Company of Heroes 2 review
It’s called Company of Heroes 2, but it’s a long way into the 15-hour campaign before Relic’s real-time strategy game finds any heroism. It’s set on World War II’s frigid Eastern Front, and is more concerned with rifle-butting home the horror of that bloodiest sector of the conflict. The Eastern Front saw the brunt of the war: Germany lost 80% of its Wehrmacht casualties east of Berlin; the Soviets themselves lost some 26 million souls overall, 8.6 million of whom were in the military.
"It’s a long way into the 15-hour campaign before Relic’s real-time strategy game finds any heroism."
Learning about this is harrowing; playing it is too. The Soviet war effort hinged on the country’s ability to spit out prodigious amounts of young men and women to fight and die for their motherland. That quirk of population translates to game mechanics: as Soviet general-in-the-sky, I had a near-endless stream of people I could click on to send to their doom. In most missions, squads can be trained at your home base or brought into battle as conscripts. This second type of soldier gives Company of Heroes its Soviet tinge, and can sometimes make it unsatisfying to play.
Squads are better trained, tougher and specialist in application. Encompassing groups as varied as mortar crews, snipers and shock troops armed with smoke and frag grenades, they formed the scaffolding of my armies on which I hung the meat of my forces: the conscripts. Conscripts can be brought in from the edges of the map every 30 seconds. At their lowest rank they’re weak against almost everything, but they’re quick to produce and essentially free, limited by just two of Company of Heroes 2’s four resources: manpower – which is almost comically quick to regenerate on medium difficulty – and the population cap.
"Many missions allow you 135 tiny humans to reduce to bags of shot meat."
That population cap has increased since the first Company of Heroes, and many missions allow you 135 tiny humans to reduce to bags of shot meat. It feels like a lot: keeping track of an entire army is stressful, especially when many of the game’s missions demand you fight on two fronts in addition to defending your base from roving groups of grenadiers. Having conscripts on tap mean these defences don’t need to be particularly well thought out – my special tactics were as advanced as putting a set of men behind some sandbags, waiting for them to die as tougher enemies whittled them down, then sending in a second group to mop up the weakened foes.
But flitting between three skirmishes – each one taking place in a space wider than even the furthest-out zoom option can show – is draining. Doubly so when almost all of the game’s units have a slew of personal abilities that can be activated in the heat of battle. Triply so when you’re forced to cycle through eight different squads of milling men to find the one with the grenade that’s off cooldown. Quadruply so when merging conscripts with existing squads in the heat of battle requires the kind of mouse precision that would have turned you into a Quake III professional at the turn of the millennium. Quintuply so when many missions impose time limits for completion, and kick you back to autosaves saved 30 minutes into an hour-and-a-half slog.
To avoid coming out of the campaign with actual PTSD, I found it easier to simply roll my forces into a ball – toughest units clustered at the middle, fleshy conscripts on the outside – and smash through enemy positions. Any lost conscripts could be replaced in seconds, and any lost soldiers could be too: conscripts have the ability to join up with a depleted squad to take them back up to their maximum complement. My tactic may have been historically accurate, but trying to drown your opponent in your own soldiers’ blood isn’t a particularly satisfying strategy to play out in a real-time strategy game.
"Company of Heroes 2’s worst missions feel like they’re backwards."
Company of Heroes 2’s worst missions feel like they’re backwards: instead of playing the plucky, clever underdogs, you’re upgraded to the role of military colossus, infinite resources hurled at the brick wall until sheer erosion cracks a hole. It suffers most as a game when it’s trying to tell its weighty story. Cutscenes tell the tale of Isakovich, a soldier turned journalist who documents the heroism of average men and women sent to their deaths. It’s a worthy and true tale – one of traitors and egotists killing their own people – but it’s almost entirely undone by cutscenes that look like they were made in 1945.
They’re not rendered in the game’s engine and they’re not fancy CG, looking more like some terrible Xbox shooter, animated as if their actors were having their emotions signed to them off-stage a minute too late. Isakovich watches in Stalingrad as a commissar gives a machine gunner the order to shoot retreating troops. The gunner pauses for a moment before turning awkwardly on the spot, grinning like he’s been told a joke, and shooting all his mates. There’s historical poignancy in there but it staggers under clumsy delivery methods.