Wot I Think: Company Of Heroes 2 Single Player

By Adam Smith on June 21st, 2013 at 2:00 pm.

The Western Front isn’t as quiet as you may have heard from other sources but the Eastern Front is almost certainly a great deal louder. That’s what Company of Heroes 2 would have you believe at any rate, with a flashy new engine and a great deal of clamour presenting its conflict. But does the long-awaited sequel add anything more than enormous flurries and drifts of snow? I donned my thermal underpants and went to war.

For the first hour, Company of Heroes 2’s campaign threatens to be all sound and no strategy, fury without thought. It’s quite comfortably among the loudest strategy games in existence. The soothing click-click of the mouse is drowned out by the death rattle of machine guns and the occasional whirr of a brain cog is lost in the audible violence as the Eastern Front repeatedly explodes.

Given the setting, the constant barrage of noise makes sense. The number of men dying on both sides of the conflict is terrifying, and the focal points of each map are soon clogged with bodies and the smoking ruins of machines. It’s hard to spot the company of heroes among the legions of anonymous dead and doomed, although the cutscenes, which provide a post-war reflection on the horror and guilt of the survivor, are often strong. The sheer visual splendour of combat and the might of the engine can make war a thing to goggle at, players peering at the screen like dogs on the wrong side of a butcher’s window, but it’s a grimy sort of spectacle. Zoom in close and the grisliness of the scene is more apparent – explosions make meat of soldiers, and the dying crawl and stagger.

The constant stream of allies and enemies pouring across many of the campaign maps, the planes and mortars shrieking overhead, and the battles occurring at the periphery all contribute to the sense of a larger conflict. The sense of engaging in a skirmish or defensive action that is only part of an incomprehensible whole is as convincing as I’ve ever seen, sometimes distractingly so. There are times during the campaign when Company of Heroes 2 is so determined to show the scale and set pieces of war that the player takes the role of spectator, following the occasional signpost and using or collecting equipment as and when a commander swearily barks instructions.

All of this combined to make my first impressions underwhelming. I actually scribbled ‘Call of Duty RTS’ on a piece of paper after following another arrow to another target and realising, once again, that constant reinforcements meant there was no danger or risk. More men for the meatgrinder and no reason to care for the consequences.

The menu didn’t help. I debated whether or not it was worth writing a short paragraph about a bloody menu, but here I am, writing that paragraph. It looks more like a digital storefront than an actual game, advertising its (cosmetic) wares, double experience events and broadcasting possibilities. It’s cluttered and wants me to upload my failures and successes, or to paint a tank, or to preorder something or other. I feel like it’s shouting at me.

None of that, even the XP and DLC stuff, has much of an effect on the game. I haven’t bought anything but have unlocked unit abilities and decorations for use in skirmish by playing the campaign and against the AI in the Theatre of War mode. As with the sound of my brain-cogs during a war, the Theatre of War is easy to miss among the noise and mess of the menu. Comprising singleplayer, co-op and competitive scenarios, it’s where the game shines brightest. Pick a battle, either as the Soviets or the Germans, and master a map. It’s a much more direct model of the slow-burn take on RTS that the original game and its add-ons excelled at and it’s tempting to say that it avoids the excess of the campaign, but that’s not entirely true. Instead, it escalates toward it, beginning with basic base construction, more flexible than in COH 1, and expanding into a miniature arms race. You bring tanks, I’ll plant mines and force you onto the ice, or cripple their tracks. You counter with an infantry rush and I’ll be waiting with machine gun killzones at the ready.

On the whole, the pace of the game is as splendidly pitched as ever, allowing room to think and to counter, but never lacking tension. Even against the AI, which is how I’ve spent the vast majority of my time with the game, the ideal next move is often read as much in the actions of the enemy as in the layout of the battlefield. It’s often impossible to know the best route, either through the tech/construction tree or across the map, without at least trying to predict where the next attack is coming from, or what shape it will take. On one level, it’s actual war as a giant tug of war, a back and forth for control of resources and choke points, but it’s also very much like playing with the most incredible box of toy soldiers ever.

The simplicity of movement is a huge part of the game’s tactical appeal. While sometimes muddling around cover rather than sticking to it, when squads do accurately follow instructions, they can be made safe, hunkered down under fire, until their opponents try to flank them or bring in heavier weaponry. Brilliantly, this means that the passage of time itself doesn’t force the player to take action, but the movements and menace of an enemy eventually will. Unless the weather is playing its part, in which case immobility can be death.

