The lights are on
Company of Heroes 2 is a long-anticipated sequel to one of the most critically received strategy games of recent times, and it is more importantly a success. There is by no means anything wrong with the game, although there is a great deal of questionable upgrades to come with it. It is equally ambitious and cautious in design and aesthetic, and a followup to be praised and lauded- even if it does fall through in some areas. It might not live up to the high expectations set by fans, as excellent strategy games such as StarCraft II and Red Orchestra have, but it is by no means a terrible game for it. Packed with an excellent new graphics engine, a realistic warfare upgrade, and a new content pack update for the original more so than a sequel in its own right. Company of Heroes 2 is an excellent game, but one that hasn't changed much since its first incarnation. I'd compare it more to Diablo III than any other recently released game- good, but not as well received as the publishers would have hoped.
For the most part, Company of Heroes plays about the same as the original game, sounds about the same, and feels just about as similar as an expansion would. Now, the familiarity isn't bad, but it is startling to realize that the game utilizes many of its "age-old" foundations from the first game in this newest entry- there are some that haven't aged well by any stretch. In a genre where WWII RTS games are a dime a dozen most times, and few make much of a lasting impact, Company of Heroes 2 rides the middle ground between mediocrity and greatness- not doing much to carve out its own path, rather riding the wave of popularity from its predecessor instead. You'll want to watch out more for your smaller units than larger ones in Company of Heroes 2, which is vastly different from other World War games such as Ruse. Truly, the little man is quite important here. Size doesn't matter so much as your expertise and ability to cover, flank, and generally outsmart your enemies. The game is first and foremost a strategy title, but strategy can often be foregone in favor of claiming the high ground and hoping enough of your men survive. It works.
Company of Heroes 2's basic gameplay mechanics are not only well thought out and created, but actually work just as well or better than their predecessor's. Or at least have a new, prettier, sleeker coat of paint on the otherwise old and crusty mechanics. An interesting and realistic hurdle of an obstacle to overcome in this particular entry is the new "line of sight" mechanic- one which blocks a unit's view when fences, houses, trees, or other environmental objects obscure your path. This certainly changes the usual approach to combat and gives battle a more dramatic and survivalist air as well. This mechanic alone cuts down a bit on blind fire from vehicles that can shoot farther than they can actually see, so as to not allow them to accidentally destroy one of your units after spraying and praying. This adds a further strategic air to mapping, and also a new defensive challenge- should you be able to correctly position your towers and units so as to obscure enemy views and advance stealthily, catching them unawares potentially. Not only does this break most traditional RTS norms, but it makes combat more believable and enjoyable as well- often cutting out some of the frustrations of strategic combat simulations.
Many other technological innovations pave the way for Company of Heroes 2's gameplay. Realistic and unit affecting weather patterns and environmental obstacles litter the landscapes and battlefields as well- making for quite the volatile and dangerous mix. Blizzards in the mother country freeze your infantry solid, frozen ponds offer alternate methods of travel- so long as you don't put too much weight on their dangerously thin ice, and fires break out, spread realistically, and cause carnage at random. Whole strategies might not safely revolve around these 'natural' occurrences, however their minimal impact on gameplay can sometimes be all you need to turn the tide, stem the assaults, or force back the charge. Be sure to keep an eye out for these opportune moments to use the environment against your enemies. They not only increase tactical output, but they are extremely satisfying to boot.
Although I wouldn't strongly recommend it to anyone, Company of Heroes 2 features a singleplayer campaign to go with its multiplayer set and other modes. My reasons for not giving this particular mode of play my blessing merely stem from the fact that it is at most parts either too easy or too devilishly difficult to handle, with no in between. The storytelling is almost nonexistent, or I simply didn't care by the end of it, and the campaign scenarios are so incredibly dumbed down that it simply isn't an amusing challenge. As with Adam, I recommend the Theater of War challenges, cooperative gameplay, and AI v. Player skirmishes. They not only offer a decent challenge, but are a better offset to multiplayer than the singleplayer campaign itself. In fact, I'd almost go so far as to say that the game would've been much better off without a singleplayer campaign at all, but that's just the radical side of me coming out. Again, TOW's story might be scant and annoying at times, however it offers up gameplay that is worlds better than anything else in the package, and has hopes for a strong DLC assortment as well. It might not be much right now, but given some time and investment, could easily become my favorite aspect of the game.
The multiplayer is of course the main highlight of the game, as with its predecessor, unsurprisingly so. There are a few varieties of gameplay- from cooperative battles to deathmatches to team deathmatches. There is a greater variety of maps, content, and environmental areas to explore- as well as gameplay and battle size. Multiplayer is certainly not for the faint of heart, and offers what is surely the greatest challenge you will find in Company of Heroes 2- where victory and defeat are often only one unit away. Despite the heavy skill curve, multiplayer isn't too hard to grasp once you've got a few basic gimmicks and gameplay tricks down, and the matchmaking services provided are pretty well organized as well, thankfully. All in all, Company of Heroes 2 is a very similar game to its predecessor, focusing more on presenting updated content rather than anything truly revolutionary or new in the sequel. The progression system works fine, but can also be a boorish and painful grinding session- what with its poorly read requirements and the fact that you must often meet challenges such as 'kill this unit with that crappy weapon'. The other aggravating factor is that, while Russia and Germany are available with their respective commanders, all other countries and commanders appear as DLC- over $50 of DLC. That's 5/6 of the price you already paid for this game that is good, but not great- and that's sure to piss fans off. Big time.
When it does work, Company of Heroes works quite well- however it is an experience to be taken with a pinch of salt for the greater part of its campaigns and story. The presentation and depth are appreciated greatly, but can't save the singleplayer and other modes other than multiplayer from being bogged down by the minor details that eventually stack up. I can't help but feel that, while the game has taken a while to release as a sequel, it was still rushed and hurriedly put out without thought towards deeper content and meaning, instead placing those items in as DLC later. It's a classic developer-design choice, but still a real shame in a game with this much promise. All things said, the original Company of Heroes game is probably still a better, more viable alternative to this newfangled beast with the same gameplay, albeit slightly updated and given a new, glossy coating of paint. If I'd been given the reigns, I would've waited to produce and release the game for another year yet, adding in as much depth and content as I could instead of releasing this good, but not great unfinished project.
Concept: Adds in more realism and gameplay elements at the sacrifice of the aspects that made the first game the strategy juggernaut that it was.
Graphics: The graphics update is appreciated, and looks great from a distance certainly, but don't expect the same level of quality up close.
Sound: Sounds are clearly one of the game's highlights, with realistic explosions and feedback chatter spinning around at all times- realistically disorienting the player as well sometimes.
Playability: Once you figure out the controls, it's a blast to play. Key words: once you figure out the controls.
Entertainment: The game is a good one, albeit an extremely flawed one, and one that could have really been something great given a little bit more time.
Replay Value: Moderate.
Overall Score: 7.5
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