Sometimes, less is more. It’s a philosophy Relic adhered to when thinking of Dawn of War II, and it’s clearly one they’ve employed here. Dawn of War II was more about mobile unit defenses, and Company of Heroes 2 has, in some ways, mirrored this change – and numerous others. It’s true that with expanded custom army options and the ability to unlock and level up, there’s a whole lot more back-bench management than its predecessor, but when it comes down to gameplay, Company of Heroes 2 is the epitome of easy to pick up, hard to master.
Relic have been a bit cheeky in developing a successor to the hugely popular Company of Heroes, because if it weren’t for the subtle change in dynamic of gameplay, I’d be tempted to look at this as more of an official expansion – but when it comes down to content, the venerable CoH mod-teams have given us a lot of what Company of Heroes 2 has, and everything else seems to have come from Men of War. Select visibility, picking up enemy weapons, bringing in units off-map instead of building them on-site; these are all hallmarks of Men of War: Assault Squad - the most popular World War 2 RTS featuring the Soviets. However, Men of War offered much more when it comes to units, granting players the ability to run wild as the Japanese, American, Commonwealth, Soviets and Germans – each with a huge amount of units, and their own contextual maps.
This could be one of the reasons Company of Heroes 2, to me, feels much more of an eSports compatible title. Maps are much more spread out even than in the original game, and there’s a huge shift from war-porn authenticity and chaotic battles to much more streamlined, controlled, and balanced fights. Again using Dawn of War II as the example of how one of Relic’s RTS games seems to play quite differently to its predecessor.
This is all well and good for serious and competitive RTS players who enjoy micromanagement, but my personal taste veers more towards playing creatively in a big messy, sexy, violent pit, than the tight and controlled balancing of eSports RTS titles. I played Company of Heroes primarily with the Blitzkreig mod, and I fear that I shall be looking out quite enthusiastically for the same realism treatment here.
I’m not here to push my taste on anyone though, because Relic have truly triumphed in bringing a genuinely well balanced eSports RTS into the ever-growing sports arena, I just can’t help but feel that’s a bit of a shame – because this one, however good on paper just doesn’t feel as fun as its predecessor – and now I’m torn. Company of Heroes 2 does feel, however, a little like an expansion that should have happened at least 4 years ago.
The campaign has its own problems, primarily caused by the games focus on multiplayer. Now, before you start, I agree with you. A multiplayer-centric title should focus on the multiplayer element over the single player, but the shift into a more balanced, eSports dynamic means that the campaign itself suffers from a sort of dry lack of authenticity. For the most part, it holds you hands pointing out the locations of each objective and how to do them, and for that reason playing on the harder difficulties is probably a good idea. That said, clicking around chunky squads of partially invulnerable units – which feel like hero units in some ways – makes the whole thing feel like a tutorial for the multiplayer.
Company of Heroes had a largely successful campaign, enriched by the expansions, each of which came with their own, and whilst Relic have clearly tried to invoke the chaotic nature of the Russian front, it doesn’t really feel as immersive or energetic as I’d hoped. There’s a lot of pick up this to kill this and defend this location for X amount of time, and each mission is a succession of short mission objectives, on maps that mirror the simplicity of the multiplayer – which is a far cry from something like Lyon from the original game.
There are some contextual pre-rendered cut-scenes, which follow the story of a solider’s unit, and these do a little to add some context and authenticity to the campaign, but largely this is a far cry from the extensive RPG elements introduced to Dawn of War II which made the component genuinely as enjoyable as the different albeit similarly fun multiplayer component of that game. There’s nothing like this here, and the campaign is reduced in part to a series of objectives lacking in any sense of realism, which is what I find attractive about the prospect of World War 2 RTS games – the chaos. It’s all very streamlined, and it’s all very controlled. Many of you won’t care about the campaign, but for those who do, you’ll find an enjoyable albeit slightly limited foray into the Russian front, that could have been made into a spectacular if Relic had swung in the way of Blitzkreig (the mod) – but that would have invariably deterred from the multiplayer, which is clearly the focus.
The new multiplayer lobby has a competent matchmaking system, which makes it easier to start and jump into ‘comp stomps’ with random AI players and friends, and the matchmaking system is fast. This lobby also serves as your interface to customise and pick your army, using unlockables (or downloadables) gained from playing. Customisation is, of course, a great addition – and most of what is new in Company of Heroes 2 shines here. Here, you’re able to pick from unit variations you’ve unlocked, which come with variable abilities. At first, it feels a little convoluted but becomes clear once you dabble a little. You’re able to make a different set of customsations for both the Russians and the Germans – and so you should, because you’re stuck with those armies.
