On 22 June 1941, four million German troops marched in the Soviet Union. So began Operation Barbarossa â€” one of the largest military campaigns in history. The Battle of Kiev and the siege of Leningrad saw some of the most vicious and atrocious fighting of any modern conflict. But the broken bones and bricks littered through Stalingrad halted the Wehrmacht's advance, marking the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and the third Reich.
Already dramatised in literature and film, it was about time someone made a decent real time strategy game about it.
Thankfully, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of THQ is Company of Heroes 2 â€” the sequel to Company of Heroes, Relic Entertainmentâ€™s critically acclaimed real time world war two strategy title. That game brought an entire new dimension to top down strategy, building on and introducing the now ubiquitous concepts of cover, key resource points, and commander specialties.
From what I could see, Company of Heroes 2 builds on this strong pedigree, but goes further, infusing your experience with a true commitment to historical realism and the â€śfeelâ€ť of the eastern front.
Itâ€™s immediately apparent that the plight of the Russian army is intimately connected to the Company of Heroes 2 story and gameplay mechanic. Emphasising the contributions of â€śnon-traditionalâ€ť allied powers is something that Relic have done before â€” the expansions to Company of Heroes let you play as the British (and by implication its colonial allies, like us Kiwis). However, on the Eastern front it was the Reds versus the rest and Relic have made that blindingly obvious.
A good example is the inclusion of conscript units. These low level units can pack a punch in packs (and can be upgraded with special weapons) but crumble when up against more hardened troops. In previous games youâ€™d have tactically retreated your grunts out of harms way to lick their wounds â€” but in Company of Heroes 2 thatâ€™s suicide.
Its suicide because if you have any conscripts in the field, â€śOrder 277â€ť is activated. Any retreating units are automatically shot when they make it back to you HQ for treason against mother Russia. This is a pretty brutal addition, and makes you think twice about the situations you put your troops in. Sometimes youâ€™re forced to let your poor conscripts quixotically fend off a Tiger Tank, knowing that they have more of fighting a chance against an armoured giant of death than their own home base.
Relic haven't just made this stuff up. Order 277 was a real directive issued by Stalin in July 1942. It neatly pulls together Company of Heroes 2 the game, and the historical context it sits inside. Other additions, like a narrative that appears to be built around an insubordinate soldiers banished to Siberia, who led the desperate fight to stave off the German advance, seem cleverly woven into the in-game cutscenes and cinematics. From what Iâ€™ve seen so far, itâ€™s shaping up to be quite the dramatic experience.
But itâ€™s the gameplay that hardcore strategy fans will really be looking forward to. The Company of Heroes franchise is still being played competitively across the world, and fans will want an experience that stays true to the original while still adding nice new bells and whistles.
From the 5 missions I played through, it looks like fans will not be disappointed. The full array of the Red Army is available, from weaponless conscripts to T34 tanks, all the way to rocket trucks. The units are very well animated, and the gameâ€™s explosions and firefights are mesmerising. New additions have also been made to the way units move through the map. Tactical micromanagement is still important, but units can now interact more organically with their environment. For example, as well as picking up dropped weapons, units can vault over sandbags. Itâ€™s a small tweak, but a big game changer. Units can also now shoot at, or blow up frozen ice on lakes and rivers, sending anything on top if it into a watery grave.
However, Relic will need to be careful that the improvements in unit buffs, abilities and interactions do not come at the expense of the gameâ€™s macro economy. Company of Heroes 2 is a RTS afterall.
The maps also appear to be well thought through and balanced. When I first heard that Company of Heroes 2 would be set in Russia, I was worried that it would be solely focussed on the claustrophobic street battles of Stalingrad. Thankfully, its not. While there are missions where you need to tightly micro-manage units through darkened ruined streets, other maps are set in the Russian countryside. This brings a new twist to the World War Two experience. Gamerâ€™s raised on hedgerows and French churches will be intrigued to explore the thatched villages and dark earth of the Russian plains.
Company of Heroes 2 is shaping up to be a worthy successor to its parent title. Without playing the full game, it is difficult to get a clear impression of how the Red Armyâ€™s units all work together. But from the preview I had a chance to play through, we can expect Relic Entertainment to pull together an engaging, dramatic, and historically accurate experience. Thatâ€™s definitely something to write home about.