Company of Heroes 2 is a real-time strategy game set during World War 2. Loosely following historical events, it is more an exercise of base building and territory capture, with a lot of compromise made in respect to historical accuracy. This is not a criticism, but a warning to those who think they are buying into a traditional strategic game. What you get instead is a fast-paced mixture of resource capture, base building, and tactical combat.
The original game in the series was based on the events of the Western European Front, and featured the British, Americans, and Germans. Important as these events were, it could be argued that the war was won on the Eastern Front. The choice Germany made to invade Russia was imperative in their plans for expansion, but it was based on the belief that the Russian Army was weak and would collapse, and victory would be easy and quick.
Certainly, the early part of the campaign and the stunning victories of the Germans would give credence to this belief. By the end of the war, however, Russia had proven themselves to be a far superior fighting force than the ones the Germans had imagined. The Germans were fighting for territory and resources, while Russia would expend blood to ensure its continued survival. During the war, 416,000 Americans were killed, while Russia lost between 9 and 11 million soldiers and some 16 to 18 million civilians.
The game - like the original - is played over maps broken down into regions. Each region is captured by moving units to the region's flag. Some regions you capture for position, while others are captured for additional resources. They can provide additional men, fuel, or munitions. Creating engineers allows you to build structures that can produce infantry units, armor, or artillery, while you can also build defensive structures like bunkers. The more your troops fight the better they get, however this benefit (obviously) is conditional on their survival. Cover and cover type are both important to your unit's survival, with heavy cover giving the best protection. This aspect alone lifts the game from the standard RTS genre and offers a lot more challenge.
The 3D terrain you play through is largely destructible, and is very well rendered - with good animation and combat effects. There is a lot of it, too, ensuring you have plenty of opportunities to find cover and advantageous avenues for attack. The sound effects are the icing on the cake, and give a real sense of urgency to the combat. There's nothing like the screams of the dying to get your attention.
Playing this latest game is very much like playing the original, however there are some key fundamental differences. The first is the effect of weather. It's a long-held belief by a lot of Western historians that the German Army was defeated by the bitter Russian winter. Sure, they were less prepared for it, but the Russians had to fight in the same sub-zero temperatures, and the troops suffered just as much - no matter what side they were on. I was very pleased to see that this is reflected in the game. Where there is heavy weather effects in a scenario, warming fires are just as important as capturing a control point. Troops too far from warmth will readily die from the cold alone. Crossing a frozen river is also a challenge, with some well placed artillery causing troops and tanks to take a mid winter swim. Another consideration is that footprints in the snow are a good way to pick up where the enemy is heading.
The other change is a much improved line of sight model. It is now much more realistic, with the environment coming into play far more than in the previous game by blocking line of sight and offering many more opportunities to ambush your enemy.
The build I had access to was a pre-release version and, as such, I did expect some balancing issues. This was indeed very evident, particularly in respect to the devastating effect of mortar fire which definitely needs some toning down. More than just a niggle though was the pace of the game. Just to be sure, I loaded up my copy of the original for comparison, and it was clear that Company of Heroes 2 is played at a far faster pace. In some respects, this makes for a far harder challenge, but my feeling is that a lot of people will be frustrated by the change and I would expect that it will be slowed down before release.
Being a historical game fanatic, I probably shouldn't have liked this game, however - once I got past the silly ranges, and the resource and base building incongruity - I really enjoyed it. As a pure RTS game, it's a real challenge, and I very much appreciated how they have paid homage to the huge sacrifice the Russians made in winning the war. Definitely a game to look forward to.
Pros: The introduction of the Russian Front to the series
Cons: Some unit balancing still required