During snowstorms, mobility and visibility are reduced, and engineers must start fires to keep troops alive. This, along with the breaking ice that can be the end of a tank or a trooper, may not seem like a huge addition, but as well as being so well realised that I actually feel cold when my men are shivering through them, the snow-laden maps change tactical approaches enormously. In a game so strongly defined by its pacing, the change to unit speed, and the need to react to alter approaches to positioning and construction , have a significant impact on strategies.

The campaign, despite telling its story well, is something of a disappointment, partly because it is so intent on telling its story. With the superb weather effects, a dynamic struggle for territory, taking in the changing seasons, would have been excellent, if unhistorical, and the later stages of the campaign do feature some superb, long-form battles. In multiplayer and against the impressive – if eventually predictable – AI, the technical improvements, such as the much improved line of sight calculations and increased environmental destruction, create alternate tactics.

Ambushes are a much more effective option, particularly when faced with vehicles, which react magnificently to damage, both in terms of losing function and jolting with punchy physicality. The Soviets are also dab hands at requisitioning evacuated vehicles and abandoned weapons, which creates further tension when deploying units. Bring a gun (tank) to a knife (gun) fight and you might find it turned against you.

RTS games often apply pressure as soon as the map is loaded – it’s like being trapped in that sodding garbage compactor – but Company of Heroes is more like fencing or playing chess than bench-pressing. And that’s why this sequel, though a long time coming and slow to find its stride, is a success. It is more of the same, yes, but it still feels different to every other RTS out there. I wanted more of an individual focus, Men of War blustering into my imagination as it so often does, but COH 2 has its own approach, blending small-scale tactical positioning with larger strategic movements and decisions.

you'll be looking at screens like this far more than close ups of tanks falling through ice, which is a good thing unless you want to watch a film about tanks falling through ice

I suspect some will be dismayed by how similar the game is to the original and it’s fair to say that it doesn’t feel as fresh or vital. Company of Heroes hasn’t been reduced by the passage of time though, continuing to stand out in its wartorn corner of the strategy square dance. The new engine is spectacular but the visual splendour does threaten to overwhelm the meat of the game, particularly in the campaign’s more explosive moments. Scrape all of the snow and smoke away, however, and something would be lost because the technology does add to the decision-making in more subtle ways than might be imagined. Company of Heroes 2 is a deceptively noisy and violent game that is actually designed for those with slow hands, quick wits and flexible thought processes.

It really does have a rubbish menu screen though.

Company of Heroes 2 is out on June 25th.

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60 Comments »

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  1. Benjamin L. says:

    To be honest, the campaign of the first one was only passable.

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    barelyhomosapien says:

    I couldn’t believe how similar it felt to the original game.

    It’s a shame they didn’t try to do something as interesting as Dawn of Wars 2 campaign which really set it apart from other areas of the game and it’s peers.

    Oh well.

    • Bhazor says:

      .. but that campaign was atrocious. It bordered on Korean MMO levels of repetition.

      • Jeremy says:

        It was definitely disappointing. It had such potential to be great, but it was just a glorified skirmish engine, without any sense of scale.

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        barelyhomosapien says:

        That’s not how I remember it, I quite liked it. Ah well!

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        Continuity says:

        Atrocious? it was tragic. they took one of the best RTS of the decade, ripped out most of what made it good, and crammed in some awkward broken mechanics and called it a day. Everyone responsible for that game should be forced to play it for 30 hours, or if we’re feeling lenient we could always just shoot them.

      • mouton says:

        Well, I liked it a lot. It fit the nature of W40k very well, imo, and the actual story, while simple, was refreshingly to the point. With constantly rising difficulty, the campaign was actually quite fun and challenging (on penultimate difficulty). It didn’t feel like a grind to me and I hate MMOs.

        “Atrocity”, heh. Words get so devalued on the internets.

        • coty says:

          I do not think that calling the single player campaign atrocious is an exaggeration. Therefore, if you think about the actual root word and not a specific connotation then it is perfectly fair.

    • chris1479 says:

      I couldn’t believe it took them nigh on 10 years to bring out CoH 1 with slightly improved graphics and such a poor (and confusing) menu system.

    • Iskariot says:

      DoW 2 had a terrible single player for the same reason it had a terrible skirmish mode: lack of AI.
      The AI in DoW 2 is a passive brain dead moron that can only perform in a scripted situation or in a passive defensive one.

