The Good: A joyous return to CoH roots of small, highly strategic RTS gaming
The Bad: Steep learning curve. Pointless mission debriefs.
The Ugly: Incomplete tutorials leave all but CoH veterans scrambling
There was a time, and it feels like it wasn’t all that long ago, when the market was chock full of RTS games. Warcraft, Starcraft, C&C, Warlords Battlecry, Warhammer 40k, Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander. As a big RTS fan, it was a good time for me, salad days as it were, but all good things must end. Some games became RPG/RTS hybrids or action/RTS hybrids which gradually dropped their RTS elements entirely; while other series just kind of imploded (I’m looking at you, the smoking debris that was the C&C franchise). The offerings that remained dwindled down to Starcraft and Company of Heroes, and though both were RTS games they had significant differences. Starcraft carried strong RPG elements in their command units (a least in single player) and had a very high twitch factor if you wanted to be good at it (I recall reading somewhere that the really champion-level Starcraft players issue more than a command every second as they ultra-micromanage their troops). Company of Heroes had a more tactical pace. Units were relatively expensive and took a long time to build and unit caps were low, and simply trying to amass the largest force was not a solid recipe for success because of the rock-paper-scissors unit balancing act. As a guy closing in on 50, my days of making a hundred mouse clicks a minute are pretty well behind me, so I gravitated towards CoH.
And not to turn this into a review for CoH2, but that was a big part of what I found about the CoH2 early missions that was so disappointing. The Eastern front in WWII was a reaping machine for Russian soldiers, which created a frustrating clickfest along the front line as you tried to replace soldiers that were busily dying at a furious rate. It didn’t help matters that the production queue was only three deep so you had to keep going back to your man factories to replenish them (Starcraft queues are what, 8 deep? 9? A game designed to make big armies).
So without even being a big history buff, I had high hopes for this standalone installment of Company of Heroes set in Ardennes. That heavily forested terrain was the scene of an enormous mechanized German counterassault against a much smaller allied force. It had the potential for everything I like about CoH – the allies had scant resources and few troops, the Germans had heavy armor and lots of it which could lead to all kinds of zany asymmetric warfare, and the terrain – different from the general mix of open land and small towns that had been the basis of much of CoH so far – could offer new tactics. It promised to be an engagement high in strategy and low in click count, and for the most part that promise has been fulfilled.
The first mission (which in a kind of neat cinematic fashion occurs before the opening credits) and the several that follow after are very scripted and serve somewhat as tutorials. The reason I say somewhat is that there are a heck of a lot of things that they don’t cover, but they do get you the basics. There are dedicated tutorials and videos as well, but they too leave some serious gameplay knowledge gaps. I actually tried loading up my copy of CoH2 to look at those tutorials, only to remember that they were terrible as well. Will someone at Relic please learn to create a tutorial? No matter how you slice it, Ardennes Assault is very steeply pitched towards those who played the earlier games in the series. Anyway, however you learn the rules of the game, you then get down to the nuts and bolts of defeating the Germans at Ardennes.
You start by selecting the commanders of your army. Commanders bring special abilities to an army and sort of determine its direction – support, airborne, mechanized. As it turns out, you get to select three commanders, and there are three available. There is a fourth as well (ranger?), but it appears to require some kind of micropayment or perhaps comes with the preorder version – I wasn’t sure I could even select it with my reviewer’s copy and so took the three I got. The game then sends you to a Risk-style map (containing 18 territories – the total number of missions in the game) and instructs you to start taking territory.
The strategy of how you conquer this map is not to be taken lightly. Enemy strengths in the various territories are indicated as is the fatigue and strength level of your three armies (one per commander, get it?). Do you pick up some easier wins first, gaining experience but depleting your own forces, leaving you with only the tough nuts to crack with an experienced but weakened army? Or do you hit the Germans hard when your soldiers are fresh but inexperienced and your strength is up? An additional consideration is that defeated armies retreat – if you have already taken the territories around them, they are forced to surrender, but if left a path they will join with existing enemy positions fortify those positions further. Also the game adds more stakes to the pot; popup skirmishes offer rewards if you successfully take a territory within a certain number of moves, but it might require stretching a fatigued unit too far to achieve it. Every battle you lose, you have to try again eventually, only this time with fewer resources than you had when you lost the last time. Losing a number of key battles could leave you with troops so badly beaten up and with so few reserves that you can no longer win anything. It’s also entirely possible to have a whole army KIA (I speak from experience). In any case, managing your resources and picking your battles is always a challenge and never gets anything approaching easy as the game progresses. On the whole I really like what they’ve done with this portion of the game.
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Once you’ve selected a territory to conquer, you move into CoH missions that really haven’t changed that much over the years. The resources you collect are still manpower, ammunition, and fuel (together with a unit cap) by capturing resource points on the map. There are escort missions and capture missions, defend this, destroy that, secondary objectives often appearing on the fly like recovering intel or rescuing some isolated unit or killing some high-value target. Some missions are relatively heavily scripted while others are just skirmish maps – capture and hold key points on the map which causes your enemy’s victory points to drain away more swiftly than yours, and the first one to zero loses. By and large the mission maps are, as I had hoped they would be, heavily forested resulting in limited sightlines and surprise pitched battles when two units more or less blunder into each other on a narrow trail.
In true CoH fashion, just about everything is destructible. Tanks mow down trees and walls, buildings collapse under shelling. On one mission a key capture point was in the middle of the map in a cemetery. By the end the tombstones, the caretaker’s building, the gate around the cemetery, the little trees inside – it had all been flattened. Allied commanders will quickly fall in love with rangers who can whomp on most infantry with their BAR upgrade and, given a panzerfaust, stand toe to toe with the largest of tanks. Among my largest complaints are the mission debriefs. While hoping to get some indication of how I had done, how many units I had killed and how many I had lost, how my resource collection had gone in comparison to the enemy, etcetera, I instead get an audio recording of some kind of letter home from the company commander. If there is a way to get a more informative and fulfilling debrief, I didn’t find it.
Beyond some small quibbles, this is the game I had been hoping CoH2 would be. You kids and your lightening reflexes can have your Starcraft with your Zerg rushes. I’ve got some Nazi pummeling to plan.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault for the PC provided by Sega.