The Western Front Armies reassures me that Company of Heroes 2 will have a stable and interesting future. I was upset when Relic and THQ abandoned their free-to-play version of the franchise in 2011, Company of Heroes Online , which we then thought highly enough of to put on our Top 100 PC Games list.
And it's clever of Relic, then, to release The Western Front in a way that feels slightly similar to free-to-play games. The expansion will add two armies to Company of Heroes 2 on June 24, but they'll be individually purchasable (or as a $20 package ), meaning if you simply want to play as the US Forces, it'll be a modest $13 to do so. Relic strongly hinted to me that it intends to release more armies in the future, too: “If the community wants armies we'll make them. I personally love working on and building armies because it's a lot of fun, but we'll continue supporting the game in big ways and in hundreds of little ways,” Game Director Quinn Duffy told me. Speculating, that means there's a chance we'll see British, Japanese, or maybe Italian forces joining the game months down the line. I like the idea of these militaries serving as potential entry points for new players—owning one army won't preclude you from playing against the others, of course.
What's best about this format for the expansion, though, is that The Western Front won't undercut the already-healthy custom map community (there's currently 1,500 entries in Steam Workshop) or the planned moddability of CoH2 that will follow TWFA's release. Duffy told me that Relic sees CoH2 as a “WWII platform” that it plans to work on “for years to come,” and this approach certainly doesn't contradict that—both modders and Relic will be contributing content .
The plan is good, but so is the implementation, from what I've seen. The match-and-a-half I played on two of The Western Front's new maps as the German Oberkommando West and US Forces was nothing but encouraging. Both armies have gotten tons of careful attention by Relic, whose animators continue to craft disproportionately expressive units. One of the iconic Oberkommando units, the Sturmtiger tank, is as nimble as a pregnant, armored mammoth, and you can hear its bassy engine struggling to push its weight, the audio for which is drawn from real recordings by Relic. And when the Sturmtiger finally launches its ridiculous, 380 mm rocket, the explosion temporarily deafens you if you've got the camera nearby.
In controlling them, both new armies are distinct from CoH2's existing forces, with the US operating as a hyper-versatile team focused on mobility and the Oberkommando being technologically advanced and outfitted with heavy tanks. And most of these playstyle distinctions seem to be driven by history. The US side “performs well tactically by flanking, using cover, keeping mobile, and many of the game systems for the army support those approaches. Many of their tanks can fire very well on the move because tanks like the Sherman were equipped with gyro-stabilized gun mounts. They can also fire their abilities on the move to use smoke, for example, to cover their approach or their retreat away from the big enemy tanks,” says Duffy. “We describe the US as an army that bent, but didn't break, so the players need to be flexible, mobile, and not get into slug matches with heavier opponents. Find locations where their numbers can be used to make breakthroughs and grab territory, set up defensive lines with AT guns or artillery and look for the next tactical opportunity.”
For the Oberkommando, it's interesting that Relic is trying to represent the battle-hardened but also resource-strapped state that the German army was in in late 1944. “The OKW use their sWS Supply Half-tracks to gain extra resources from the map, but have to maintain supply lines effectively,” says Duffy. “Their half-tracks can also convert to their tech structures, each with a distinct role designed around creating battlefield synergy and team play. One building (the Mechanized Regiment HQ) can act as a retreat point where soldiers can be healed and reinforced, and the Battle Group HQ is equipped with a 3.7cm Flak cannon for effective area defense. It allows the OKW to really control their base territory plus-one and create and hold their own little Battle of the Bulge on every map.” Duffy summarizes the style of the Oberkommando this way: “Players have to grab territory, hold on, be active in the defense around a few hardpoints on the map, and use their mid-tier supporting vehicles and artillery options wisely. Heavy tanks can win the battle, but not the war.”
The Western Front Armies should be a great start of Relic's next wave of work on Company of Heroes 2. Eight new maps, new content for mapmakers, UI improvements, a new “War Spoils” system, and better matchmaking are all part of the package in addition to the two armies, but maybe more heartening is Relic's commitment to making CoH2 moddable after the release of TWFA as it continues to add more content.