Company of Heroes 2 Review: Relic Wins a Land War in Asia
The new setting also brings in two new factions, the German Ostheer and the Soviet Red Army. Over the course of COH2′s lifespan, the opposing armies will clash hundreds of thousands of times, as players use a streamlined, attractive matchmaking system to battle each other in 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4 matches. Skirmish mode also offers a robust, if slightly idiosyncratic challenge against the AI.
How do these factions square up in practice? German units are expensive and powerful, but not particularly versatile. The Soviets can churn out infantry in great numbers, but their late-stage units are vulnerable to powerful German armor if not used correctly. On the other hand, the Soviets also have a speed advantage, and can move through their tech tree much more quickly. Debate about the details has raged online since the beginning of the beta test, as it does over any popular game. Nevertheless, the two factions feel balanced but different, which, though required for the game’s success, is still no easy feat. Relic also distinguished itself throughout the alpha and beta tests by listening to fan feedback and implementing sensible and satisfying changes.
Gameplay is the same capture-and-hold style familiar from the original game. Three Victory Points spread across the map are the key to, well, victory. Hold them to cause the other team’s score to tick down; when it reaches zero, game over. Subsidiary capture points scattered around the map provide manpower (the basic currency of recruiting units), fuel (required for recruiting vehicles), and munitions (used for upgrading units and triggering special abilities such as grenades).
In the original Company of Heroes, dedicated munitions and fuel points were more numerous. In COH2, there are only a few per map, but players can choose to upgrade manpower points to increase munitions or fuel intake. It’s a clever bit of streamlining that keeps the focus of the combat on the Victory Points, where it belongs. Subtle changes like this are all over COH2. New units now arrive from the edge of the map, rather than springing fully formed from underground bunkers. Vehicles now have a dedicated “reverse” button; gone are the days when unreliable pathfinding would expose vulnerable rear-facing tank armor to bazooka-wielding G.I.’s. Even if a vehicle does become heavily damaged, infantry squads can sometimes salvage it. They can also capture resource points simply by taking cover in the general vicinity, rather than standing exposed by the point itself.
One bit of streamlining is particularly noticeable: the first game’s “doctrine” system enabled players to spend in-match experience to unlock powerful special abilities, using complicated branching tech trees. Doctrines have been replaced by “commanders.” Before each match, players select a loadout of three commanders, each with their own abilities to choose from. At certain experience milestones, new abilities are unlocked, and easily deployed from a bar above the main HUD. These range from unit upgrades and brief reconnaissance overflights to massive artillery bombardments. By playing matches and progressing through COH2′s complicated metagame, players can access new commanders and new abilities.
In accordance with tradition, COH2 includes a 14-mission singleplayer campaign. The story begins in the Gulag, where former Red Army officer Lev Isakovich is being interrogated by an old comrade-in-arms. The missions are all flashbacks, starting in Stalingrad (with an awkwardly on-the-nose homage to 2001′s Enemy at the Gates) and eventually spanning the entire war, all the way to Berlin.
Though initially a true believer in the Soviet system, Isakovich is quickly disillusioned by brutal and underhanded Red Army tactics. Relic’s storytellers provide a faithful crash course in the sanguinary history of the Eastern Front, a subject rarely addressed in American popular culture. Isakovich’s experiences are all based on real events, and they’re a good mix of broad strokes and fine detail. The writers aren’t afraid to deal with little-known subjects, like the Polish resistance movement.