 once all the DLC is unlocked. You can see Sega’s touch all over Steam. The commanders, who grant various abilities and powers in-game, can all be purchased in packages for USD $4 each. With the Australian dollar the way it is, you’re looking at AUD $25 if you want to buy all the commanders outright.
Luckily, the commanders don’t actually have that much influence — most of the damage lies in the Russian footmen, the Red Army’s long-range weaponry or the strength of the German armor division. Relic’s latest Essence Engine is even more influential, thanks to the improved line-of-sight and environmental systems.
A unit’s field of vision no longer reveals the area behind solid objects. Tactics can be much more dynamic when camping behind a row of trees or a building actually works. Units are more effective, which makes the game a little more skillful since your units become far more valuable the longer you’re able to keep them alive.
Fighting in a blizzard is especially complicated. Units die in the snow unless they’re next to a fire, cover or in a vehicle. It’s fine if you’ve already fortified your position, but taking back territory in the early stages without significant vehicle support is a formidable challenge.
Playing maps with rivers also become a lot more interesting in a blizzard. A sharp commander can bombard the ice beneath enemy units and armour, condemning them to their frozen deaths. If you’re really cute, you can even use some of the more powerful long-range units — the Russian Katyusha’s range is exceptional and perfect for shelling buildings or similarly-sized targets — to permanently close routes off.
It’s a cute tactic, and rarely applicable, but it’s an example of the kind of tactical acuity that CoH 2 fosters. However despite all the new units and all the promise of Russian aggression, CoH 2 is, broadly speaking, exactly the same as its predecessor. Games play out at an intense but methodical pace; squads can thin out incredibly quickly, but the victory points always tick over with the regularity of a pendulum.
The campaign is much more leisurely. The AI, even compared to its behaviour in skirmishes, doesn’t press you anywhere nearly as quickly as a real human opponent, so it’s perfectly viable to sit back, grab a coffee and just wait patiently while a Katushka or a couple of mortar teams safely shell a position.
Snipers play a larger role in single-player as well. They’re immune to the cold and with regular blizzards they are your most cost-effective unit for reconnaissance. Using their flares in multiplayer is a fairly expensive tactic, but it’s by far and away the easiest method to smash through the earlier stages of the campaign — if you have to wait for more munitions, then simply establish a nice entrenched position until you’re prepared to move forward.
Given CoH 2′s focus on the Eastern Front, it’s a given that the atrocities of war would get a look in as well. But Relic have made the ruthlessness of Stalin’s forces the undercurrent of the campaign, with the missions playing out as a series of flashbacks between an imprisoned journalist during his interrogation by a former commanding officer.
Occasionally the sheer brutality of the Russians hits home, but the campaign never lingers on the horrors of war for too long. It’s a curious decision, because the military buffs that love games of this ilk would no doubt enjoy a greater look into the true horrors of World War II. Fans of vanilla real-time strategy games might have a different take on the matter, but it’s one of those tightropes you walk when you try to blend in as much historical authenticity as Company of Heroes does.
It’s that uneasy mix between retreading history but not following it to the letter that makes the campaign a bit of a dull note. At first, you’re fighting a battle in 1942. Then you flashback to another fight a year prior. Then one a few years afterwards. It makes sense in the context of the mini-plot being played out, but it’s a waste against the much more interesting narrative that could have been woven over the course of 1941 to 1944.
That’s a mistake the Theatre of War, a series of cooperative and single-player skirmishes and challenges, doesn’t make. As you complete the various German and Russian scenarios, the theatre progresses from the year Operation Barbarossa began, 1941, to its conclusion. With the inclusion of skirmishes and AI opponents set to play with a particular flair, the theatre is more engaging, more entertaining and more fulsome.
You can play custom games outside of that, of course, and there’s always the expanded multiplayer options on offer. Relic’s centralised service supports all the matchmaking you could hope for, although some very basic options, like a server browser, or the ability to select a Random faction rather than being forced to choose one side, are missing.
The overall direction aside, it’s clear that the growth of eSports has affected even Relic. Streaming directly to Twitch.tv is integrated from the opening menu, and there’s also notifications on the front page to the most popular live broadcasts. There’s no detail about the streams beyond the channel name and the broadcast title, and the streams don’t open a web-player in-game, but it does make the process more convenient.
A less enticing prospect is the levelling up that occurs throughout the entire game. Most of the unlocks are aesthetic, although more accurate artillery, slightly stronger tanks and more durable infantry are also available later on. It’s only a very marginal improvement in most cases — a few percent here or there — but it just screams “pay to win”, which is the very antithesis of what a strategy game should be.
Whether I’m level 1 or level 50, I should start the game on the same base footing as my opponent. Ignoring factors out of the player’s control, one player should not immediately be at a disadvantage. And while the matchmaking system will ensure some degree of fairness in that regard, it shouldn’t be necessary. If I want to play someone vastly superior to me for the experience of doing so, we should at least begin on the same level.
The merits of an incentivised, XP-based system have never outweighed that blatant disadvantage, and it makes me bitterly unhappy to see it here. Perhaps that’s a tad elitist on my part, although I’m prepared to cop any criticism people are willing to level.
But in lobbing your abuse at me, consider one thing: while the system should be perfectly fine now, when everybody begins at the start — what happens a year from now, when an expansion releases, or the cost of CoH 2 drops to bargain prices in a Steam sale? What happens when someone decides to pick the game up for a song, only to jump into a dwindled community, stacked with hardcore fans entrenched in the metagame?
What happens when everything those players produce is, by design, just a little bit more efficient? Is that really how a strategy game should work? No. It isn’t.
But by the same token, there’s always been a tactic disadvantage in Company of Heroes: if you don’t have the premium position, you’re always going to struggle. I suppose that’s what makes the game so intense; the knowledge that such small pieces of territory matter so much, and the psychological impact of planning over an extended period to best exploit that fact.
It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also exactly the same as the original Company of Heroes, and that’s not for everyone. Some people enjoy the fact that, for instance, grenadiers will do more damage from certain distances due to the efficiency of their weaponry. The relentless battle for good cover is thoroughly engaging once you fully understand all the principles at play.
But that’s not for everyone. Chances are you already know where you stand anyway given the stature Company of Heroes carries. There could be more improvements, sure: save game files are inordinately large, the in-game tutorials are just videos, and the cut-scenes are ugly. If you’re a fan of the series though, none of these matter.
And therein lies the rub: every RTS fan will have some fun, military buffs more so — but only the true believers will stick around.
- A faithful successor to the Company of Heroes name
- For the motherland!
- Line of sight and environmental improvements are hugely influential
- Theatre of War offers a good mix between historical battles, skirmishes and challenges
- Plenty of hours for solo players
- Automatic matchmaking system works well
- Campaign is easily the weakest component; the plot and the missions work against each other
- Online progression system screams imbalance, even if it’s only incremental
- Russian Conscripts could really use a bit of tweaking
- No in-game server browser
- No major changes or revolutions in gameplay
- Can’t search for online matches as a Random
Company of Heroes 2 is $48 on Green Man Gaming if you use the coupon GMG20-6WUSQ-LBC4U before the end of June.
However, even if you miss out it’s still only $60 on GMG, whereas Steam will charge you $80. Shop around!
This review copy was provided by the publisher.