When people talk about their favorite RTS, a couple of names come up again and again. StarCraft: Brood War is one of the “premier” RTS titles, as are several Command and Conquer titles, notably Generals, Red Alert 2 and Tiberian Sun. Supreme Commander also is mentioned as a paragon of RTS design along with its spiritual predecessor, Total Annihilation. Another one of the so-called best RTS games of all time (and the one I chose for my RTSGuru article) is Company of Heroes. The original Company of Heroes (called vCOH by those in the know) is heralded as the “best-rated RTS of all time” and also as the RTS that popularized many of what are known as the ‘modern’ RTS mechanics, such as infantry units who are grouped automatically into squads of 2-6, ‘true’ line of sight, directional armor for vehicles, and more.
Company of Heroes is rightly listed as one of the best RTS games of all time, but it has had its day in the sun. It’s over 7 years old now, and despite a passionate core of players, it’s long in the tooth. It has little chance of drawing in a ‘new generation’ of gamers, and development (though not support! Relic is still releasing patches to it’s new Steam version of the game) is no longer ongoing. But, vCOH has a little brother. A brother who (and this will win me sneers from hardcore fans of the first title) has a chance to surpass his predecessor in virtually every respect.
This is my pitch, as a passionate fan of Relic and of the Company of Heroes franchise, as to why I think you should play Company of Heroes 2.
It’s better now. No, really!
Company of Heroes 2 had… a rocky launch. It came to the playing public without a way to create publicly accessible custom games, without chat, without a leaderboard, and with some sync errors that made some people’s play experience pretty miserable. Its monetization model was also fairly, ah, controversial, with some multiplayer content locked firmly behind a pay wall.
Now, virtually all of that has changed. Commanders, a mechanic I’ll be in another article for those not familiar, are now not locked behind a pay wall – as with vehicle skins, bulletins, faceplates and the newly added Victory Strikes, these can now be earned after combat in a similar fashion to Workshop items in a DOTA match. After a match, you get a random chance to earn something – be it a commander, a bulletin etc. It’s a neat system, even if it’s in need of some updating. Likewise, public lobbies have been added, as have chat, and “battle servers” that have improved latency and reduced player drop and desync errors. In addition, Relic has listened to community recommendations at virtually every turn, overhauling infantry combat entirely at one point, and making a plethora of drastic changes to improve the player experience and customer satisfaction. They’re really trying quite hard to please the people who are spending hundreds and thousands of hours in the game. Their dedication to this project definitely shows.
There’s a $13 admittance fee for an AAA multiplayer experience
There’s an almost insurmountable jump between “free” and even 99 cents in terms of the psychology of entertainment purchasing, but likewise there’s a pretty big jump between $13 and $60 when it comes to the question of “should I buy this?”
In what I think is a very good move, Relic allows players or prospective players to buy either the Oberkommando West faction or the US Forces faction for $13 USD, or the bundle (plus some bonus content) at $20, allowing play with every other player in the game. So, if you want to try out ze Germans, you can jump in at a very low price point, ditto if you want to lock and load as the US. Purchasing the core game (separately) at $40 nets you the campaign, some core co-op content (branded the “Theatre of War”, and there’s other packs you can purchase for this as well) and the Soviets and Ostheer faction.
But really, $13 is about as little as you can get into an RTS game for at this point. StarCraft 2 would cost around $80, I believe, for the core game plus expansion, and most other competitive RTS games would be around $40.
Now, to the good stuff.
So far, I’ve only really touched “barrier to entry” type stuff, or getting around reasons to not play a new game. Let’s focus on the interesting stuff, the reasons the game is worth the up-front cost to play. The reasons to stick around, and rack up a thousand hours of game time.
