Friday, 28 June 2013

Review: Company of Heroes 2 (PC)

I freaking love world war 2 games and Company of heroes is one of my all time favourite games ever made.  The attention to detail on the vehicles, level destruction and tactical play basically redefined the genre by eliminating many of the tired tropes of the RTS genre.  Sure it didn't match everything historically like German Grenadiers wearing light blue overalls and the "definitely not SS elite" knights cross holders, but mods could always fix those visual errors for you.

But Company of heroes dealt with the western front and the slog through northern France, Belgium and Holland.  Many players wanted a taste of the eastern front and after several years of patiently waiting we are finally given the sequel focusing squarely on the hellish conflict in Russia from 1941 onwards.
The levels feature some gorgeous environments...for a ruined city

COH2 puts you in the boots of Lem Isakovich a "resident" of a Russian gulag in the early 50's as he is visited by his former commanding officer.  Through their conversations you play key parts of the war from the Russian perspective and sometimes jump to other characters as you go, but the overall story is still Lem's.  This is in contrast to the original games cast which felt larger and more organic as you went from different parts of the army as they fought sometimes crossing paths.  Here you play a more condensed story that skips through years at a time.

Starting in '41 you are mostly on the defensive as the German war machine grinds your forces down and at times asks you to the impossible in terms of defence with what you currently have available to you.  In fact many of the early missions tell you when it's too much and force you to retreat while later missions put you on the offensive and give you plenty of toys to play around with.

It's understandable that the campaign shifts so violently from year to year, but I found it strange that a game that features vehicles so prominently would ignore the battle for Kursk for instance, while several missions take place in Stalingrad.  The campaign isn't bad but it doesn't make the same connection like the original game and it's expansions did, largely because the time line was shorter, being over the course of 7 or 8 months compared to 4 years.  Story aside the levels do feature the same level of detail and atmosphere that give it that Relic feel and the destruction physics are still fun to play around with when you have heavy artillery.

A big deal was made of the winter mechanics in game to try and simulate the harsh Russian winters that plagued the German forces.  Frankly it made little difference in the long run other than having a few alterations mechanically it doesn't really alter the way you play the game.  Blizzards sweep in periodically which can freeze troops exposed to the elements, but keeping them in buildings, by fires or in cover generally keeps them alive.  Vehicles aren't bothered in anyway by the cold and I wonder why they didn't put in a mechanic where vehicle engines could freeze if left still for too long or have them become stuck in high snow drifts requiring troops to dig them out.  As it is blizzards don't really stop late game players who have more vehicles than troops anyway so outside of having their vision limited it's business as usual.
Russia brings the rain with lots of big guns
Outside of this the combat is largely unchanged from the original which is a good thing, but with the tweaked engine the game at least looks a little prettier.  Death animations from weapons fire looks a little less comical as the ragdolls kick in after a short animation, rather than simply flopping to the floor in an unrealistic way.

Being a sequel there are some changes of course.  The most obvious is the new army customiser features.  These allow you to choose from a pool of officers who focus on a particular style of play or technology level.  Some are unlocked through play while others are behind pay barriers which I will cover later on.  You can assign three officers for your multiplayer matches and when you acquire enough experience you can choose one to use for that match.  Other features are the new bulletin systems which act as perks for your army.  Bulletins need you to be a particular level and also meet the requirements before becoming available, and some of these bulletins can be quite effective.  For instance, one bulletin may allow you to train infantry 10% faster, another giving you increased damage with heavy machine guns and more.  They amount to grinding but at least they give you something to aim for.

The final and probably most controversial element is the skins.  Skins are for vehicles only so far and are basically camo schemes from different fronts and periods of the war.  They have no in game effect and are simply there to make your tanks look a little more interesting on the field.  Sadly SEGA have decided to stick a lot of these behind DLC walls like certain commanders.  Some skins and commanders can be unlocked again through play, simply by earning experience and levelling up, but the DLC list is massive at launch.  To own all of the launch DLC would cost you £42.94. many of these being single skins for vehicles at around £1.59 each for items that have no effect on gameplay.  The commanders shouldn't be DLC but at least they give you something in game unlike the skins. 
We can expect more in the future, mainly commanders which at least give you something in game that might change how you approach levels.

Outside of campaign missions you also have your usual suite of multiplayer modes and skirmish across several maps which can be played in winter and summer variants.  Multiplayer can be a maximum of 8 players competitively and as new and welcome feature you can automatch against AI teams for some cooperative comp stomping.

The third mode is theatre of war Relic's answer to the massive gaps in the games campaign story.  Basically this mode works by having you play sets of missions from a particular year of the war.  At launch we have the 1941 pack which features '41 era tanks and equipment, so Panzergrenadiers have Panzerbusche rifles instead of Panzerschrecks and KV-1 tanks are available.  Sadly this mode also means that several units and their variations aren't available for multiplayer, so KV tanks are theatre of war only folks.  Theatre of war packs have several missions ranging from cooperative maps, AI battles and solo challenge missions.  Completing these sadly do not unlock anything outside of some medals which sort of sucks.
Sadly the KV-1 is unplayable in Skirmish and multiplayer
Graphically COH2 uses a heavily updated engine used in the original company of heroes.  It still looks very good by todays standards and the older engine means it works across a wider range of systems without compromising on the quality.  Obviously zooming in to see the expressions on your troops faces while they fight is fun to do when you have the luxury to simply watch and it's a chance to see the attention to detail on the uniforms and equipment.  Damage models look impressive and again the maps look great and ooze the atmosphere of the hellish warzone of Russia and beyond.

Dialogue is delivered with the same level of English voice acted cheese as the original game.  The Russian voice overs are clearly by North American actors since they mispronounce certain words specific to North America.  The Germans still sound like doctor strangelove if he cloned an army of himself prior to jumping ship.  Weapons sound great such as the Katyusha rockets or the long terrifying whistle of a mortar round.  Vehicles sound large and menacing and just generally fit the varied engines used in the period.  It all makes for a decent package sound wise even with the hammy voices.

Is the game a little rough around the edges in some areas? Yes, but it isn't a bad game it just makes a few mistakes here and there when it comes to DLC and locking out certain units from multiplayer.  The game has already offended many Russian gamers who see it as propaganda, but really the story isn't the best part of Company of Heroes 2, no it's the gameplay that makes it so much fun much like it's predecessor.  Expect a lot more content in coming year or so as they add more commanders, theatre of war packs and the inevitable expansion pack which Relic always brings out.

SCORE: 7.9/10 - The DLC really lets it down as does the artificial lock out of certain units.  If they allowed us to use whatever units we wanted similar to Tales of valour's unit swap system and didn't push DLC as much the score would be 8.5-9.0.


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