Who is the greater enemy – the one taking over my country, or my comrade shooting me in the back?
Every soldier on the field becomes important. Gathering resources becomes worth the lives of a few to save many. Using the terrain to your advantage is as important as having bullets for your rifles. Sadly this was the reality of the Russian defense during World War II. The scenario doesn’t fully reflect the type of pressure you’ll be under in Company of Heroes 2. Every single mission puts you at odds with Germans attempting to beat down your door straight into Moscow. However, that isn’t your only threat. While the Russians had a vast advantage of numbers, they were often outgunned, poorly trained, and undergeared. Capturing that gut wrenching feeling in a video game just never feels right. After all, World War II wasn’t exactly a high point for the history of man. But does Company of Heroes 2 do it justice?
Company of Heroes 2 is a very serious game in both tone and play. It troubles me to say this as gaming shouldn’t boil down to such a serious feeling when you are playing. When the source material is considered, it is no wonder that this feeling of weight descends upon you when you play. I bring this up for a reason though. This weight, this seriousness, will affect you at every turn as you play Company of Heroes 2. For what seems like the entirety of gaming history we’ve been glorifying the wars that humans have fought in. Be it playing army in the neighborhood as children or shooting digital opponents in Call of Duty, that sort of distance from something as terrible as war has been something we’ve glorified rather than abhorred. It isn’t that we need to candy coat history, but playing something representative of the horror of war doesn’t always translate as fun. But what do you do when you don’t focus on a fun aspect with such a game? You base it in strategy.
Company of Heroes did a good job of translating the Battle of Normandy into something fun to play, but Company of Heroes 2 had a much different task set to it when it tried to apply the same formula to the defense of Russia. Everything about the Russian struggle during World War II makes it seem as if they were doomed from the start. However, you will find that not everything is as bleak as you think. Playing the game, while annoying as the interface can be at times, is actually a good experience. Surprises wait for you when you think that you have finally hit everything head on and lived to talk about it. The extended battles run just as long as they need to without a chance of running into boredom territory or fatigue from all the death. Part of the fun is that Company of Heroes 2 will constantly divide your attention on the battlefield. Jumping from point to point across the landscape keeps you busy and keeps you thinking.
In the campaign you see the story of a soldier who had faced hell and began to think about the tasks he had been set with. The problem is that the story that is provided in Company of Heroes 2 is used to simply used to soften the blow of rampant soldier sacrifice. There isn’t a whole lot there to bite onto. Which actually works in a way. As you are looking backwards upon the things you the soldiers in the story have done, it gives just enough of a motivation to push forward in each fight. In doing so you’ll always have to fight one battle you might not think you would in the game; a fight with the user interface. The UI in Company of Heroes 2 is annoying to say the least. It is bulky and takes up far too much of a the screen’s area. Using it is a small fight alone. Setting the rally points for new unit manufacture is just one example of something that requires more thought than simply clicking on a point on the map should be. Then there is the fact that soldiers, tanks, and vehicles are spread across four different construction tabs rather than being centralize per unit types.
If there is a shining star of Company of Heroes 2 it is the engine. The Essence 3.0 engine does some amazing things that I first noticed when I previewed the game during PAX Prime 2012. The weather effects and terrain destruction add a completely different layer to a strategy game. Not able to get a anti-tank gun to help take out that Tiger tank suppressing you? Well if it is on ice, all you need to do is get a solider with a grenade close enough to break the ice underneath it. Not only is using ice something to consider, but if walls or buildings stand in your way to that sniper trying to gun you down simply destroy them. Weather is another beast to deal with altogether. Having to gather your troops in a building or huddle them around a fire to keep the cold at bay adds new considerations when in the midst of a firefight.
The battle waged in Company of Heroes 2 obviously isn’t anything new in the strategy gaming. It merely perpetuates the formula that Relic has honed into an addictive romp. The graphics, especially the weather and terrain effects, add a new layer of detail that is just as much adversary as atmosphere. However, the frustratingly hard scenarios that put you right at the brink of loss before you win, or the fact that you are constantly reminded that your Russian troops are expendable to the point that you are encouraged to win through attrition will always turn your stomach. That doesn’t mean that Company of Heroes 2 isn’t an enjoyable game, far from it actually. I wish it didn’t make it feel like human sacrifice was a necessity at every turn. It shows some gusto though to approach such a harsh reality that existed during a low point in human history. If you’re looking for an escapist game, Company of Heroes 2 probably won’t fit the bill. You have to appreciate it for what it is; a serious strategy game where even death is weighed in every decision.
Game provided by PR for review.