      If you compare that to the aggressive, almost intimidating AI (with great AI mod) of the first DoW it becomes clear that DoW 2 is only superior in graphics but inferior in every other respect that counts for a single player gamer like me.
      I still play the first DoW 1 games almost weekly. I even own 2 retail copies of each DoW 1 game and 1 Steam version. That is how good I believe these games are. I must have put thousands of hours into them.
      DoW 2 I played for about 12 hours, but then I quit because I felt I wasted my time with an inferior product. I did love the shiny graphics and the beautiful Tyranids though. But shininess is not enough to make a good game.

    • Syra says:

      DoW2 had a fun campaign, all of them were (retribution made it a bit boring). All the crying for another generic RTS campaign where you spend 20mins each mission building a base and an army then the next 10 min steam rolling across the map, that’s super productive.

      The only problem was it didn’t inform the multiplayer, which is the best RTS multiplayer of all time… hence people couldn’t keep up with the learning curve and the community didn’t pick up so much.

  3. Bhazor says:

    God I almost had a heart attack when I saw the menu screen. I think I might have sighed all the air out of my body. Its like everything that pisses me off in a modern pc game all at once. Is all that guff necessary? Do you need to register for anything like you did with the expansion packs for COH 1?

    • fooga44 says:

      DoW2 was CoH reskin without the base building, the games used the same freaking engine and had the same freaking skills just renamed and reskinned. Anyone who thinks DoW 2 was something radically different from CoH is missing a few braincells. They took CoH and reskinned it and got DoW 2.

      • MobileAssaultDuck says:

        The heroes I felt added a significant amount of difference to DoW2 vs CoH1.

        Also the change from a 3 resource system to a 2 resource system with much more depth added to the energy game (building and destroying up to 3 gens, whereas in CoH the added structures were purely defensive.) It was often a better strategy to kill gens and not cap the point, since you’d cause your enemy to waste resources on more gens quickly. In CoH1, it was never a better idea to not cap an exposed point.

        They also removed supply lines, which changes the flow and strategy of the game.

        It had a heavier infantry focus than CoH1.

        DoW2 was as different to CoH1 as WC3 was to SC. Not a massive difference, but enough to be a significantly different game with different strategies.

        • Grey Poupon says:

          Melee units made countering setup teams (and ranged units in general to some extent) a very different scenario than what it was in CoH. And spells have a lot more effects than just direct damage or cover.

          There’s a lot of crowd control in DoW2 and the game feels quite different. No huge differences, it’s obviously the same engine, but it’s quite far from being the same game.

          DoW2 being more dynamic and diverse and Men of War being a more tactical “hardcore” WW2 RTS makes me feel like CoH falls in a bad spot in the middle. I’m either missing the “in your face” -counter units from DoW or the direct control and environment destruction from MoW.

          • MobileAssaultDuck says:

            See, I feel the SMG using units are effectively melee units.

            In a ranged fight they will lose to rifle users, but if they charge the lines and close to point-blank they will tear other units apart.

            They remind me of CSM from DoW1. CSM were a ranged unit, and decent at it, but they were better in melee than any other ranged unit, so in a ranged vs ranged fight, you were best to close your CSM into melee range.

            Similarly, in a fight your best bet with SMG users is to charge into “melee”, despite being a ranged class.

          • subedii says:

            The melee / ranged dynamic in DoW2 really does make for a different experience. Good use of melee is important, even if the units themselves aren’t specifically melee units (you can “force melee” with any infantry unit). It’s not just a case of attacking the enemy, it also prevents them from deploying their own ranged weapons, which is crucial against things like setup teams (Suppression teams, snipers, artillery teams), and on retreating units.

            It forced a very different working of the retreat mechanics, since simply being able to wait until the enemy gets to you and then retreating would effectively negate the effectiveness of melee units, especially the glass-cannon types. Melee units typically take damage and losses on a direct approach (making flanking and surprising enemy ranged units out of position all the more important), so they need a subsequent payoff for reaching their target. As such, whilst enemy units take reduced ranged damage on retreating, they actually take increased damage from melee.

            Amongst other things, whilst cracking a fortified position that has good placement can be a problem, if you manage to disrupt them and get your melee units in it can be positively BRUTAL. It’s a constant game of dare, if you stick in your position long enough and play your abilities right, you may be able to fight them off. But if you DON’T fight them off, typically you’ll be hurt badly for refusing to retreat.

            Other than that (and all the stuff mentioned above by other posters), the general pacing of DoW2 was much faster than CoH. Engagements were much more lethal, and with far fewer squads in play, a squad loss is also a lot more brutal.

            In a lot of ways, DoW2 is a mechanically simpler game than CoH, at least on the meta-game side. But this lead to a game that felt more focused on the immediate tactical combat, especially with all the heroes in play. I think the Starcraft – Warcraft comparison is fairly apt.

