Recently at E3, I spent a few minutes talking with one of the developers of Relic Entertainment and also briefly checked out the multiplayer action of Company of Heroes 2 (CoH2). Relic is known for PC RTS games, with a portfolio that includes Homeworld, the Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War series, and the original Company of Heroes. Recently acquired by Sega, CoH2 is Relic’s first RTS release since Dawn of War II in 2009. A typical WWII game it is not, or at least not quite — this isn’t Axis and Allies, it’s the Eastern Front, with the Soviets against the invading Nazis.
I’ve never played the original CoH, nor its expansion, so I took to the web to read up about some of the changes CoH2 brings. For the most part, the core gameplay is largely the same, drawing the ire of some and the praise of others. Having played a lot of RTS games in the past — several years in the past, that is — CoH2 had a moderate learning curve but all of the pillars and genre-defining gameplay was there. Players start with a simple base and a group of low-level soldiers who can construct other buildings to give you access to more tech and units. Resources include Manpower, Fuel, and Munitions, and there is a cap on the number of units you can have at once. In addition to your own starting base, other areas, veiled in the fog of war, hold control points whereby you can construct munitions and fuel caches to increase your spending ability. Gameplay modes include a lengthy campaign, eight-way online play, Skirmishes, and the Theater of War which is a set of single and co-op play challenges.
CoH2 has a persistent XP meter and ranking system too that is present in any of the menu screens. It’s the basis of a massive amount of unlockable content and a ludicrous number of Steam Achievements — literally 358 at the time of this writing. There are ribbons awarded regularly for completed tasks like killing so many of a certain type of unit with another type, playing x number of a certain kind of match, etc. Players can unlock all kinds of additional vehicle skins, units, and perks by marching through the ranks. Whether playing single player offline or online battles, XP is constantly being earned and seeing your rank increase from Private on up is pretty cool, but, something about this bothered me having “grown up” with RTS games like C&C Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2. This constant pursuit of additional Rank and Perks (not actually called that in game, but they’re just like those out of the Call of Duty universe) gives CoH2 and unnecessary grinding ‘cloud’ over its head. Competitive players may find themselves burning out on this game trying to unlock everything and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Granted, how much you care about these things may vary, but I didn’t think Relic should have gone quite this far out with them.
I began my time of CoH2 with the campaign, which has you playing a Soviet commander that is soon to be killed by the Soviets themselves. You’re given another chance by helping repel the increasingly powerful Nazis. The Battle of Stalingrad opens up the action with a harrowing offensive. Death for your infantry units is all but impossible to avoid and I found myself conflicted with this quantity over quality theme, but that is representative of how it was for the Soviets back then — they certainly had numbers, even if not supplies or training for those many millions of soldiers and conscripts. The first few missions help teach you the basics of controlling your infantry as you lead them around gun nests and destroying a tank. I have yet to finish the campaign, as I find myself switching back and forth between various gameplay modes in CoH2 more than a typical RTS. That’s more because of the interesting variety than being bored with the campaign, although I’ll admit I prefer sci-fi to WWII themes in general.
Online play has been overall positive thus far with just a handful of connection problems. Up to eight players can duke it out and you can also include AI controlled forces with varying difficulty levels. I have been defeated far more than victorious in multiplayer and Skirmish modes, but the fast pace and challenge of dealing with blinding (and deadly blizzards) and maintaining control points keeps the experience fun. Being able to view and save replays of your battles, from multiple player perspectives, is a plus, and a sure-fire aid to someone who is serious about improving their game.
As far as presentation, I thought the menu had too much clutter on it at first, but that only takes a few moments to get used to. The Twitch.tv integration cannot be disabled it seems, so it feels forced, but it is what it is. The Options give tweakers a variety of graphical settings to toy with. I increased the resolution and detail levels that the game autodetected as it seemed like it was being too conservative. Sound options allow you to adjust quality as well to help your machine eek out the most frames per second. Settings changes aside, CoH2 is gorgeous and it scales very nicely whether you’re zoomed all the way in or out. I often wished I could zoom out just a little bit further, though. Environmental effects — the driving snow especially — looks great and does well to drive home the point of how awful the conditions were that these soldiers dealt with. Seeing your CPU controlled Allies runabout and accounting for all of the units and action on screen adds to the wow factor of CoH2’s visual appeal. The sounds are also very good, but the drone of gunfire and repeated unit dialogue can wear you down during more drawn out encounters.
With that, let’s get to the summary…