Company of Heroes 2 is a game that vexes me mightily. It is almost totally devoid of surprises, a game made to order to satisfy a set of increasingly tired RTS clichés that doesn’t do anywhere near enough to iterate and improve upon its predecessor. It seems that Relic were right to depart from the formula they’d established with the original Dawn of War and CoH and experiment with a smaller, squad-focused setup in Dawn of War 2 – judging from their return to their old WW2 stomping grounds here, it seems very much like they’ve run out of ideas on how to innovate when they don’t have space aliens and laser guns to fall back on.
The first thing that will strike you upon starting CoH 2’s single player campaign is that Enemy at the Gates has a lot to answer for. It’s the only high-profile movie the West has made about the Eastern Front in the last thirty years or so, and so it’s gotten to define an awful lot of clichés about how the great videogame-playing masses perceive that particular conflict. This is why the campaign plays, to a large degree, in exactly the same way as the Russian third of the first Call of Duty did back in 2003; they’re both ripping off the only source material Western players are likely to be familiar with. So you’ve got the obligatory first mission in Stalingrad – even though it’s out of chronological order with what happens in the rest of the campaign, although honestly the campaign is just a poorly-ordered series of missions connected through flashbacks (always a bad sign for any narrative) so it doesn’t matter that much – where a cutscene shows Soviet conscripts being sent into battle without rifles and blocking detachments mowing them down when they try to retreat, and then playing the subsequent mission involves marching your men along a clearly-marked, linear route to blow up some AT guns, all the while trying to fool you that there’s a battle raging on around you with a smoke-and-mirrors AI performance.
This all sounds achingly familiar, but it’s a setup more often found in… well, in Call of Duty than it is an RTS. As far as the single-player campaign goes, Company of Heroes 2 has far more in common with the linear single-player campaign from Dawn of War: Retribution, and unlike that game CoH 2 doesn’t have the item system or the fantastic Space Hulk mission to fall back on. The result is something that’s almost astoundingly braindead, with very little tactical or strategic thought required: you progress down the path, you overcome the scripted enemy forces with the appropriate counters (more on this later) and you hit all the objective checkboxes. Most of the challenge comes from wrestling with the game’s awful pathfinding system, which makes vehicles do multiple-point turns reminiscent of Carrier Command’s Walruses when they have to maneuver next to other vehicles, or else will happily reverse a tank straight towards the enemy exposing its vulnerable rear armour. There’s the odd hint of imagination such as the attack across the icy river or the partisan mission, but even here the extra mechanics meant to give the gameplay a little spice turn out to be half-baked at best. For example, the best approach in the supposedly stealth-based partisan mission was to just shoot the Germans in the face and then run away until my partisan snipers had reloaded; the Germans couldn’t run faster than me and they had no vehicles so there was no risk whatsoever. I don’t even know why you’d build the sniper hides or make use of the hold fire command in that one, since all they’d do is slow you down.
So the single-player campaign of CoH 2 is one that suffers from a horrifying disease I had previously thought was only limited to first-person shooters: Battlefield 3 syndrome1 There’s a lot of explosions in the campaign missions, a lot of noise and spectacle and visual hooplah, but none of it really impacts the gameplay at all. When you peel back that impressive-looking shell to have a look at the game inside what you find is staggeringly shallow and often follows exactly the same scripted structure as the previous mission; you capture points and kill Germans until you’ve checked the next objective box, and then you weather a German counterattack, and then you check the next objective box. It’s so predictable, in fact, that I found myself doing something I haven’t done since Supreme Commander: holding off on completing mission objectives because I knew that doing so would trigger a massive German assault and I wanted to build up my forces and defences to the population cap to deal with it. It’s an entirely artificial response to an entirely artificial scenario, and is pretty much the antithesis of what a strategy game should be. Strategy games should flow. Strategy games should demand a conscious response from the player. Strategy games should occasionally smack down the player and force them to change their approach. They shouldn’t be this boring.
