Company of Heroes was a game for real armchair generals. There was no resource gathering, no tank digs, no marks of other games that look like a battle of the armies, but they are really small but mouse powered sprint races.
Building on the concepts of cover and directional fire, oppression and morality, you had to use actual battlefield strategies to be successful. Seven years later (the game was released in 2006) the formula is so perfect that it remains unchallenged. even from the relatively related Dawn of War series from developer Relic.
Seven years is a long time between the wars, and now that we have a sequel people are expecting a lot from this game, the first time Company of Heroes has dumped Western Europe for the Eastern Front. What's new?
On the one hand the weather. The Eastern Front has been a brutal theater of war, and the weather in this game wants to make sure it has more than just a cosmetic effect. Blizzards will slow your infantry down and even kill them if they're outside too long, while frozen rivers can be inflated to block passage or sink enemy forces.
However, the fact that the Soviets are now playable is the most important addition here, and also the most disappointing.
CoH2's campaign does not meet the standards of the original game and its expansions. It starts too slowly and, worse, is soaked with an uncomfortable veneer of morals from start to finish as Relic tries to justify the fact that you play as an army "not as bad as the Germans for being on our side "by placing you in the position of a dissident appalled by the shocking brutality of the Soviet.
It doesn't work.
The cutscenes, rendered with rough 3D models (see above), are hammy like a bad '70s war movie, their somber tone contradicts the ragdoll action in the missions, and everything is terribly boring as far as the story goes Makes the campaign as unbearable as (sorry) a cold Russian winter.
Another problem with the campaign is that it tries to incorporate some new features into the game in the name of factional authenticity, such as an endless supply of conscripts and NKVD officers shooting retreating soldiers. These feel crudely implemented as they do little but upset the balance of the game (the former as you can brutally force your path to victory) and simply add another arbitrary display to the screen you have to watch out for (the latter).
The campaign doesn't even make the most of the new weather conditions, as only a handful of missions make significant use of frozen rivers and only one challenges you with troop devastating snow.
It wasn't until towards the end of the 14-mission campaign, when you get a fantastic little partisan mission and some good "real" battles (where you can build a whole army and take over the map) that you will find his feet.
Fortunately, the campaign is a glorified tutorial that you'll soon forget as you dig into the real meat of the game.
It used to be CoH's excellent multiplayer (where you can also play as a German), which was just as fun with / against friends as it was 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 are a blast in multiplayer as the struggle to keep only your men alive let alone fight many turns old strategies upside down.
The real draw here, however, is a new third game mode that combines single player and multiplayer into something new to the series, something you'll – wait – be familiar with if you've recently played Call of Duty.
It's called the Theater of War and, like CoD's Spec Ops mode, offers the player a number of scenarios that they can tackle either alone or in co-op mode with a friend. These range from battles with specific conditions to targeted objectives like holding a small base of waves of enemy attacks.
With the history of the campaign behind you and without the "blank canvas" of a multiplayer match, it might sound like a mediocre stepchild, but the truth is, it's a mode that gets the most out of the game. Free from the dull history of the campaign, yet with a little more focus on multiplayer (or skirmishes, as Relic makes AI battles refreshingly a standout option), it's easily the most fun I've had with a real-time strategy game in years.
Outside of the campaign, the Soviets are also the most comfortable, as you can use some of their immensely massive devices when and how you want, rather than as the campaign whims.
Before I finish, I want to point out something that you normally cannot do in a strategy game: this game is explosive. The sound in this game is incredible, more like a Hollywood war movie than a top-down strategy game, and it really adds to a sense of immediacy on the battlefield that is already strong thanks to all the mud and grime, body and debris flying around
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Company of Heroes 2 is not the revolution that its predecessor was. Too much stays the same (except for the Battle UI), and too much from the Soviet faction, especially their employment in single player, is a disappointment.
But guess what, that's fine. There are many, including myself, who would argue that the basic design underlying the original was almost perfect and it's still there. On top of that, some of them aren't that great, most of them (like Theater of War) excellent, which is what you'd expect from a video game sequel.
In the end, think of Company of Heroes 2 as the embodiment of the thing it is trying to recreate, namely the advance of the Soviet into Germany. Blunt and at times wasteful, but an overwhelming success in the end.