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When the original Company of Heroes came out in 2006, it changed a lot of gamer’s perceptions of what “real-time strategy” meant. You don’t have to put resource-collecting units on the map? That’s crazy talk! Of course, COH was incredibly successful precisely because it broke the norm. In contrast, the long-awaited sequel doesn’t alter much from its predecessor’s formula, and that’s why COH2 delivers an amazingly fun experience. It just won’t blow your mind.

Set on the Eastern front of World War II, you’ll play as either the Russians or the Germans. Play is squad-based and tactical. You move groups of troops around the battlefields which vary from fields and farmhouses to bombed-out urban ruins. All the combat happens automatically, with shots being fired almost continuously. Cover is essential, and you’ll find yourself moving troops between sandbag walls and into buildings just to survive. Specialized units like engineers – able to plant mines, explosives or construct buildings – and shock troops – grenadiers, essentially – are valuable, and the micromanagement of merging untrained conscripts into these units once casualties are suffered will occupy most of your time. The fun of COH2 comes from using position and cover to your advantage, and in this way it felt true to how I imagine small arms combat was during the period.

The campaign is framed around a Russian lieutenant reliving the war through an interview with his former commanding officer. In between the missions, there’s some cutscenes with decent acting, and I enjoyed that most of them were extremely short, teasing you with a brief introduction before getting you back into the action of commanding troops. One thing’s for sure, the Russian front was an incredibly bleak place in 1941, and the narrative of COH2 underlines it with Russian soldiers shot for retreating or disobeying orders. It’s cool to see history come to life in game mechanics with the harsh winters killing Germans and Russians alike, and Order 227 taking out your units if they pull back to the base when a party officer is looking. If you don’t like dark war stories, you may miss the more heroically portrayed Western Front of COH.

In both the 14-mission single-player campaign and in multiplayer skirmishes, you need to build up your base to get the best units. You can only get tanks, half-tracks and other vehicles once you build the requisite structures, but these cost a lot of fuel, munitions and manpower – the three resources in COH2. Resources are earned by holding points on the map, and this design forces the player to orchestrate a delicate balance between aggressive tactical maneuvers to take and hold territory and waiting for more powerful vehicles. It’s not easy, but when you successfully hold off a tank attack with some well-placed grenades and immediately counter-attack with the armor you just built to turn the tide – well, these are the best moments of COH2.

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It’s not often you say this in a game review, but you have to pay attention to the weather effects in COH2. As Hitler and Napoleon discovered before you, the Russian countryside is very cold in the winter. Your troops will freeze to death unless they are inside a building or near a campfire. Periodic blizzards will descend on some maps, increasing the harsh conditions, so it usually makes sense to wait them out. Bold generals might want to take advantage of the storms to assault unsuspecting troops, a strategy I used more than once while playing COH2. You sometimes have to traverse frozen rivers and lakes, and a grenade in the right place can crack the ice to kill whatever unit is above. Woe to the player who loses a tank this way. Unfortunately, the weather is only plays a factor during a few of the campaign missions, and a handful of multiplayer maps. I wish it was used more throughout the game.

The other additions to the Essence Engine 3.0 are welcome, but they quickly fall to the back of the mind during play despite the catchy feature names. TrueSight refers to how the engine displays fog of war on the map, only allowing you to see what your units can see instead of the all-seeing eye you had in the first game. Being restricted in your battlefield vision certainly isn’t a new concept, but I enjoyed how even scout planes had a modified cone of visibility shown to you as they circled an area. Occupying abandoned buildings to hold territory and leaping over short walls is super handy, and both of these increase the feeling of immersion of watching real troops maneuver across the battlefield.

COH2 falters in forcing too much micromanagement with little gain. I mentioned the need to merge cheap conscripts into more valuable units, but the process of doing this for every unit after a firefight is tedious. You can set up control groups to key presses, but the ever-changing organization of your troops requires you to change these up too often. And I just missed having a “select all your forces” command, like in Heart of the Swarm, for those endgame pushes when I don’t need to manage each unit’s advance. For a modern game, I expect a better user experience.

Relic certainly did come through on offering a lot of replay value to COH2. There are loads of fun achievements to earn by replaying the campaign, and beating it on the “General” difficulty is a feat unto itself. You can set up “comp stomps” against the AI on every level and map, in addition to up to 4v4 multiplayer. Theater of War Challenges for both the Russian and the German factions feature unique game modes like facing wave after wave of attackers, and completing the bonus goals earn you even more experience. In fact, everything you do in COH2 earns you experience points and medals which are neatly displayed in your file.

As you increase your rank, you can earn both cosmetic markings for your troops for use in multiplayer and your loadout of small bonuses into three “intel bulletin” slots. The bulletins offer boosts to specific units like 3% increased accuracy to infantry. You can also choose from three generals per faction, and your choice will inform what special abilities you’ll have at your disposal, such as a recon flight with your scout plane or an extra unit or vehicle on a cooldown. These two factors will shape your multiplayer experience in COH2, and offers plenty of chance for both advancement and personalization.

Bottom Line: Company of Heroes 2 is a shot of vodka. You know what to expect from its real-time tactical combat, and playing one mission or match quickly turns to two, three or four. But watch out for the hangover; the Eastern Front was hell.

Recommendation: If you loved Company of Heroes, you’ll likely be extremely satisfied with its sequel. For those looking for a solid RTS without all the resource management and Zerg mucking it up, give the harsh realities of WW2 a shot with Company of Heroes 2.

[rating=4.0]

Game: Company of Heroes 2
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Relic
Publisher: Sega
Platform(s): PC
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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