For as long as the RTS genre has been around, it's reassuring that talented developers working in it are still finding ways to stand out at all, let alone with all-too-familiar settings like World War II. Such is the case with Company of Heroes. It's been six years since the original game, and studio Relic Entertainment thinks it has had enough time with their new Essence Engine 3.0 to put it to work on a sequel that properly moves the series forward.
Company of Heroes 2 tackles a far more ambitious World War II timeline than the original game’s D-Day to Operation Market Garden schedule, here opening up the entire Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945, and all from the Russian perspective. No game could truly depict the WWII Eastern Front without the harshness of a Russian winter, and Relic makes it happen through their Essence Engine, by which snow is more than just a flat white texture with crunchy footstep sound effects layered over. Here in Company of Heroes 2, winter has a depth that demands tactical consideration, with snow that melts under the heat of grenades and flamethrowers, ice that soldiers can slip and slide on, bodies of water that can freeze over as bridges, and enemy ambushes that will seek to blow up these bridges.
Speaking of ambushes, expect to find a lot of gratification if you manage to execute surprise attacks big or small. Company of Heroes 2 will be one of those rare RTS games that uses a realistic line of sight mechanic. Using a proprietary system called Truesight, the user won't be able to rely on that classic "magic circle" field of view that punches through the fog of war. You know that circle; it's the one that allows players to see everything within a sphere and includes the ability to see through walls. Now physical objects and dynamic effects like smoke will be blocking your view as well as your enemy's vision. It's a subtle upgrade, but an overdue one; one wonders why it's not a standard feature in RTS games today.
It takes only a glance at either Company of Heroes or its sequel to understand their appeal over most RTS games. Their close camera view on ground combat provides a level of intimacy you can't get in strategy games, where you mouse over large blobs of infantry from a much higher view. And while Company of Heroes 2 is not up close and personal at the level of XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Valkyria Chronicles, don't be surprised if you develop a sense of attachment to your small squads. The game is all the more immersive due to the graphical prowess of the Essence 3 engine, with which the game can render a character’s individual fingers as opposed to the traditional "mitten hands".
It's precisely this closeness to the action that’s made Relic's Company of Heroes more than just a shallow "math puzzle" strategy game, elevating it above the realm of two forces exchanging fire in battles whose outcomes are largely predictable simply by looking at stats. Company of Heroes is a more organic affair, where little actions can make a big difference and cover is a factor, armored vehicles have specific weaknesses and well-organized flanking can turn the tide of battle. It promotes player choice and a proactive nature, rewarding gamers who can adjust on the fly and not necessarily just those who start a battle with better numbers.
Beyond graphical upgrades and a more expansive campaign, this sequel also opens up resource management. Where points on the map in the original game were designated for either munitions or fuel, here in the sequel you can choose which of the two resources you’d like to have at each map point.
Such improvements play an all the more crucial role in the game's multiplayer mode, which looks to be as equally compelling as the campaign. It’s a joy to play around with the three commander types, but when it’s time to focus on victories, really honing in on how to manage them will be key. Whether you're a defensive gamer, one that likes to emphasize resource management, support artillery or buff your infantry as much as possible, Relic offers a variety of ways to customize commander loadouts and tailor them to your play style.
To encourage replay, Company of Heroes employs a challenge system that rewards repeated actions. So if you've been effective with artillery, you just might get practical enhancements related to artillery, such as intel bulletins that provide valuable info on enemy weak points.
In a 2013 that is already frontloaded with big-name sequels and much-anticipated new IPs, this sequel is on pace to be the tactical RTS to look out for. For all the countless times we gamers have played through the last great war, properties like Company of Heroes are still managing to inject the time period with a fresh and energized perspective.