The first and most overwhelming difference is the change in the abilities interface employed in the first game. Here, you’re on a linear path of abilities chosen almost from the start of the game. This system offers much more streamlined abilities than the first game, which often offered a number of defensive and offensive abilities, but this time around each of the ability ‘trees’ (although it’s more of a rail-track) offer a set of skills primarily for one thing. The German Festung Support is, of course, support, with artillery and reinforcements, whereas the Soviet armored ability is, you guessed it, abilities focused on armour support. This might not seem like a departure from what we’re used to, but the abilities system this time around doesn’t really pick your ‘spec’ so much as a supplementary skill system that aides rather than defines your units.
The ‘rail-track’ indirectness of the supplementary skills worries me, since this is a game with advertised microtransactions and DLC, which mean that any number of potentially unbalanced units could be sold under the guise of the competitive edge. It’s not necessarily going to buff your entire army, but the possibility of bringing on some ‘hero’ units with marketable perks may cause problems in the future.
Other changes include weather storms affecting visibility and movement, primarily on the snow maps, and other minor graphical changes that were praised to high heavens, of course, by PR. Such things include melting snow, which you wouldn’t have noticed unless they told you, and better fire physics. The snow even melts if it goes near fire! My god, it’s almost like we’re in 2013 or something. Graphically, Company of Heroes 2 has me perplexed. The units themselves – at least, the human units – look much better, but over-all the game barely looks any prettier than its predecessor, and with an almost decade gap, this has me scratching my head. For my taste, things are a little chunky and clunky, and the new map designs do nothing to counteract that point of view. I’ve used this word a lot, but authenticity has been stripped, but if you don’t mind about that kind of thing, you’re good to go.
Fans of base building and defense structures will be unhappy, too. Base building still remains, but both sides rely on humble, wooden shacks which I suppose are more realistic, but their generic style and design turn bases into shanty towns, lacking in any difference in aesthetic or style. Units are, again, brought in off map this time, which makes sense for the Russian frontline, and this doesn’t change gameplay much.
For the most part, Company of Heroes 2 offers near identical gameplay to the first, but everything has been cleaned up, balanced, and scaled back a little. You’ll feel a little like you’re managing less units, making each one more important, and if you relied on emplacements, barbed wire, and sandbags, you’re basically out of luck. This is sort of my main concern with Company of Heroes 2 - they’ve added a bunch of junk I never really thought the game needed, and removed everything that may have been unnecessary, but what I thought was fun. As a sequel, it offers more of the same, but arguably slightly less of it. I miss the Commonwealth, and I miss emplacements, and I don’t feel as though anything has really replaced them.
TrueSight and ColdTech are arrogant market terms for very simple ideas that have been done before, and Company of Heroes 2 feels a little pompous about them. I flat out don’t like the idea of microtransactions in a title like this, whichever way you justify it, even though they’re purportedly aesthetic, because ‘DLC’ is always there for everything else, and I don’t like that whenever I close the game I have an annoying notification in my Steam inventory about some piece of crap I can apparently sell to someone.
Company of Heroes 2 is a good game, and it’s a good RTS. I’ll certainly be the most popular WWII based eSports title for a long while, but at the same time I can’t help but be disappointed by how stripped down it feels. It’s certainly a rock-paper-scissors title, and so was the original, but at least that had constructable emplacements to mix things up a little. This relies on micromanagement and wholly on unit control, which is fine, but for me, that’s less content for your money. I want to have fun winning, I don’t just want to win, and the less tools you give me to do that, the less creative I can be. This is an RTS that’ll have sure-fire ways of doing things, and in a matter of weeks the forums will be full of templates dictating exactly what will be used in whatever way, and tips on how to dominate each map. That always puts me off a bit.
So clearly I’m a little confused and conflicted. Dipping into the red paint was obviously the most logical step forward… or was it? Could we have seen the Commonwealth, Italians, Japanese, Germans, etc, in Africa? Would you have preferred a much bigger, less balanced RTS? Or would you prefer what we have now: a much more streamlined, refined, chunkier RTS that has a clear albeit unannounced rule-set. I’m a member of the former point of view, but I accept that many others will be in the latter. Apples and oranges, and all that.
Still, the campaign is weaker than in the original game, the removal of defense emplacements is annoying, and much less choice when it comes to AA calibre, building designs, and authenticity are, in my view, elements needlessly removed from the first game. Company of Heroes 2 is clearly the successor to its predecessor, but it’s not a worthy one – it’s just an eSports RTS, and despite the marketing chatter, it doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking either within or outside of the franchise. It’s a lick of paint on concepts already coined by other games, and mods for the original. Now all I have to wonder is this: which comes first, the value for money, feature-full expansion, or a bunch of annoyingly intricate DLC? They’ve not really done much in the almost-decade gap… and that’s curious.