Developer: Relic Entertainment / Publisher: Sega / Played on: PC / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence]
Even though the experience isn’t strictly pleasant, there’s nothing like a drink of bottom-shelf vodka at the right time. It’s rowdy and caustic, and somehow through it you feel a connection to every poor college student and recent divorcee with nothing to lose. I won’t say that Company of Heroes 2 taught me what being a Russian foot soldier in the winter of 1942 feels like, but it is brash, violent, and oddly cathartic for a game of real-time strategy maneuvering and tactical execution. And while the game’s quality shows cracks under magnification, as a package it’s enjoyable and dense.
As implied by the title, Company of Heroes 2 is very similar to 2006’s Company of Heroes albeit with a few tweaks to mirror the game’s Russian focus. Rather than play as U.S. forces liberating France in 1944, you now command Russian troops on the Eastern Front starting in 1941. The story itself isn’t profound—you play events recalled by a now-imprisoned soldier as he recollects his experiences to an interrogator. The story interludes provide effective downtime between the chaos of battle, but it rarely intersects with the actual missions in a meaningful way.
That doesn’t matter too much though because Company of Heroes 2 is fantastically fun to play. Like the original CoH and series developer Relic’s Dawn of War series, combat focuses more on tactics rather than overarching strategy. Instead of a full army, you command a handful of units and must utilize their unique abilities to overcome enemy infantry squads and mechanized armor. As in the original, harnessing combined arms to overcome threats and achieve your objective is a sublime joy. That said, a different flavor in Heroes 2 reflects the brutal conditions the Red Army had to endure.
A few key mechanics from the setting end up being little more than novelty. First, there’s the brutal cold that saps heat from your units, slowing their movement speed and eventually killing them. This is well used in the campaign—sources of heat like buildings and fires are just as valuable a defensible position as good cover. Multiplayer matches move quickly enough to render the cold moot, however. The game also replicates Stalin’s infamous Order No. 227 in the form of a commandant at your base that shoots any unit retreating from battle. It’s a historically accurate notion, but in practice it means your unit dies in the field or at your base, with very little consequence differentiating the two.
Company of Heroes 2 finds more success in impressing the brutality and body count of the Eastern Front. Most missions provide the ability to summon a unit of conscripts at no cost, to either throw into the meat grinder of battle or merge into more specialized units to keep the headcount high. The conditions of battle don’t let you wax philosophic about the implications of sacrificing soldiers so callously. Several campaign levels, especially early on, will thrust you into ridiculous, unwinnable encounters without telegraphing that you’re playing an intended loss. It’s stressful, frustrating, and brilliant in its method of conjuring situations where you can’t save everyone and victory is impossible. As the campaign goes on (and, historically, the Red Army turned the tide of the war), you start to fight on more equal ground and win more legitimate encounters. Rather than narrative, there’s a real emotional arc to Heroes 2’s campaign, and that’s just cool.
What’s also cool is Heroes 2’s quality of production. In visuals and sound, this game exudes personality. Not only can you zoom down to see individual soldiers but intermittent voice callouts from the soldiers convey that dour, Russian humor oh-so-well. More than the technical accomplishments of the game, the spectacle of the campaign levels make the battlefield feel much larger than the small box you stare down upon. Bombers fly overhead and mortar shells fall all around to make the battlefield every bit as hectic as the Russian levels in 2005’s Call of Duty 2.
Little problems speckling the gameplay experience are less appreciable. Units will occasionally get stuck, run out into open fire, or just flat out not do what you tell them to do. The interface is not the most natural instrument either; finding and understanding the costs of units and abilities takes some hunting. Additionally, on a macro level, understanding the flow of a match isn’t easy. The campaign effectively guides you through the game’s mechanics in baby steps, but it isn’t quite the top-to-bottom multiplayer primer I’d hoped. Simply put, there are small annoyances that pervade certain moments no matter what mode you play. They’re never enough to spoil the experience, but they’re fundamental enough to put a slight damper on every session you spend with the game.
That’s tragic considering the volume of content crammed in to Company of Heroes 2. Not only will the lengthy campaign deliver ten solid hours of play (more if you’re courageous enough for harder difficulties), but the Theater of War provides single-player and co-op challenges with a more arcade flavor. Bonus and flex objectives unlock according to your performance and imbue these modes with plenty of mileage for players looking for intense evenings with friends and the Red Army.
That’s doubly true of multiplayer, which stands as a tactician’s dream. Making statements on the balance of multiplayer in a review is always perilous, given that balance is an ever-moving target, but the maps in Company of Heroes 2 are a little large for the given population caps for my taste. While encounters are sparse in the early going given the real estate to cover, they are critical and decisive. Out-maneuvering your opponent to capture a point is an intellectual thrill not shared by other, more action-packed games. Rather than say the multiplayer in Heroes 2 is perfect in its current state, I can confidently say it has great potential to host epic encounters and push you to your competitive limit. A raft of maps give you enough boards on which to war, while boundless multiplayer unlocks and customizations provide just the hook to play One More Match.
It’s hard to ask for more from a game in terms of content. Company of Heroes 2 provides a robust campaign, substantive side challenges, and a deep multiplayer that has the potential to foster a thriving community. It’s unfortunate, then, that control issues and obtuse game systems cloud the experience. Even still, this game earns its designation as the sequel to one of the most appreciated RTS games of the past ten years. If you played the original Company of Heroes, you know that’s a high bar to clear.