Company of Heroes 2 reviewed: Two steps forward, one step back

Company of Heroes 2

By 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.

Good:

  • 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

Bad:

  • 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.

12 comments (Leave your own)

Good review, and agree on most points.

 

What sort of Conscript tweaks were you thinking? I think the only time they’re a problem is with Hit the Dirt. With Urrah and cheaper molotovs they’re probably better early game than Grenadiers but the Ostheer support stuff like HMGs is a lot stronger as well, so the early game is still pretty fluid and interesting.

 

A well thought out review and a pleasure to read. Thanks!
I wonder how the game stacks up against the Men of War series. I’ve gotten tremendous value out of MoW’s single player and third party content over the years and would love to see a 2.0 Would this be it?

 

Well, from my own personal experience, Men of War was superior to the original CoH, just the sheer depth and detail added on small things like armour penetration.

If this game is just more of the same, which is what the beta felt like, than I would still rate MoW higher than CoH. CoH is the ‘arcadey’ version between the two.

 

Having a blast. I’m glad it’s like old CoH, just improved.

 

Pleeeeease look into the Men of War series guys and girls. They’ve been doing everything bar the snowstorms for a while now. In addition to being cheaper, there are 5 unique factions included in the base game and much more attention to detail and realism than the Company of Heroes series.

Thanks for the review though Alex! Answered everything I needed to know, good job!

 

MoW and CoH are completely different games. Not only are 2 of the 3 letters completely different, but one is resource management, rock paper scissors, ZED alternative, the other, a micro-managers wet dream.

I wish Men of War would have a way to get never-ending resources. I like to turtle, both in the unisex bathrooms as well as in my gaming life.

 
kinistoniscool

BEST GAME EVER :D still haven’t clocked the first and expansion, i’ll wait till cheaper

 
steve_rogers42

Wow so much hate…

The Beta was brilliant, and as above, conscripts dont need to be tweaked, they work much the same was as imp’s in DoW2…. which is another thing…

The XP progression is also present in DOW2 and its hardly noticeable. What it does is reward a player for using a specific faction, unit or weapon teir A LOT. The buffs become less noticeably since its usually only for a specific unit or weapon, and as a whole, that specific unit or weapon isnt a match winner.

Yes you will get into a game where someone has a unit fully unlocked and they base their whole attack around that unit, but then, its an rts, and you have scissors to their paper, it just makes the game fun.

TBH, CoH2 is a hell load more of a smooth rts game than any of relics previous titles and this shines through, from the beta they have managed to get rid of a lot of the things that people had issues with (crappy menus, too many menus etc) and managed to refine, no, reduce like a fine sauce the game to make it to what it is.

Also, i must have a lot of dslc to unlock to see the similarity in CoH2 and Shogun2′s menu’s…. and i mean A LOT.

 

Thanks for the review. It has, unfortunately, confirmed my biggest concern all along…That, while it looks pretty good, it has been hard to separate it significantly from the original that I dropped $80 on over 7 years(!) ago. I enjoyed the original and will more than likely enjoy this too, but while the true line-of-sight system sounds like it will add quite a bit to the game, I just don’t see what we’re being offered as justifying $60-$80. I’ll wait for a sale. :-/

I am a huge fan of Relic, but I just can’t help think that this is a rather cynical exploitation of their own franchise. The improvements that are being shown are really not that much more than you’d normally find in a significant DLC/expansion pack. Sure the scale is larger, but I expected something a little more technically impressive and creative considering the gap between its predecessor.

 

maybe its just me but it doesn’t look half as good as the screenshots make it out to be :(

 

I might just stick with CoH with the eastern front mod

 
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