Last month, we ran a preview of Company of Heroes 2, which was based on our time with the multiplayer-only beta of the game. In the preview, we stated that, "fans of the original are likely not going to be disappointed," as the multiplayer side felt incredibly polished. While this continues to be the case in the final version of the game, the same cannot be said for the woeful campaign mode. Overall, much of the direction of Company of Heroes 2 feels centered around the multiplayer modes, with the single-player content coming across as almost an afterthought.
The campaign centers squarely on the eastern front of World War II, starting with the Germans pushing back the Soviets and then chronicling their efforts to stop the German advance and push the fascists back to Berlin. The plot follows a Soviet officer as he is interviewed after the war's conclusion; you play through his memories in the campaigns levels. The interview gives the campaign a narrative, making the title less reliant upon generating one during the gameplay.
However, for all the efforts to make the plot interesting, the gameplay falls flat far too often. The first few levels of the campaign feel like plodding tutorials, with each level seemingly showcasing a gameplay feature that frankly doesn't require so much time. The game also often fails to explain itself very well, and it even pulls a bait-and-switch in terms of what it requires of you versus what it has previously instructed you to do.
For example, you'll learn that mines and AT weapons work well versus armor (or you may know from the original game), only to find that the title essentially drops a boss fight against you in the form of a Tiger tank. This encounter dominates half of a level, and the tank ignores the previous groundwork of the game. Mines that heavily damaged tanks simply stun the Tiger, and carefully placed TNT charges that usually destroy nearby vehicles have a comically low effect. After a few attempts of dealing with the tank like a tactician, I just throw all of my units at the tank at once. Surprisingly, this worked, when in any other "real" gameplay situation, I was doing exactly the wrong thing.
In another example, one level has you using a handful of sniper squads to assassinate some German officers. In this game, snipers have no more range with their rifles than any other unit, and they have far less survivability. Pair this with an inability to reinforce your squads, and the resulting gameplay becomes less of, "I'll try this tactic and just reinforce if it fails," to, "Well, I guess I'll try this, and load a quick save for the 10th time." The campaign mode is maddeningly inconsistent in both its content and quality, and at times, it's almost comically underwhelming.
However, when the campaign hits its stride, it does so to great effect. Some missions stand out, including one where you and an AI commander are both pressing across a frozen river toward German positions, and another where you are tasked with storming a Polish castle. These missions are more open-ended in their structure, giving you full (or nearly full) access to all units and buildings and tasking you with completing a series of objectives. What's more is they also cater to different play styles; in the castle level, you can head west through a city and engage in infantry combat in close-quarters alleyways and streets, or you can send some tanks to the east through the more open fields and engage enemy armor. Either way, your objective remains to take out the enemy artillery to the north and then secure the castle, and it can be done in any way you choose. In these missions, the campaign is really strong, but unfortunately, they are merely the high points in a campaign that is otherwise something to be toiled through rather than enjoyed.
A lot of this is because the campaign doesn't seem to know how to leverage its own ideas. In nearly every level, you have a cooldown-based ability that grants you a free new conscript squad. However, when doing so, a special order is enacted where commissars shoot any retreating units for a period of time. While the whole "shooting our own guys if they take one step back" aspect of the Eastern Front is an interesting concept to pull into the game, it amounts to little more than another timer that one must worry about until it goes away. Other new systems, such as the blizzards that can affect the map (more on them later), rarely show up during the single-player campaign.
However, with Company of Heroes 2, the campaign is only half of the game's offerings. There has been significantly more effort expended on the multiplayer side than what has been put forth before. Up to eight players can duke it out in 4v4 battles, fighting as either the Germans or the Soviets. The game also supports up to four players fighting against AI forces, which can be just as aggressive in their advances as any player — albeit just as predictable as before. There are a variety of maps to fight within, with some taking place in the winter. With these winter maps, you must not only contend with the enemy but also with Mother Nature in the form of blizzards.
