Company of Heroes 2 is the long anticipated sequel to one of the most unique and promising new titles in the RTS world. The series first came to my attention when a complimentary copy of Opposing Fronts arrived with my 9800GT graphics card a few years ago. I was immediately impressed by the look, feel, and overall structure of the game. It made for very entertaining gameplay and the weather elements added a deep sense of atmosphere that other Strategy titles failed to offer at the time. As a result it set itself a very high bar of expectation and I was very keen to see how the developers had approached this problem. This time around Relic Entertainment and Sega have teamed up to bring us what looks like just the right amount of what we liked, and just enough changes to keep both die hard fans and newcomers to the series very happy indeed.
The essence engine makes a real difference here and destructibility and reactive terrain is a huge part of what makes this feel like a sequel. The Essence 3.0 engine gives everything a DX11 sheen that just adds the overall polish that the earlier titles needed without making any unnecessary or drastic changes. Your zoom and camera rotation now feel much more fluid and worthwhile, as I found myself taking a greater interest in enjoying various camera angles than I did in the previous games. The new weather and Trusight systems add various tactical advantages and disadvantages, as well as adding more strategic options and satisfying ambush opportunities overall. This feels like a solid, tasteful improvement on a classic without needlessly trimming away anything that defined the original and worked well. Units are much more reactive than in the Open Beta and vehicle path finding is much more intelligent and articulated.
The Campaign focuses on the large scale battles that occurred between Russia and Germany at the height of the Second World War. Spanning several years from 1941 to 1945, it holds a much wider focus than previous Campaigns in the series. Beginning with the Battle of Stalingrad, players take control of the Red Army to engage in battles where Order 227 (‘Not a step back’) was of heavy emphasis. The missions (being historically based) have a certain depth and atmosphere that make them very engaging and the scale and co-ordination of the level design is admirable. However, there is a slight lack of variety between each mission in terms of play strategies. Visually they are very varied, rich, and interesting but in terms of gameplay its a slow trudge forward every time. But to be honest it doesn’t really matter, as the Campaign only makes up a small portion of the Single Player game modes.
The Theatre of War was where I spent the majority of my time. Essentially there’s three sub-categories within this one, and as a result, there’s plenty of variety to make up for what the Campaign is missing. Co-Op Scenario lets you partner up with a human player and take on teams of A.Is in a variety of situations, maps and remains highly customizable. It’s very fun and is a nice break from the competitive multiplayer element. Then there’s Solo Battles, which gives players the chance to hold their own with limited resources in harsh conditions, and A.I Challenges. The latter is incredibly fun and very in depth, almost to the point of being a separate campaign within itself. Here players are given the opportunity to choose either side of the conflict and hold a certain area for a given amount of time. One memorable challenge involved holding a point for four days, and depending on when you called for reinforcements you received bonus units for holding out. As the A.I had no victory counter, it made the skirmish feel like a genuine challenge, you start with equal forces but quickly finding yourself patching holes in your territory. Well worth investigating, is the A.I Challenge mode.
Skirmish and online multiplayer is the bread and butter of the series, evidently, and the main reason that players are drawn to the RTS world. Here a new matchmaking system is at play and its as efficient as it is streamlined. I was struggling to set up an A.I Skirmish at first during the Beta stage but after quickly noticing the small computer icon in the top right corner of each player slot I quickly worked things out. Once you do, it’s very efficient and jumping into a custom game is a matter of about thirty seconds and four clicks. The level system earns players unlocks such as new commanders, bonuses to add to one of your five custom loadouts, as well as vehicle skins and other special items. The range of maps isn’t overly extensive but it’s varied and caters for all types of player combinations. The game handles latency issues well and overall there’s not a lot to say, it’s the multiplayer fans of the series know and love, but with the gameplay and visual improvements that make it a definite sequel.
Now visually it’s an utter triumph, in many ways. First of all the physics. Now as the Open Beta offered no access to the video settings, which was an understandable move, I was very curious to see what the improved physics were truly about. After jumping in and pushing everything as far as the rig would allow, I began to see what they mean here by improved destructibility. Nothing is more visually surprising than watching an entire office block spit chunks before falling of its own accord as the result of a misplaced rocket barrage.
I wasn’t expecting the physics system to be so in depth, and quickly realized this error when observing the level of variable physics detail in the options, ranging from ‘Off’ to ‘Maximum’ with several levels in between. The screen rotation and zoom turns this from an RTS into something out of a feature film in the blink of an eye, and takes on a whole new perspective when combined with DX11 lighting, textures and weather effects. The terrain reacts to pretty much everything and setting up a camera in the woods is a great way to get a feel for this. The unit textures are great and shadows are fluid. The whole thing is just crisp, and there’s as much visual variety as there is in terms of game modes.
The audio is of exceptionally high quality, as it was in the originals but much like the improved visuals a definite increase in clarity is present here. The music is also exceptionally well produced and compliments the historical tones of the campaign perfectly. A slightly newer addition in terms of gameplay audio that surprised me was the a new approach to unit dialogue. It’s much more varied and situation relevant than in previous games and even at times very funny. Tastefully so, as well, it didn’t feel like a noticeable alteration to a perfectly good series. Just a subtle bonus.
Relic and Sega have quite possibly hit the nail on the head in terms of releasing a sequel that both pleases the existing fanbase and makes some minor improvements to draw new players in and reward die hard fans with a polished experience. The gameplay and unit variety makes this one to delve into for a fair while and there’s certainly a great deal there to keep players occupied. When I first fired it up I honestly didn’t know where to start, which was a great feeling, I must admit. Overall, Company of Heroes 2 has made something special here, and with lots of post release support on the cards, this is certainly worth investing in, even if you aren’t too absorbed by the Campaign. All things considered, it’s an absolute win.
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