I thought for a while about a new series that could allow me to write about video games without having to go through the lengthiness and stages of a true review. While Screenshot of the Week does give me this luxury, these are supposed to be trivial articles summarizing a week’s gaming adventures. For that purpose I’m introducing the “Slash from the past” series (big thanks to my editor and my focus group for the name!) in which I’ll revisit games, looking at them from a new perspective as I replay them months or even years after my initial playthroughs.
I’m going to kick off this series by returning to the first game I reviewed on this blog, Company of Heroes 2. A review that was more like a poorly written outburst of emotions about the sequel of my favorite RTS of all times rather than objective criticism. But as I’m in a mood for strategy games and WWII themed entertainment, I’m giving this game another chance to explore its new content and find out why it is so much more popular today, four years after its release.
The development story of Company of Heroes 2 is rather different than the one of Dawn of War III. While the latter is a big deviation from the base formula set by its predecessors, the former delivered in terms of gameplay expectations with the appropriate innovation but in a technically challenged manner. Company of Heroes 2 was just an early launch that didn’t crash land and after some extra tinkering it was ready to go again, and it did. The proof for this stands in the steamcharts website highlighting a hurtful difference in playerbase between these two games in question, with Company of Heroes 2 leading by a long shot despite its considerable age. It’s an interesting question how a game with a slightly disappointing campaign and a multiplayer riddled with problems could withstand the test of time. But let’s find out why!
Company of Heroes was a game with an inexact gameplay mimicking the chaotic battlefields of World War II. A mix of realism and arcade that was quite different from what most of the RTS games at the time had to offer. Tactics prevail over raw speed in a grim and violent visual spectacle worthy of Spielberg’s war masterpieces like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Battles have an almost cinematic feeling fueled by advanced physics and a randomness matching the one of war. This is the gameplay flair that Company of Heroes 2 has inherited and developed while including innovations and mechanics meant to keep players intrigued for longer periods of time. The sequel has delivered in terms of gameplay retaining the same feeling and visual direction as its highly rated predecessor, but the way things worked at launched earned Company of Heroes 2 many negative reviews. But years have passed and while the vehicles’ pathfinding isn’t always on point, the overall package is just a much better experience with very few nuisances.
With the change in style of Dawn of War III, the trademark gameplay of Relic’s strategies can now be found only in their older tiles with Company of Heroes 2 being the last to use it. This makes the game more appealing than ever before for those interested in this dynamic representation of enclosed sector conflicts. The gameplay design is masterful with a complex tactical component that entails controlling a pretty large army bending to a quite realistic set of rules in the battle for key objectives on a compact yet detailed map. Houses, trenches and all kind of landmarks can serve as clever advantages while being part of the driving visual power that can capture you with its gruesome depiction of war. The physics play an important role into these messy strategic matches with the safety of buildings being blown to pieces by artillery fire while new trenches are left behind by explosions. It’s a combination of management, control and understanding of terrain that leads to epic battles hard to find anywhere else. It’s not always exact and it shouldn’t be as the difference is made through situational assessment and tactical adjustments not through a rock-paper-scissors strength of units. Resources have to be spent according to the needs of the battle and casualties have to be avoided while inflicting as much damage as possible to the enemy. It’s a war so it has to be played dirty.
While most of the technical problems have been fixed over the years, improving the multiplayer quality in the process, these changes for the better haven’t really affected the singleplayer experience, which was to be expected. Company of Heroes 2 has launched with plenty of singleplayer content, from its attempt on a narrative driven campaign on the Eastern Front to the Theater of War solo and even co-op missions that came in the form of free and paid DLCs. But none of these have stuck with me as worthy of this game’s legacy and complex gameplay. They aren’t bad per se but rather felt forced with over the top dialogues and crazy battles against overwhelming AI forces. Relic has made an effort to address this issue through a standalone campaign following the US Army in the infamous Battle of the Bulge with the Ardennes Assault DLC. This singleplayer campaign follows the style of Dark Crusade strategic map control while different companies of the US Army battle over this area of Belgium in a war of attrition. Small, well scripted missions with a contextual story provide tactical battlegrounds for a non-linear campaign where the player’s actions have effect on a larger scale. Army’s health is a factor, companies losing strength and gaining veterans based on the battles they went through, meaning that proper management will ease the victory while great casualties can lead to defeat. The balance is thin and keeping up with the German counteroffensive isn’t an easy task without save scamming. The increased difficulty through the strategic map control and army management adds a great deal of immersion to this campaign that’s dedicated to one of the hardest battles of WWII. And while a standalone paid DLC, Ardennes Assault does manage to make up for the sins of the original campaign that didn’t quite hit home.
Company of Heroes 2 has grown into a larger and better game despite getting older. Even on the visual side the game has retained its quality over the years, like a good wine, and while ground textures feel as dated, the overall image is quite impressive. The combination of units’ animations, particle effects and extreme physics render an active battlefield with real cinematic qualities. Cities turn to ashes and forests turn to sawdust in an ever-changing landscape that servers as the battleground and cemetery for two armies engaged in a never-ending war.
As a full package, Company of Heroes is a great deal (even more so now that it is on sale) and quite a pleasant surprise. Five multiplayer factions, two singleplayer campaigns and dozens of Theater of War missions for both solo and co-op can provide hundreds of hours of tactical and competitive entertainment. The playerbase is solid and the gameplay a lot smoother than it was years ago. Relic’s dedication on polishing and fixing things while listening to the fans’ requests is what keeps Company of Heroes 2 in such a good shape four years after its release. It sure has been modernized as a business model in its polishing process with skins and loot boxes but without any real effects on the core gameplay experience.
Company of Heroes 2 is capable to carry on for years to come until, probably, the third title in the series makes its way to our screens (Pacific Theater this time?!). And I’m hoping that Relic will use this development experience and drag Dawn of War III back to the surface from its deeper foxhole.