At random times during the match, a warning indicates that a blizzard is coming. This is not something to take lightly, as infantry units can freeze to death, so when the 60-second blizzard warning comes up, it can effectively pause an assault as both sides protect their forces. Units within vehicles or buildings have little to fear, but units in the field must get close to a bonfire to keep warm. As the blizzard intensifies, the rate at which exposed infantry lose warmth increases, to the point that an infantry unit can go from fully warm to frozen to death in 30 seconds. Once the blizzard reaches full strength, visibility is also drastically reduced, and your roaming tank might only happen upon an enemy position once they're practically at point-blank range.
If this sounds like a pain to manage, it's really not. While blizzards can stymie your assault, they can allow for another avenue of strategy. On one hand, infantry needs to retreat, which kills an infantry advance but also gives them a chance to heal and get reinforcements. On the other hand, given the reduced visibility, your tanks can drive between gaps in the enemy defensive line and then hit their positions from behind once the storm lifts. Blizzards are certainly random and are rarely welcomed, but they feel less like an obstacle to overcome as much as a condition that can sometimes be leveraged. Blizzards also negate an enemy's artillery or air support, so if your army is primarily mechanized, it can really play into your hands.
The weather isn't the only hazard. While tanks and vehicles can cross frozen rivers, it just takes a nearby explosion to shatter the ice, forcing you to lose your tank to the frozen waters. While the ice refreezes to allow for future vehicles to cross, it is of little consolation when you lose your tanks as they encountered enemy AT units while crossing the ice. The thick snow can also slow down infantry units at parts, making it harder for them to get to cover or cross a field.
New to multiplayer is the Theater of War mode, which allows for solo or pairs of players to work together in a variety of objective-based scenarios. There are a relatively small number of these scenarios to choose from, but they feature randomized elements to keep subsequent attempts fresh. For example, in a scenario where you and your cohort are tasked with defending a base from a number of approaches, the direction, number, and type of attacking forces can vary from wave to wave, and from attempt to attempt. I say "attempt" because successfully completing some of these scenarios can be quite difficult, though it's in a way that stresses your strategic muscle rather than feeling frustrating.
Any play of the game, whether it's campaign or multiplayer, builds your persistent profile. As you kill units, capture points, or basically play the game, you gain experience that ranks up your profile. Higher ranks unlock new vehicle skins, commander abilities, and other goodies. There are also individual goals in the form of bulletins, such as killing a certain number of enemy units with a particular type, or using a unit's ability a set amount of times. Once completed, the resulting bulletin can be used, which are usually small bonuses, such as giving conscript infantry more health or making another unit type slightly more accurate.
These components all come into play on the multiplayer side, where you have the option to build and select different loadouts. Each loadout can slot three commander choices and a selection of bulletins, so you can tailor it to your play style. At first, it's not a really useful feature as you don't have anything to put in other than what's unlocked at the outset. As you play, you make loadouts that complement armored tactics or boost infantry's capabilities. All in all, it's a smart way to put the carrot on the stick to keep playing.
Commanders represent a bit of a shift from the gameplay of the previous game. Previously, you gained skill points to put into a set of trees to unlock new abilities for a multiplayer match, and you could mix-and-match to some extent. Now, the choice has been distilled down to selecting a set of them in the form of a commander. Once selected, your choice cannot be changed, so you essentially "lock in" to a particular set of abilities. While you get one of their abilities to use from the start, you still have to play the match to unlock subsequent abilities.
Company of Heroes 2 really boils down to something of a wasted opportunity. The campaign mode is a well-meaning mess, with the few high points counterbalanced by other missions that seem to exist only to pad out the campaign's length with little regard for entertainment. Meanwhile, the multiplayer is as strong as ever, and it's where the game shines. Between the persistent profiles, the new mechanics, and the Theater of War mode, there is a lot of value to be gleaned from the multiplayer portion of the title. Overall, Company of Heroes 2 doesn't capitalize on its own strengths and ends up paling in comparison to the juggernaut that started the franchise.
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