As a person who hasn’t played an RTS in a good while (owing to a period where all good shooters were hitting consoles and required fewer patches), it took me a little while to get my head around Company of Heroes 2 properly when I was invited out to get my hands on the multiplayer yesterday.
But the old gears came kicking back quickly enough, and after three matches I felt like I knew what was what, and much to my adulation, the game was quite accommodating for players like me who were rather quirky in their strategy and choices.
For example, remaining at a relatively low tech level throughout the entirety of a match is a legitimate tactic, as is expanding slowly and keeping your tech progressing.
The emphasis here is on tactics, rather than your ability to power-game the system.
Marching straight through enemy lines and trying to attack from within is every bit as valid as pushing the front lines back one unit at a time.
Aggressively building for fuel as a resource works just as well as ignoring heavy tanks and winning a match using only ground troops.
But let’s back up a bit. This game is set in the height of the most wretched winter in World War II. You can select either Russia or Germany in a game which presents in a familiar fashion, but which is anything but a traditional RTS.
For those wondering, the first game received countless accolades and is well worth a revisit. For newcomers, even if you’re coming from having lapsed as an RTS gamer as I have, it’s a welcoming title which is teeming with nuance and playability.
The emphasis here is on tactics, rather than your ability to power-game the system, which was one of the standout elements of the first game and is still very much present here. A battle between a certain set of units can play out in a number of ways based on who’s better protected from the heat, who’s already taken up a defensive stance, who’s got obstacles, the higher ground, manoeuvrability on their side, and of course – who’s best utilising nearby cover to their advantage.
In one match where one of the key points was in the centre of the map on a tiny peninsula surrounded by ice, a massive attack from all sides was quashed easily by a single tank situated on the key point. In its haste to blast away at various incoming other tanks and troops, it inadvertently shattered the ice itself, causing the majority of the attackers to sink to their icy deaths. In another, a German tank was pummelling troops left, right and centre, charging towards my base, so I was able to tease it into chasing my grenadiers into a duo of anti-tank infantry who’d already been blessed with the time to take aim and fortify, taking out the tank in an instant.
The blizzards are a constant threat, and mix up the gameplay remarkably well. Troops must get close to fire, be in a vehicle or take refuge in a nearby building. Those caught out in the cold acquire a freeze-o-metre and have precious little time before they’re liable to die of exposure. During these periods, which last for minutes, vehicles have a free run of the field, and any key points which are left without fire or structures are free for the taking for those with tank superiority. On the other hand, a tank going from a full stop to full speed ahead whilst on ice can’t accelerate that quickly (they even slide and lose grip), so are vulnerable to a fault on water-heavy maps.
All these minute things band together to make a myriad of variables influence each and every encounter. The differences between German and Russian units are combined elegantly with a series of power-ups so that for almost every strategy, a counter-strategy could easily quash it, but don’t be confused into thinking this is a rock-scissors-paper RTS game – it’s got an attention to detail which brings it far away from the realm of besting a management system and delivering a win to they who hold the fastest clicks-per-minute.
The range of animations, miniature tactics each set of troops will employ with each movement, and relentlessly bleak weather effects (both graphical and visual) make Company of Heroes 2 one of the top games in its field, or at least it should be when it hits next year.
By Leigh Harris