Company of Heroes 2 review: same intensity, little innovation
For many, Relic Entertainment's original Company of Heroes is the standard by which RTS games are measured. The seven year old classic refined resource gathering to be more realistic. Players had to go out to capture and hold objectives to build a war machine, allowing them to focus on combat and strategy. Units were to scale, as infantry was dwarfed by armor. Infantry squads bolstered by a remarkably intelligent AI knew how to take cover and not stand in the open, and they could be equipped with machine guns, mortars, and other items left by dead units.
Company of Heroes 2 plays to the strength of the series: building up a force and going to war, combined with a depth that few strategy games can match. Unfortunately, it does little to move the series forward aside from some minor bells and whistles.
Relic continues to do its homework on World War 2, this time with an accurate portrayal of the Eastern Front. The campaign offers a lot of variety to test your ability, from all-out armor-and-infantry slugfests to infiltrating enemy territory to free prisoners. But, even with the core gameplay still in great form, it isn't long into the game before it starts to fray around the edges.
The more ambitious missions highlight one of the game's main shortcomings: the inability to zoom out for a full battlefield view. The limited view was particularly tedious when trying to keep up with battles in three different areas of the map. The mini-map and audio cues were the only recourse to knowing something was happening elsewhere. The maps are also so large that it's easy to leave units behind or miss them amid the rubble of a town. In addition, the interface isn't particularly well designed, overloaded with all the details it is trying to impart on the screen at once, such as type of units, special weapons, unit health and cover status, etc.
Like its predecessor, the game is once again a visual stunner, with the realistic sound and ambiance that was so impressive in the original. However, one of the most highly touted aspects of its improved graphics engine--the tech used to create lifelike Russian winters and the gorgeous blizzard conditions--is used sparingly, with only one mission actually forcing you to manage your troops carefully through the bitter weather to keep the from dying of hypothermia. It's a shame, because it was this aspect of the game that really gave a feel for how radically different the Eastern Front was from the other areas of the war.
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And while the original game's AI was ahead of its time, the computer seems to have trouble identifying paths through obstacles this time around. For example, units would take a roundabout route to a spot I sent them, when a clear and more direct route was available. Tanks would plow through stone walls, but go around fences. In one particular case, AI-controlled units that were part of my team actually blocked the most direct egress out of my base, causing a backup as they tried to get to a waypoint.
New for the sequel is line-of-sight. While many games have a fog of war, CoH2 takes it a step further with a new system where players must scout enemy positions and have a unobstructed view of a target to call in air strikes or indirect fire. While this may change troop deployments, the system also makes it easier to create ambushes against approaching enemies. For example, I would sometimes have enemies chase me into choke points where I would have troops lying in wait.
Granted, these are small frustrations. The campaign does its job of teaching the basics so players can dive into one of the game's strong points: multiplayer and the newly added Theater of War. My favorite part of the new mode--which also includes co-op and AI mission--is the challenges, where I had to complete certain objectives within a particular amount of time. One challenge gave me nothing but conscript troops and I had to destroy all marked German buildings within a certain time before I was ordered to withdraw. Not only are they an enjoyable addition to the game, they also prepare players for multiplayer.
Theater of War also lets you play as the Germans. With the campaign being told from the Soviet perspective, there are no German missions. That can be a bit daunting in multiplayer since there is no real tutorial available for the tech tree or unit special abilities.
While Relic has recreated a historically accurate version of the Eastern Front, the story is the least compelling part of the game. It is rather heavy-handed, portraying atrocities the Red Army used--such as shooting its own soldiers retreating out of fear, or killing "allies"--as an "end justifying the means" for the Soviets to win the Eastern Front. It is poorly scripted and acted, making the cutscenes just morality-laced filler between the meaty scenarios.
Company of Heroes 2 is everything its predecessor was: an intense and enjoyable RTS that gives you the feeling of really being an armchair general. It is just unfortunate that after waiting so long for a sequel, it doesn't offer too much in the way of innovation. 
Yes, the action can get pretty intense
This company of Heroes 2 review was based on a digital version of the game provided by the publisher. The game was tested on a system featuring an Intel i7 2600 3.4 GHz quad core CPU, 64-bit Windows 7 OS, 16 GB RAM, and an nVidia GeForce GTX 660. All graphics options were set to "high." The game comes out today.