      • mouton says:

        “DoW2 was CoH reskin without the base building”

        Oookay. Comment section is really getting surreal today.

    • Edlennion says:

      I suspect that the dreadful menu is SEGA’s doing; it reminds me of the Shogun 2 menu screen, which is also extremely annoying

      • Baboonanza says:

        Just what I was thinking

      • Zenicetus says:

        Yep, me too. That’s marketing driving the menu design.

        I hate what they did with Shogun 2, which had a nice atmospheric main menu in the vanilla game. Then they started adding billboards for DLC, and now there are Rome 2 adverts on the menu. Ugh.

        As long as the in-game UI isn’t that tacky once you get into a game, I guess it isn’t too bad. I just wish they had more respect for their own game aesthetics. Adverts like that can go on a by-passable loading screen before the main menu loads, and still serve the purpose.

  4. Coflash says:

    And the performance?

    • Captainwinters says:

      Ditto this, played the beta and performance was quite abysmal even at modest settings..hope they’ve patched it together…

      • Adam Smith says:

        Spent most of my time with a gtx 465, 960x processor at 3.6ghz. High settings and no problems at all.

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          Phinor says:

          If it runs well on that setup, it makes me wonder if the current open beta is actually very different build than the review build. My 2500k@4.4GHz + 770GTX struggles with CoH2. The average fps is good enough but when something actually happens on the screen, the dips are very severe. I’ve seen fps drop to below 20 at times which is pretty unacceptable in a “proper” PC game.

          • chris1479 says:

            I have a similar setup and found it equally sludgy-feeling. Not nice. Also – I feel like I’m playing with my face selotaped to the fucking monitor it’s so close into the action.

            I want a better overview, it’s nice for temporary immersion, but I do actually want to focus on playing the game at some point you know.

    • Premium User Badge

      DarkLiberator says:

      During the beta, it ran at 80 fps maxed out just fine for me on my 7970.

      • Captainwinters says:

        Strange, my 660 was running at around 30fps for most of the time, hopefully been fixed by now though!

  5. Feldgrau says:

    I have to say, I’m more than a little disappointed to hear about the campaign. I feel as though people, such as myself, who enjoy single-player RTS experiences are dying out, and everything has to take a “competitive multiplayer” approach to make sales.

    I did have an inkling that they may drive for a “cinematic” approach to their campaign. I think the only CoH1 campaign I really enjoyed was the German one from Opposing Fronts, if only because making it necessitated reading an actual book and acquiring a fact or two, whereas the original game was like watching re-runs of Band of Brothers only without any of the believable humanity.

    Realistic weapon mechanics and endless tank variations can stay with your grognardy realistic strategy games, but it’d be nice to get something a little more mainstream that doesn’t throw authenticity entirely away for the sake of hollywood-brand cinematic “thrills”.

    • DarkMalice says:

      I feel your pain fellow single-player.

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        G-Lord says:

        Same here. The last strategy multiplayer I got into was World in Conflict.

    • Apocalypse 31 says:

      I am also a SP/COOP player, and it’s getting harder to find games that have a decent SP or COOP Campaign.

      Sadly, many games only seem to have a SP campaign to serve as a tutorial for multiplayer.

      I think my biggest heartbreak in recent history has been Wargame AirLand Battle. Terrible, awful SP Campaign. Horrible gameplay mechanics.

    • DanMan says:

      Agreed. My problem is that i don’t have the time (anymore) to indulge myself into games like this. But if I don’t, the other online players will just annihilate me within minutes and that sucks the fun right out of it obviously.

      They know every map, they know the tech tree by heart, they know every unit’s stats… how can you compete with that?

    • Springy says:

      I enjoyed the British campaign in Opposing Fronts a lot. Especially the attack on Caen. Spreading that over a gruelling three missions really gave the recreation of the battle some impact.

  6. Synesthesia says:

    Sounds right up my alley. Any chance you guys will review the multiplayer side? If not, and if anyone has read any interesting reviews in that front, do you mind pointing me that way?

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    DarkLiberator says:

    Enjoyed the beta, but I agree the menu is pretty cluttered, though I do sit there just listening to the nice menu theme.

  8. Colej_uk says:

    I’ve only played the beta(s) but what’s so bad about the menu? There’s some nice art, the options are clear.

    That window thing on the right looks more like a panel displaying game news- it’s not unreasonable that they have a pre-order link in there seeing as they are giving away a massive demo in the form of an open beta for free.