That tedium isn’t wholly down to the mission design, of course. I’m no expert in how the original CoH played, but it seems to me that there have been some under-the-hood changes to how certain units and weapons work. Tanks, for example, seem to be far, far tougher when engaged from the front, to the point where building anti-tank guns is utterly pointless since the tank will simply drive up to the gun and kill the crew before it’s lost more than a quarter of its health bar. Panzershrecks and the like are similarly ineffective; they might threaten the lighter stuff like half-tracks and armoured cars but the inescapable problem is that tanks now have enough health to kill anything that attacks them that isn’t another tank or massed infantry units. For the former, you have to make your tanks bigger and heavier than the enemies. For the latter, you use a scout car stuffed full of engineers with flamethrowers. This is a ridiculous combination that relies on the baffling decision to allow transported infantry to shoot out of the vehicle they’re being transported in. Flamethrowers are absolutely devastating to infantry because they ignore cover and kill instantly, but the tradeoff to fielding them is that they’re incredibly vulnerable to well-aimed rifle shots setting off an entertaining incendiary chain reaction. That’s a fine balance between lethality and vulnerability, but it’s completely short-circuited by transported units being pretty much invulnerable to anything that’s not a sniper until their transport is destroyed – and scout cars are fast enough that unless the car is destroyed in one shot, the flamethrower will be close enough to kill the attacking unit. It’s the tank problem all over again.
Most of my campaign missions were therefore played with just four units: two of the heaviest tanks I could build, and two scout cars with flamethrower-toting engineers riding along in the back. This combination was enough to smash 95% of what the scripted AI forces had on the map; even the heavy 88mm guns that should have been a threat to both of those unit types were rendered useless when I got my scout cars to drive round them circles and they couldn’t turn the gun fast enough to actually take a shot. It’s kind of entertaining to watch but it’s hardly what I’d call challenging, and it completely circumvents the infantry-infantry combat that’s always been the most interesting part of CoH. It’s only in the final mission that Relic finally toss some map topography at you that can’t be cleared by scout cars alone, and it proved that when given half a chance it was possible for CoH 2 to present an interesting and knotty tactical problem that required some thought to solve. Unfortunately the campaign waits for eleven hours to present you with the thrilling urban combat that should have really characterised a game about company-level warfare, and you spend most of those eleven hours just going through the motions.
Relic seem to be aware that their single-player experience is somewhat lacking, which (I imagine) is why they’ve extended the stock multiplayer levelling and unlocks system to single-player as well. It’s like they didn’t have confidence in the game’s ability to hook people without a steady stream of rewards and a flashy “Level up!” icon after almost every mission, and they haven’t even implemented this stuff with any of the creative flair that Starcraft II displayed since none of it actually affects single-player. It’s all bonuses and unit skins for multiplayer, trying to provide a psychological carrot that’ll keep the player involved and maybe induce them to keep playing the game. Judging by the activity I’ve seen on my usual barometers of internet popularity that’s just not happening; CoH 2 doesn’t seem to be achieving anywhere near the success its predecessor did, and while the dull single-player campaign probably isn’t much of a factor in that (I’m probably one of the few people who bought it who isn’t interested in CoH multiplayer) I’d say that the gameplay changes mean that it is in general a far less compelling experience.
So while there are some minor positive points in CoH 2’s favour – I do like the snow effects and want to see more of that kind of thing in other, better games – it mostly fails to excite any interest on either a narrative or a mechanical level, not to mention failing spectacularly in its hamhanded attempts to evoke the grinding horror of the Eastern Front. Relic’s Warhammer licenses at least made the cartoonish, one-dimensional nature of their participants and plots into a strength. Here that treatment is almost insulting, especially if you know anything at all about history. People keep saying Relic should pick up the Homeworld licence again, but based on their recent output I’d say that they’re better off leaving it where it is; at least that way we’ll have one fondly-remembered old series that won’t suffer the indignity of a staid, unimaginative remake that’d be mediocre at best. Steer clear of this one.
- Not that CoD doesn’t do it, but Battlefield 3 was unusually artless at covering it up. ↩