Harsh winter, harsher reality

In America, we often glorify our own involvement in World War II. But it’s easy to forget about our alliesespecially the Soviets, who we’d subsequently spend much of the rest of the 20th century villainizing after the war. If Stalin and his men hadn’t forced the Nazis into a prolonged war on three fronts that bled Hitler’s boys dry, though, we might be living in a very different world indeed.

It’s easy to look back on a conflict that saw the loss of so manyand went on for so long—as a mere collection of dates and names of battles. It’s safer to just look at statistics (like the estimated 60 to 80 million deaths worldwide) and detach yourself from the thought of so much human suffering.

And that’s a major reason why Company of Heroes 2 is so fascinating. Not only does it highlight the war fought along the Eastern Front from 1941-1945, but the single-player campaign tells this underappreciated tale through the eyes of (fictional) lieutenant Lev Abramovich Isakovichand how he copes, years later, with the questionable tactics the Reds often used for “the sake of the greater good” as he’s interrogated by a former superior officer.

The campaign weaves its way through the greatest battles along the Eastern Front, from the very beginning with Operation Barbarossa, through to the bloody Battle of Stalingrad,  continuing to where the Soviets started turning the tables with Operation Iskra (as well as plenty of events around and in between these key moments), and forward right up until the end of the war. Each battle offers a specific set of mission-completion parameters that push your own strategic merits to the limit—and show off what Relic’s new Essence Engine 3.0 can do from a visual perspective.

Some of these visuals effects include the all-important, brand-new weather system that simulates blizzard conditions. The idea of “General Winter” is one that’s protected the Russians for generations, and to see it in full force in Company of Heroes 2 is a new wrinkle that shouldn’t be taken lightly; soldiers who stray from shelter or the warmth of a campfire for too long will start to suffer from hypothermia. There’s no worse feeling in Company of Heroes 2 than watching your soldiers drop, one by one, as they march across the frozen Soviet wasteland, leaving dead bodies in their wake like breadcrumbs. You’re struggling to search for salvation before you’ve even fired your first bullet.

The flipside, of course, is that General Winter can also create new terrain by freezing lakes and rivers. This allows clever players to send an enemy tank that’s decided to take a shortcut over thin ice to a watery grave or cut off a combatant’s retreat or advance with some well-placed mortar fire that shatters the ice.

But aside from this added wintery nuance and a tweaked line-of-sight system that requires your forces to actually be able to see something directly in order to remove the fog of war, there’s very little new here for returning players. That’s not to say that fans will be disappointed—far from it—but if you’re looking for extreme innovation, you might be disappointed.

But as much as Company of Heroes pros might be able to jump right in and get a relatively quick grasp on the situation, newcomers might be as lost as a hapless German soldier trapped behind enemy lines in the Russian winter. The campaign tutorials do little to explore the full upgrade branches of many troops; they limit players to abilities that would fit the situation. This provides a sense of realism rarely seen in an RTS, but it also makes it difficult to learn just what your units can do when certain abilities are suddenly missing for reasons that aren’t adequately explained.

When you get to the multiplayer aspects of Company of Heroes 2, the game is like most any other RTS title. You set up your base, acquire resources, upgrade troops, and attempt to annihilate the enemy from the map or capture certain objectives. Here, RTS vets will find a polished experience that provides a plethora of options to keep the experience fresh; you can set a variety of in-game parameters, such as the all-important weather scenario or computer-controlled AI options. But those coming here from the campaign will be in for a shock; the multiplayer pacing is drastically faster, and the first few matches might give players a rude awakening.

Company of Heroes 2 serves as a shining example of what the best developers can achieve in the RTS genre. The compelling characters and situations seen in single-player and the bountiful array of multiplayer options combine for a winning combination—like borscht and vodka.

Developer: Relic Entertainment • Publisher: Sega • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.25.13

While there’s little new here to differentiate between titles besides the change of scenery to WWII’s Eastern Front, Relic once again delivers a premiere RTS experience.

The Good Expansive single-player campaign that does real-life events justice while featuring a bevy of multiplayer options.
The Bad Not for newcomers—and nothing new for veterans.
The Ugly General Winter’s icy grasp.
Company of Heroes 2 is a PC exclusive.