    The army customizer isn’t a nag for micro-transactions. I’m not sure if there even are any? It’s for configuring your unlocks such as different generals and perks etc. There are the tank skins too which are essentially superfluous but it’s a nice little option. I think the menu is fine.

    • Leb says:

      I like the menu. I have the buttons I need – Single Player, Multiplayer, Theater of War. On the right I see patch notes and related news – awesome.

      Bottom right is twitch – which I imagine I’ll end up watching when I want to refine my gameplay through watching others.

      And correct, there are no microtransactions – everything in the army customer is stuff you unlock through playing, which includes camouflage and slight tweaks to units. E.g. a player who has a heavy infantry strategy may end up unlocking +2% to rifleman health after his 500th infantry kill, hardly a game changer but allows for some more specialized/personalized armies (e.g. my Russian load out has +5% damage dealt by conscripts, +2% health to conscripts, mgs 2% more accurate).

      Anyways.. sidetracked on that explanation, back to the key point – menu is functional and easy to use. Only thing I wish is to be able to access the army customizer while in a multiplayer with party with friends. as It stands now you have to leave the party and go to the main menu to use the customizer.

      • Colej_uk says:

        Yep, I agree, they need to make the customizer like a pop up window you can open at any point in the menu UI instead of having you quit out of a lobby.

        They have all the presets so it’s not insufferable, but it would be much more useful to be able to open it on top of another screen. It also means I could spend time reading about all the perks while waiting for people in the lobby.

  9. wodin says:

    Graviteam tactics..if your a single player gamer you can’t get any better RTS.

  10. WinTurkey says:

    How politicized is the story? CoH was always a Hollywood game in how it portrayed WW2, should I expect a typical anti-Soviet slant going in? I heard rumours that the game is even pro-Nazi at times.

    • phelix says:

      It could be ‘pro-Nazi’ from a historical perspective, for the first months of Barbarossa went rather smoothly for the Germans and horrifically for the -often in complete disarray- Russians.

      And besides, as far as politics go, it was frankly pretty much evil leader versus evil leader, with lots of men below who had either been brainwashed into doctrine, or had the choice of fighting for a cause they don’t believe in or getting persecuted as a traitor as well as an enemy.

  11. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I really like the RPS approach of doing a single player review for an RTS separate from the multiplayer – too many (read: all other) PC game places just treat the game as an undifferentiated whole, which means giving short shrift to multiplayer usually. If anyone is interesting in how the MP is shaping up and doesn’t want to wait for RPS’ take, this YouTube channel will shamelessly plug has lots of shoutcasts, and CoH2.org is a place where lots of people who are into multiplayer hang out.

    • Medicine says:

      The people need to know about this channel, because it’s the reason I bought both NS2 and MoW:Assault Squad. TychoCelchuuu is probably the funniest living pigeon, and possibly the funniest of all time if we ignore that one that shat on Thatcher.

  12. SkittleDiddler says:

    THQ may be dead, but apparently their stupid DLC schemes live on.

  13. grenadeh says:

    RPS, where we combine two wars separated by 21 years for the sake of a joke.

  14. grenadeh says:

    Not sure where all this bitching about CoH2 is coming from. If you want to complain about something, complain about how OP infantry are compared to tanks, or how inconsistent the Hard AI is. These games are meant for multiplayer.

    • Leb says:

      I somewhat enjoy the inconsistency… sometimes the AI really pushes like a mad man and has me sweatin’ – other times I feel like the AI doesn’t know how to play the game.

      Provides the same experience that matchmaking against humans does :P

    • Lusketrollet says:

      These games are meant for multiplayer.

      Citation fucking needed.

  15. Universal Quitter says:

    Maybe I’m just a giant, boring nerd, but I think I’ll stick with the unfortunately named AirLand Battle for my toy soldier needs. Company of Heroes was just too cartoony for me, if that makes any sense. Adding “moar everything! Moar guts!” wouldn’t really change that for me, and would probably make it much, much worse.

    Or maybe I just suck at CoH.

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    The Sombrero Kid says:

    Played the beta & it was all over the place & that’s coming from a relic fanboy who even played through space marine.

  17. heyhellowhatsnew says:

    Do me a favor, show this review, mainly your complaints about the single player campaign, to Tim Stone, and pray he doesn’t strangle you to death.

    You really aren’t aware of what happened on the Eastern front, are you?

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  19. brodieman1138 says:

    I generally make it a point to not read reviews from people who aren’t capable of spelling “what” properly, but this was fairly informative.