The Eastern Front of World War II really does sum up everything that's bad in the world of online gaming. General Guderian's development of Blitzkrieg tactics, the massing of mobile armour to punch a hole through enemy defences, was the original tank rush, and the Russian human wave assault strategy was a massively cheesy zerg-rush of a thing. Plus, the T-34 tank was so OP and should have been nerfed in beta. So it's no surprise that when these two unsportsmanlike foes bogged down in the city of Stalingrad in 1942, it just devolved into a massive camp-fest where no-one was having much fun at all.
So it's maybe surprising that the Eastern Front, and Stalingrad in particular have made such staple fodder for videogames over the years. True, there may not be a ton around right now, but if you look back to the olden days, when everything was turn-based and hexy, there were an absolute ton. But it's not these old classics that Company of Heroes takes as its inspiration. No, rather more predictably, it's Company of Heroes 1, perhaps the finest real-time strategy game of all time (and yes, I'm including Starcraft).
You know, it's not really an easy thing, creating a sequel to a masterpiece. Change too much and everyone OMGs. Don't change anything, and snooty videogame reviewers moan that it lacks the innovation that made the original so special (for want of anything else to talk about). So it's with some pleasure that I can say that the differences are just enough to continue the proud tradition set out in the original.
Right, down to business. The graphics. Not a massive leap forward, really, and you can't alter the settings in-game. You need to wait for the title screen to make any changes, which is frustrating as the auto-detect setting choices are frankly bemusing (take a look at Felix's very accurate Company of Heroes 2 system requirements summary right here). Still, explosions are pretty impressive and the rubble flies around quite entertaining during artillery strikes. The sound is incredible – from the first mission in the campaign onwards, the sound of battle is intense and relentless, the soldiers' random dialogue snappy and amusing, and the music perfectly selected and choreographed intelligently to the action.
Changes? Well. Firstly, you can play as the Russians. But we'll get to that. One of the most noteworthy and under-reported advances is a much-improved line-of-sight model that means you can squirrel away an anti-tank weapon behind a house, out of sight of the passing tanks, then come out behind them and blast them in the exhausts much more often than you ever could in the first game. There's a slight change to the commander system in that the three possible experience trees aren't there in the single-player campaign – but again, more on this later. There's not much in the way of air-dropped units, so that whole style of play has taken a knock. There are also no base defence units for the Russians, either – if you want to keep your base safe, better leave a couple of squads idling there. You can, however, fire while loaded into halftracks and transports, and this is a HUGE advantage, particluarly in urban, infantry-heavy maps – a squad of flamethrower-armed engineers and an elite light AT squad, plus the halftracks machine guns, makes for a pretty unstoppable combat patrol. Lose a couple of men? Get out and reinforce from the halftrack. Vehicle getting damaged? Disembark the engineers and get to spot-welding. Oh, and command points are handled slightly differently – there are a number of special command points, such as a field hospital that auto-heals nearby infantry and a lookout post with a greatly improved line of sight. Fuel and munitions can be augmented as the player chooses, by building caches with engineer units.
Then there's the weather. This whole new system whereby the snow slows your troops and slowly-but-surely freezes them to death is only really featured in one mission, like they developed it and then wondered if it was really all that fun after all. Still, the weather is well-implemented visually – it certainly does look pretty chilly out there in the Russian winter. He said, understatingly.
So let's talk about the Russian army as a playable faction. The campaign features around these chaps (and chapesses, as there are a mixture of men and women in the Red Army, true to history) and their defence of the motherland, as well as the subsequent march into Russia. The campaign story is not as well-delivered as the main campaign from the original game, but is still perfectly adequate to hang a game on. Still, it would have been really great to see a top-class story to accompany the gameplay.
As to how the Red Army actually plays, they've done a bit of thinking and decided that they needed a play style that encourages throwing hundreds of disposable conscripts at any problems, steamrollering the enemy with sheer weight of bodies until they get through. To this end, conscripts can be brought up to the front quickly and cheaply at pretty much any time (until you hit the inevitable manpower cap, of course) where they can either throw themselves merrily into a hail of German HMG fire for the good of the Motherland, or be used to reinforce more experienced squads. This is a pretty clever, yet very simple mechanic – just select the merge command and select a faltering squad and the conscripts will transfer enough of their men into the squad to fill it up to maximum. Then the depleted conscripts can be pulled back to the nearest reinforcing point to buff back up to their full number. Or, you know, chucked under the treads of that advancing Panzer IV, depending on your whim.
While this mechanic (despite its less-inspired 'not a step back' mechanic, where units that retreat may be shot by the commissars) encourages infantry rush tactics, there are so many fun Russian armoured units that it's often hard to justify the resource costs to get more men when you could be investing in huge, shiny metal beasts with which to smash the Fascists. There is plenty of light and heavy armour to choose from as well as scout vehicles, tank destroyers, assault guns... in fact, it feels a little like Relic have just incorporated an add-on's worth of new units straight into the main game. Which is nice.
Outside of the main campaign though, there is still the utterly wonderful, absorbing, infuriating, and just eminently playable multiplayer game that made the original last easily from its release in 2006 until the present. Additionally, there is a new 'Theatre of War' mode that offers a bunch of new one-off scenarios that loosely link into a sort of 'campaign that's not a campaign', a more casual approach that invites co-op players in particular, but is just as much fun on your own. This is where the experience trees come back in as well - the German and Russian armies are fully customisable, so you can try out all sorts of unit combos, commander effects and strategies, to see what works. After the lukewarm operations that the Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor add-on pack added, it's good to see Relic grounding themselves and just putting out good fun maps and gameplay that people would actually want to play.
After all's said and done, though, this is Company of Heroes, done again. Relic have had the good sense to stay faithful to the original in tone and accessibility – if you're a veteran of the Western Front, the Eastern is going to come very easily – any many of the units work just as expected. Engineers fix things and have mines and flamethrowers. Some tanks don't have machine guns, and you need to learn which. You can reinforce from halftracks. It's Company of Heroes as you know it and love it. And I thank them for it!