Company of Heroes was a game for true armchair generals. There was no resource collecting, no tank rushes, none of the hallmarks of other games that look like they're about a clash of armies but are really little but mouse-driven sprint races.
Built around the concepts of cover and directional fire, suppression and morale, you had to use actual battlefield strategies if you wanted to succeed, and seven years on (the game was released in 2006), the formula is so perfect that it remains unchallenged, even by developer Relic's semi-related Dawn of War series.
Seven years is a long time between wars, though, and now that we have a sequel, people are expecting a lot from this game, the first time Company of Heroes has ditched Western Europe for the Eastern Front. So what's new?
The weather, for one. The Eastern Front was a brutal theatre of war, and the weather in this game wants to make sure it has more than a cosmetic effect. Snowstorms will slow your infantry and even kill them if they're out in the open too long, while frozen rivers can be blown open to block passage or sink enemy forces.
The fact the Soviets are now playable is the main addition here, though, and also the most disappointing.
CoH2's campaign does not live up the standards set by the original game and its expansions. It begins too slowly and, even worse, is drenched from beginning to end in an awkward veneer of moralising, as Relic attempt to justify the fact you're playing as an army "not as bad as the Germans because they're on our side" by putting you in the shoes of a dissident aghast at the Soviet's shocking brutality.
It doesn't work.
The cutscenes, rendered using crude 3D models (see above), are hammy like a bad 70s war movie, their grim tone is at odds with the ragdoll action in the missions and it's all dreadfully dull, making the campaign's story as insufferable as (sorry) a cold Russian winter.
Another problem with the campaign is that it attempts to shoe-horn several new features into the game in the name of factional authenticity, like an endless supply of conscripts and NKVD officers who shoot retreating soldiers. These feel crudely implemented, as they do little but upset the balance of the game (the former, as you can brute force your way to victory) and simply add one more arbitrary meter to the screen you need to look out for (the latter).
The campaign doesn't even make the most of the new weather conditions, with only a handful of missions making any significant use of frozen rivers and only a single one challenging you with troop-killing snow.
It's only towards the end of the 14-mission campaign, when you get a fantastic small-scale partisan mission and a few good "proper" battles (where you're free to build a whole army and take over the map) that it finds its feet.
Lucky, then, the campaign is a glorified tutorial that you'll soon forget once you get into the real meat of the game.
That used to be CoH's excellent multiplayer (where you can also play as the Germans), which was as enjoyable with/against friends as it was skirmishing against the AI. That remains the case with the sequel, only now it's even better, the bad weather conditions so overlooked in the main game a blast in multiplayer, as the struggle to just keep your men alive, let alone fighting, turns many old strategies on their head.
The real draw here, though, is a new, third game mode that combines singleplayer and multiplayer into something fresh for the series, something that - wait for it - you'll be familiar with if you've played Call of Duty recently.
It's called Theater of War, and like CoD's Spec Ops mode, it presents the player with a number of scenarios they can tackle either alone or co-op with a friend, ranging from battles with specific conditions to focused objectives like holding a small base against waves of enemy attacks.
Having ditched the narrative of the campaign and without the "blank canvas" of a multiplayer match it might sound like a middling stepchild, but in truth it's a mode that brings out the very best in the game. Free of the campaigns blunt story and yet providing a little more focus to multiplayer (or skirmish, as Relic refreshingly make AI battles a prominent option), it's easily the most fun I've had with a real-time strategy game in years.
Outside the campaign is also where the Soviets are most enjoyable, as you're able to use some of their monstrously massive equipment when and how you want, instead of at the whims of the campaign.
Before I wind this up, I want to point something out that you don't normally get to do in a strategy game review: this game is explosive. The sound in this game is incredible, more like something you'd get in a Hollywood war movie than a top-down strategy game, and it really adds to a feeling of immediacy with the battlefield that's already strong thanks to all the mud, dirt, bodies and debris that go flying around.
Company of Heroes 2 isn't the revolution its predecessor was. Too much remains the same (down to the battle UI), and too much of the Soviet faction, particularly its employment in singleplayer, is a disappointment.
But you know what, that's OK. There are many, myself included, who would argue the basic design underpinning the original was almost perfect, and it's still there. Adding more stuff on top of that, some of it not so great, most of it (like Theater of War) excellent, is about what you'd expect from a video game sequel.
In the end, then, think of Company of Heroes 2 as the embodiment of the thing it's trying to recreate, namely the Soviet's advance into Germany. Blunt, and wasteful in parts, but in the end an overwhelming success.
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