Company of Heroes 2
The Good: More Company of Heroes. Who wouldn’t like that?
The Bad: Weather – Pretty good idea, iffy implementation
The Ugly: Suckiest tutorials EVAH!
I should probably begin by saying that I’m not a student of history. You know that scene in Animal House where John Belushi talks about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor and the audience laughs? I’m still trying to figure out why that’s a joke. So for people who want to discuss how Company of Heroes 2 delves into the pivotal battles of the German invasion of Russia during WW2, I’m probably not the guy you want to have that conversation with. Why, if it weren’t for Enemy at the Gates, the 2001 movie starring Ed Harris as a German sniper with a Jersey accent, fighting Jude Law, a Russian sniper with an English accent, I’d have no historical context at all. Beyond all of that, I’m still a big fan of Company of Heroes. Compared to many of its RTS brethren, I found CoH to be more strategic. When three out of every four Starcraft games end with someone disappearing under a flood of two hundred Zerglings, CoH often came down to a handful of mortar slingers or just a couple of snipers. Pitched battles over a single resource site involved considerations of range and field of fire and cover, and wasn’t all about body count.
So it was a little jarring for me to come into the single player campaign with the Russian reinforcement of Stalingrad, which I knew (from Enemy at the Gates) involved throwing untold numbers of untrained and essentially unarmed men at the advancing Germans, the grand strategy I think involving gumming up the treads of Panzer tanks with human entrails. The early campaign missions are the antithesis of the strategy I had come to love in CoH – you have essentially no unit cap, unlimited funds, and an endless reserve of corpses-in-training. The battlefield is large and chaotic, alerts of advancing German troops nearly constant, and your mission objectives constantly shifting (though always more or less involving retreat). Despite all the cues and chaos (or perhaps because of them), these missions are an awful place to relearn all the stuff about CoH that I had forgotten in the seven years since the last title came out, so I went in search of a tutorial, which the game has sort of hidden in the main menu under the somewhat less than clear heading of “tactics.”
The tactics menu contains a whole list of activities and skills you’re going to need to master to be good at CoH2, each selection leading you to nothing more than a quick movie about that skill. Remember commanders from CoH1? Yeah, me neither. And the 30-second video about commanders does little to refresh that memory. As a consequence, when I earned my first commander’s point in game, I had no idea what to do with it, and you can’t pause the game to try and figure it out, so I made sort of a half-assed pick and kept playing. On the tactics menu is a single tutorial mission. It covers only the very RTS basics as they apply to CoH, and at least for me, covered just about everything I had managed to remember myself. The stuff I don’t really remember – that’s all unhelpful or at best minimally helpful movies. I’m hard pressed to think of a less effective tutorial design that I’ve run across in my last 30 years or so of gaming, and if their goal was to make the sequel completely unapproachable by anyone who hadn’t played the first one, mission accomplished. Perhaps they’re hoping the community will build a wiki for them.
Once you get past the chaos of the first few campaign missions, CoH settles back into what it is good at: manageable forces and strategy. It is also the first time you are exposed to the new weather effects. In conditions of blizzard, units not inside slowly freeze to death, vision is reduced, and they move more slowly in deep snow off the roads. Additionally units can cross frozen water, but risk falling through if a mortar shell or something breaks the ice. I really like the idea of the cold effects (and I seem to remember something of the weather having an impact on the Russian front in WW2, but John Belushi didn’t say anything about that so I’m not sure), and the gameplay elements of huddling up in buildings or near campfires are great. Then they went and added a few more wrinkles and it goes pretty much to heck. Firstly, snipers (due to superior training and probably really great jackets) are immune to the cold, they can see far and shoot farther, and their special ability is to run away really fast. So a great strategy is to send snipers out into a blizzard to pick off units hiding in houses. If the unit stays inside, they’re sitting ducks. If they go outside and pursue, they freeze to death with no hope of catching anyone. There’s a serious imbalance there. Secondly, units inside of vehicles don’t freeze to death, so if you’re willing and patient enough to do an asinine dance I call the halftrack shuffle, you can keep five or six units alive and warm by swapping them into and out of a single vehicle which doesn’t even come close to holding them all at one time.
Multiplayer, which I’ve always thought of as one of CoH strengths (partially because the AI enemy isn’t the pointiest pin in the cushion, and partly because humans can be so damned sneaky), has gotten a slight retool. The object of multiplayer is still to capture and hold control points which provide you with resources to smite thy enemy, but in CoH1 the resources provided by the control points were fixed. This would often lead to extensive battles over one or a few specific control points that might be the only points on the map offering that resource, while other control points would see minimal skirmish activity. CoH2 allows the holder of some control points to change the resource provided, which makes every point on the map valuable, reducing the importance of any given one, and serves to sort of spread the battle out over the whole map. It’s an enormous strategic difference, and I can’t say as I’ve played either really enough to decide which one I like better.
As a guy who has dim, but fond, memories of playing CoH1, CoH2 is more of pretty much the same. Sure, the weather effects could have been a little better thought out and if you’re counting on the tutorials to help orient you, you’re screwed, but there have been some nice unit tweaks (I really like the flamethrower – devastating!), and once you get past the first few campaign missions the rest is a ten hours or so of fine strategic action. I think people like me who enjoyed the first one may in the back of their minds complain a little about what exactly we waited seven years for, but the front of their minds will be having a pretty good time playing it.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of Company of Heroes 2 for the PC provided by Sega.