“They’re wise to us!” shrieks a rifleman as his squad is ambushed by a Panzer, which steamrolls steadily through the dense hedges of what was seconds ago a peaceful french village. Muttering an obscenity under my breath, I use my cursor to guide the hapless infantrymen over to a low stone wall, which they rapidly mantle and cower behind while the tank showers them with machine gun fire. A light bulb flashes on in my head when i realize the G.I.s have stationed an antitank gun sitting idly on a hill to the east; while the soldiers endure the tank’s gun breaking away their limited cover, my artillery creeps into range, and i order the crew to load a high-payload shell that seconds later is fired into the flank of the unwitting enemy armor. Crippled, but not destroyed, the German vehicle is forced to pull back in a hasty retreat, and my forces recover before swiftly reinforcing their defenses.
That, in a nutshell, is Company of Heroes.
But it’d be pretty dumb if I just left it at that and finished the post. Instead, I’ll elaborate on why I think Company of Heroes 2 is one of the best RTS games of all time, not to mention the sleekest and coolest interpretation of World War Two combat ever depicted in videogames. As both a longtime RTS fan and WW2 history buff, COH2 delivers what no other game does: an authentic, sandbox-style multiplayer experience with vast amounts of depth and replayability.
Relic, the dev team responsible for this particular treasure, have a long pedigree of producing top-notch strategy titles, among them the famous Dawn of War and Homeworld games series. The first Company of Heroes was definitely no slouch, and I spent a fair amount of time playing through it’s campaign and doing some bot-stomping against the computer in its multiplayer offerings. When I decided to pick up the U.S. Forces standalone expansion for the second game last summer, I was quick to surmise that the sequel was better in just about every way. While the first game was full of tactical excitement and graphically pleasing goodness, the second looked and played so much smoother, without losing any of it’s depth.
I read an article recently that declared there is no innovation to be had in RTS gaming. This journalist wrote that when the genre hit its stride in the nineties, it was already fully formed, and little could be done to change the formula, resulting in every RTS game playing basically the same way: you gather resources, build up bases, create units, and then attack the enemy’s base with those units. While you can expect the same things to happen in COH2, there is a significant shift in mechanics away from traditional RTS entries that makes it stand apart. Instead of managing worker units to collect resources, resources trickle in automatically over time at a steady rate, which can be increased through the capture and control of the map’s divided territories. By accumulating areas connected to your base through other acquired zones, you can compound your flow of resources — but watch out, as opposing players can interrupt your supply line by capturing a point between your territories, isolating the outlying ones and cutting them off.
Games are typically won not by destroying the enemy’s base, but by draining their Victory Points, with both teams starting the match with a specified amount. On each map exists three Victory Point capture nodes which much be held in order to win — if your team holds at least two, the enemy will slowly have their points trickle down. The focus on map control has more obvious significance since it is directly tied to how many and what sorts of resources you gain, as well as who ultimately wins the match. Your units have to focus on holding down different fronts while pushing on others, instead of making a beeline straight for the enemy’s base a la StarCraft or Age of Empires.
The game is also unique in how positioning plays a vital role in combat. Infantry units can use props in the environment as cover to prolong their survival in firefights, and armored units are more vulnerable if they expose their flank or rear to anti-armor weaponry, requiring players to carefully manage the location of their units in defense and offense. Of course, as in most games of the genre, there is a rock-paper-scissors mechanic in which certain units are more effective versus others, so this must be taken into account along with the environment. The sum of these mechanics makes for a careful game of tactics in players who use their cunning outperform the competition, as opposed to more twitch-based, reflexive skills that are needed to excel in games like StarCraft.
As far as RTS is concerned, COH2 is unique, and also oodles of fun to play. This is not only because of the slower paced, more cerebral approach to fighting, but also in part to how satisfying the combat looks and sounds, which, as you might have guessed from the screenshots, is very impressive. Vehicle and infantry models have a significant level of detail and the wide variety of environments have a crisp, colorful style. Explosions, gunfire and displays of gore are all realistic looking (and often times mortifying), the crackle of gunfire and the boom of explosive weapons and artillery are convincingly authentic and loud. Dying soldiers scream as they scramble to escape from their fiery vehicles and crawl away helplessly as they bleed out, and I still sometimes catch myself feeling sorry for the destruction I unleash upon the enemy’s units. The game’s depiction of combat is far from glorious, but rather a brutal, gritty snapshot of 20th century warfare.
Accompanying combat is a classical, dramatic orchestral score that wouldn’t sound out of place in a war documentary film or an episode of Band of Brothers, and as the situation on screen changes, the instrumentals shift from somber, anxious themes to grand, intense compositions that boom with excitement while also somehow imparting a sense of mournful tragedy. I found myself lingering in the game’s menus sometimes, just appreciating the bleak, emotional ambiance.
I love this game. It really is one of my favorites.
But let me stop right there and address something that you’re probably thinking of right now, if you’re already heard of the game and have not given it a chance.
Yes, Company of Heroes 2 has a DLC problem. A big one.
