Relic or Russia: Who’s Rewriting History in Company of Heroes 2?
Despite his histrionics, TheBadComedian’s video is convincing. COH2′s singleplayer campaign returns again and again to examples of Soviet brutality. During cutscenes and gameplay, retreating troops seek to deny the Germans shelter by burning down houses with civilians still inside, and destroy fuel stores and bridges without regard to the safety of fellow soldiers stationed nearby. Officers summarily execute soldiers who disobey orders while trying to rescue a talented superior. One major character murders Polish partisans in cold blood after collaborating with them to capture an important German prisoner.
Relic claims that all these incidents are based on historically documented cases, which might well be true. Due to the way the incidents are presented, however, it’s easy to assume that they were common, even typical occurrences. Written mission briefings speak in sweeping generalities. The game’s main character, Lev Abramovich Isakovich (a name with two patronyms, which strikes Russian critics as completely inauthentic) has a Zelig-like ability to show up every time someone in the Red Army command structure does something morally repugnant.
Russian critics of the game contend that while many of the things Relic depicts did occur, they were isolated incidents. This claim is largely supported in an excellent article by Polygon’s Colin Campbell, who asked a number of historical experts in both the US and the CIS to address the controversy. All agree that Relic is guilty of distorting the historical record in service of the game’s story. TheBadComedian’s video also points to at least one instance in which a Soviet general is quoted badly out of context in order to impugn the war effort.
In my review of the game, I was critical of the campaign, particularly one sequence set in Stalingrad that sits at the crux of the current controversy: as terrified soldiers arrive by boat, they are handed rifles, but only one rifle for every two soldiers. Shouting officers then order them to charge headlong at German machine guns. When these suicidal attacks are unsuccessful, the retreating troops are in turn gunned down by their own officers.
This sequence might sound familiar, if you’ve ever seen the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates. For the introduction to Company of Heroes 2, Relic produced what is effectively a shot-by-shot recreation of the scene as it appears in the movie. The only problem? According to Campbell’s sources, there’s absolutely no historical evidence that incidents like this ever occurred. The Siege of Stalingrad was a grueling, brutal conflict, but the Red Army had plenty of rifles. Soldiers in Stalingrad were executed for retreating without orders or desertion, but not mowed down with machine guns, within sight of the enemy. And though there are some examples of “blocking detachments” placed behind formations of troops that were likely to retreat, they were generally some distance from the front lines.
It’s easy to understand why Russian gamers are so angry. Relic took a lazy, ahistorical piece of Hollywood fiction and simply repeated it, depicting the Russian army as disorganized, tactically naive, and all-too-willing to murder its own soldiers. The studio even turns this dubious history of friendly fire into a game mechanic, building in a tiny commissar who guns down retreating troops.
Looking back over the campaign with the controversy in mind, it’s easy to identify other design mistakes, including Relic’s broad claims of “historical accuracy” and “authenticity” in the build-up to release, which make the creative licenses the developers did take seem more egregious. There’s also the contrast between the way the Russians are depicted in Company of Heroes 2 and the sanitized depictions of American soldiers in the original Company of Heroes — regrettable, if not particularly surprising.
Russian gamers are probably used to this kind of Cold War-influenced homerism. Much worse is the way that even German soldiers in the original game are depicted with a kind of exaggerated politeness. To dwell on Soviet sins while glossing completely over German war crimes — in both Company of Heroes games — is the height of unfairness.