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Company of Heroes 2 review: Cold front

Rob Zacny

It hasn't been easy to wait for with Company of Heroes 2. First, it's been seven years since the original was released and achieved instant-classic status. It was a sharp change from almost everything else in real-time strategy, and cemented developer Relic's reputation as one of the best strategy studios in PC gaming. An Eastern Front expansion or sequel seemed like a no-brainer, but Relic never got around to it, and Company of Heroes was set aside as Relic became a Warhammer 40K studio. With Relic finally returning to Company of Heroes in a sequel set against the bloody grandeur and brutality of the Eastern Front, greatness seemed preordained.

Which is probably why simple goodness feels slightly disappointing. Company of Heroes 2 just feels like More Company of Heroes. It's still a great design, but most of its sequel's innovations are fairly conservative, and along the way it's also borrowing some dubious features from modern mainstream shooters, like a grindy progression system filled with perks and unlocks. Even the Eastern Front never quite comes alive. RTS games are partly powered by how well they communicate their theme, how well they connect the game you're playing to the story it's telling, and Company of Heroes 2 sometimes seems a little more like an Eastern Front skin than a fresh take on an old design.

Gallery: Company of Heroes 2 (6/28/13) | 5 Photos

Let's start with the Soviet faction. In real life, this was an army that often went into battle at gunpoint, held together by the brutal discipline of Soviet commissars – who would execute soldiers for retreating or attempting to surrender – and its own growing hatred of the German invader. As the war continued, the Soviet army became much more competent and powerful, backed by massive numbers of tanks and aircraft, but to the end it was shockingly profligate with human lives and merciless to those it considered cowards.

In Company of Heroes 2, Soviet squads are slightly larger than their German counterparts, and they can send conscripts to reinforce depleted units.

Do you see what I mean about being disappointed? Where is the Stalinist brutality, or the endless supply of poorly armed, poorly trained cannon fodder to send against the German guns? There are references to the kind of absurd callousness that defined the Red Army, like including "Penal Battalion" troops. In real life, these were basically suicide units full of convicts sent to die on dangerous assignments. Here? They're heavy infantry.

RTS games aren't history, of course, but faction design is a question of character. The units you're pushing around the map have to feel fun and distinctive. In Company of Heroes 2, they don't. Honestly, the Imperial Guard in Dawn of War 2 is probably a better, more interesting take on the Red Army than the one found here. This is just a generic World War 2 army with Russian accents.

And let's not even talk about the lackluster selection of tanks. Suffice it to say that for a game about a war featuring some of the biggest tank battles in history, Company of Heroes 2 is pretty light with the heavy armor.

Still, combat in Company of Heroes 2 is as exciting and spectacular as it ever was in its predecessor. This is a series that straddles the line between wargame and RTS. You have to manage your economy efficiently, but that economy is powered by control points on the map. Some provide extra fuel or ammunition, both of which are crucial for some of the more advanced units and powers available to each faction. So really, even your economy comes down to how well you use terrain, suppression fire, line-of-sight, and combined arms tactics to control the battlefield. A machine gun team in strong cover with a good field of fire is a death sentence to any infantry that step into its kill zone. But that same team is dead meat if it gets flanked by a single infantry squad equipped with grenades. Likewise, tanks can be brutally hard to kill, but if they get flanked by an antitank gun or another tank, their light side and rear armor will betray them.

There are a couple of new features to combat in Company of Heroes 2, and each comes with a loathsome bit of branding. First there is TrueSight, which the rest of the gaming world knows as line of sight: Units don't have a magic vision radius that sees through obstacles, but must actually be able to see their targets. Second, there is ColdTech, which seems to be stretching the definition of "tech". In a nutshell: It gets cold in Russia. On winter maps (there is a "winter version" of most every multiplayer map), blizzards arrive at semi-regular intervals, cutting down line of sight and freezing infantry that stay out in the open too long. Infantry can survive blizzards by riding in vehicles, or warming up inside buildings, or by huddling around fires that you can build on the map.

I actually like this system, despite how gimmicky it is. It changes the pacing on these maps considerably, and requires you to play them a little more deliberately. Either you stage the battlefield with fires and troop carriers to help you keep up the fight during the blizzard, or you watch as your troops are whittled to nothing in white-out conditions. It also creates interesting risk-reward calculations: storming a fuel point might be crucial for fielding tanks, but is it worth having the attacking force ravaged by both enemy fire and General Winter? Can you complete the capture before the snow closes in, or will you have to ride out the blizzard and hope to make good on the losses once the weather lifts?

I've been talking a lot about multiplayer here because the single-player does not live up to the standards of the campaigns in the original Company of Heroes, and the cutscenes are of surprisingly poor quality. Maybe Relic has spent too long working with Space Marines, but the animations and textures in the cutscenes are consistently jarring and unnatural. The missions themselves are better, but they also have a tendency to overstay their welcome with a series of "hold out" and "counterattack" objectives that eventually make them seem interchangeable.

There are also "theater of war" challenge missions of varying quality, some to be played alone and some with friends. At their worst, they are little more than campaign missions by another name. At their best, they are thorny tactical challenges that sometimes pushed me to the limit of my abilities as I struggled to keep from being overwhelmed. One mission looked, at first, like a standard siege mission, but turned out to be a four-day back-and-forth battle against waves of German armor and infantry. A friend and I were forced to alternate between desperately clinging to defensive positions and then going on hell-for-leather offensives to regain lost ground. We won the scenario by only seconds.

But I really question whether Company of Heroes 2 needs to be quite so stuffed with achievements and unlocks. Why should killing 40 tanks with satchel charges give you access to a unit upgrade? Why should I be running around trying to kill tanks with satchel charges in the first place? I'm not even sure I like the idea of having a 10% artillery reload speed advantage in multiplayer; that's a hard thing to account for in an opponent or as a player, being at once too significant to ignore and yet almost impossible to distinguish in the heat of battle. If I wanted to spec out my buffs and upgrades before battle, I'd join a raid guild, not play Company of Heroes.

In the end, I'm happy to be playing a Company of Heroes game again, one that features a few nice twists. It was a great game in 2006, it's remained a great game since, and now this sequel is roughly more of the same. But after seven years and with a $60 asking price, I'm also left asking, "Is this all there is?" It's the Eastern Front, after all. It seems like there should be more to it.

This review is based on a Steam download of Company of Heroes 2, provided by Sega.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer with an abiding love for the PC and the host of the Three Moves Ahead strategy podcast. You can follow his misadventures on Twitter @RobZacny.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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