A few years back, Relic ran into some financial troubles and, as a result, was acquired by Sega. Sega, being in my eyes the Japanese version of EA, AKA Videogame Hitler, turned its terrible, greedy, Sauron-esque eye upon the freely flowing river of Relic’s vast talent and potential, and decided that it would dam it up. They supported Relic and allowed them to keep spinning their yarn into real-time strategic gold, but their vile corporate influence meant that a lot of the time and effort that should have been funneled into the base game was instead spent on DLC content placed behind a barbed-wire paywall. The game features several menus that basically serve as advertisements for dropping more cash on a game that you likely shelled out sixty dollars on already. On sale are skins and decals, which doesn’t seem too offensive, but the real controversy is with the DLC sale of Commanders. Commanders are decks of unique abilities and new units that can be activated during a match, and are designed to give you new tools to promote a certain style of gameplay. While all armies start out with three basic Commanders, the game’s store has literally dozens available, many of them costing as much as four dollars a pop. That’s what really sets people off — not that there is DLC, but that there is just so much, and it costs more than it should. Instead of patching the game with new features, Sega has Relic pumping out more and more cash shop items, endless amounts of bundles that are all invariably overpriced.
Okay, but wait, wait. Hear me out.
There exists a sizable faction of COH1 fans who think the sequel is an irredeemable mess because of the vast amount of DLC, and cling to the original like drowning men to flotsam. I agree that the DLC nightmare that has consumed triple-A releases is an insult to gaming, and I hate that it has become the norm for big budget games. But Company of Heroes 2 DLC is all entirely unlockable through gameplay. Yes, it’s true that it can be a grind to earn them, but this is okay, because the game’s multiplayer matches are supposed to be played many times over. Just like StarCraft or Age of Empires, the gameplay has depth and variability, and is designed to play out again and again and again on a limited pool of maps with a static variety of units. The maps and armies that ship with the game and its expacs are already fully fleshed out, and despite the forums’ torch-wielding mobs saying otherwise, the DLC Commander items do not create a pay-to-win environment for the game, they merely expand your tactical options. Someone might point out that skins and decals for units shouldn’t cost money, but again, there is a solution in the form of Steam Workshop, where players can download cavalcades of expertly-made fan varieties for free. And if you harbor resentment about the price-gouging for additional campaigns, I’ll simply make the point that the meat of the game lies in it’s multiplayer, which is where the majority of the content is.
If you can get past the DLC debacle, which in my opinion shouldn’t be too difficult, you will find a gorgeous looking and mechanically deep game, a world of strategic combat that can be enjoyed thoroughly alone or with friends.
Speaking of playing with friends, I should mention that this is where the real experience is to be had. Included in the game are modes that automatch you with other players against enemy teams or the AI, as well as ample options to make your own custom games. As you complete matches, you level up, which not only showcases your level of experience, but also earns you points that allow you to unlock new skins, Commanders, and other items. The campaigns themselves are fun for some, but their linear nature doesn’t make the most of the open-approach nature of the multiplayer games. You as the player get to decide what kinds of units, commanders and strategies to employ, with the combinations being almost limitless.
These possibilities are further expanded by the use of Commanders, of which there are a grand variety. One Commander provides units and abilities that emphasize the use of artillery, while another provides methods that favor reconnaissance, or the offensive use of elite infantry, defensive tactics, armor survivability…the list literally goes on for forever. Acquiring new Commanders through gameplay delivers a sense of thrill of discovery, and opens up entirely new avenues of play for you to experiment with.
I have to tell you, part of my love for this game comes from it’s historical relevance. All of the games’ different armies, weapons, equipment and vehicles mimic their historical counterparts with nods to their actual function. The game implements their history with convincing authenticity while executing them in a fun, arcadey manner. For instance, the Russian army has the largest unit cap and the most populous squads, which are also cheap; in this way, Russian players can replace their infantry losses more quickly and can outnumber the opposition, allowing them to cover more ground and overwhelm their enemies from multiple fronts. The two German armies, the Wehrmacht and Oberkommando West, suffer from low manpower but boast excellent quality, as well as expensive but exceptional vehicles. The American Sherman tanks are cheap and provide excellent support for infantry, but are often outperformed by heavier, more powerful German Panzers, requiring players to maneuver them more wisely when engaging with even numbers, or to utilize their cheaper cost to outnumber German armor. The British Forces can gift their soldier the Bren gun, which — similarly to their role in the actual war — bolsters the long-range firepower of your infantry, who generally under-perform in terms of killing capacity compared to the infantry of other armies.
If I had to say a bad thing about this title, it would be the learning curve. Picking up on this game’s rules and nuances shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for those of us who have been in with the genre for more than a decade. However, if you’re not an experienced RTS enthusiast, figuring out how everything works can be confusing, and difficult to jump into cold turkey. I tried introducing my friend to the game through a multiplayer match against an easy computer, but even though he had already garnered hours of experience with the very similar Dawn of War games, he soon became frustrated with trying to figure out how to build units or acquire resources in COH2. So, it would be difficult to recommend this game to those who don’t really enjoy or play other games of this type.
I do so heartily recommend this title, regardless. If you want a really good coop strategy game to play with buds, I recommend picking up one of the game’s armies for just a couple bucks off of G2A. If you decide you like what you see, you can get the other four armies with the purchase of the Master Collection, which is cheaper in the long run.
See you on the battlefield!