Gameplay inspired by tabletop wargaming
Depending on who you are, this one might not sound like a good thing. It is. Tabletop wargaming, and the idea of a World War 2 setting for an RTS game, these might sound kind of boring. It might sound limiting to have a game set during that era… I mean, no invisibility? No aliens shooting toxic goo out of nameless orifices? No teleportation or arm lasers? Not even psychically controlled squids or giant doom zepplins?
No, but Company of Heroes 2 does strike the perfect balance (in this writer’s estimation) between realism and gamification in its rules, and, while it might not have giant doom spaceships, it does have some big Ебля guns.
That Sturmtiger is just… Epic, right? That’d be the tank that ended the video above. You know, the screen sized explosion? Yeah, it does that in the game.
But even disregarding that particular tank, you have flamethrowers and flamer tanks, minefields, barbed wire, molotov cocktails and stun grenades. You have fast tanks and slow heavy ones, air strikes, howitzers, flanking, snipers… that is to say, there are actually an array of very diverse weapons and other related tools of mayhem. There are plenty of big explosions in COH2, to be sure.
Mine-laying and minesweeping is a whole mini-game in and of itself, for those who take the time to lay down minefields. Smoke and other line of sight blocking techniques (tanks ducking behind buildings to avoid damage from other tanks, etc) are another mechanic you don’t typically see utilized in the same way in other RTS games. Line of sight blocking, and working around it, can be vital in combat in Company of Heroes 2 just as it can in other games, even if invisible robots aren’t doing your scouting for you.
The combat system is too nuanced to cover in a paragraph, but I did want to point out that, despite how binary it can feel, it’s designed very intelligently. Knowing what to build, and how to use it, is incredibly important in this game. AT guns will deter or take out pretty much any tank in sufficient quantities, but get a couple anti-infantry squads in their midst and they’ll be toast almost immediately. The heaviest tanks are still vulnerable to AT grenades and mines, which can slow them and in turn render them vulnerable to lighter but faster tanks. I could wax poetic about this games mechanics for, literally, thousands of words. From the territory control mechanic, to tank combat, to the layers of the game that require combined arms… from flanking to snipers, from the Tiger tank to the M5 scout car, there’s just a lot to gush about in this game from a mechanics perspective.
An excellent team game
This often seems to be overlooked, but Company of Heroes is an excellent team game. The way Commanders work, choosing a certain set of upgrades and new unit types at the expense of others, really opens up players in 2v2 and 3v3 (4v4 is kind of messy, to me) to invent some very interesting combinations that aren’t available in 1v1. Working together with other players to overcome the inherent limitations of your role is core in MOBAs and RPG player combat, and to an extent is shared in Company of Heroes 2. If I specialize with an anti-infantry commander, one of my teammates might choose a heavy tank commander to allow our team to have a more dominant presence in the endgame (as a for-instance). Team combat… just feels more natural, and less messy, than Protoss/Zerg teams in StarCraft, for instance.
And perhaps that bears mentioning, too. Company of Heroes 2 feels, in some ways, more natural mechanically than more “gamey” games like StarCraft 2. Resource generation is tied to what territories you control on the map. There’s no resource mining, no construction of dozens of barracks. There’s unit control, flanking, there’s angles of attack and land mines blowing up squads. The logic that drives interactions is clean and learnable.
There are also epic moments, like that Sturmtiger rolling out of a town and launching that deafening rocket. Like that errant AT grenade sinking a Tiger on the ice. Or, a perfectly executed flank with 4 Shermans that catches an enemy line of armor off guard. There’s frustration and there’s imbalance (from patch to patch). Sure. There are those “unwinnable games” where you or your team are swept from the map in shame and disgrace. There’s vehicle pathing that makes you want to tear your hair out.
But there’s passion, and there’s logic, and there are mechanics that you can’t help but wish other games would (intelligently) adopt. There’s a game here that can excite passion in people (for good, and for bad).
So yeah, it might frustrate you. But you should try Company of Heroes 2.
Lastly, take a look at “General’s Gentlemen” and why he thinks COH2 is awesome: