The Company of Heroes series of real time strategy games has been one of the most successful video-game-as-history-lesson experiences to ever hit the PC. I know in my limited time with previous installments I’ve tried my best to not learn a damn thing only to end up walking away with more understanding of the 20th Century’s greatest conflict than I had before. Company of Heroes 2 features updated technology, a new army and truly innovative gameplay twists.
It’s the Russian Army this time and the focus is on the Eastern Front of WWII where the Nazi army thought they could skip into Moscow and take out one of the more battle-hardened militaries in Europe. The way CoH2 plays though, it might as well be Russia versus Nazi Germany versus bad weather. The combination of pronounced weather effects and troops and vehicles needing to actually see who and what they’re shooting at make this feel like an entirely different kind of real time strategy. True Sight means that your crew of infantry or mortar soldiers has to be able to see the enemy soldiers or vehicles or building they’re attacking before they’ll actually attack. Simply clicking on them and then clicking on a target will cause them to move into position where they can do just that. No problem right? Well, maybe. Moving into position could mean rolling up right next to some bad guys or exposing themselves to enemy sniper fire. Troops can be behind city walls, in a mini cluster of trees, in bunkers or other types of dugouts. This means you’ll have to carefully manage where you put your pieces in CoH2, taking their effective vision range and environment into consideration. In many cases defending a point on a map might mean arranging your pieces in unconventional ways so they can cover the objective and each other.
And then there’s the weather. In CoH2, blizzards can blow onto the battlefield from time to time and this effects not only vision --everybody’s blind-- but the health of exposed troops. Not being able to see as far or as well because of swirling snow can be used to your advantage if you time your blitz to cover vast open spaces. And yeah if you’re defending a couple of control points, a clever enemy can outflank you with only one element if you think they’re somewhere they’re not. Additionally, exposed foot soldiers wandering around during a blizzard will move slower, be less combat effective and will start to die. Putting them in buildings or vehicles or building them a fire to keep them warm are required in this instance. CoH2 uses a cluster of troops as a single unit. When this single unit starts taking damage from bad weather you’ll see your cluster of four dudes become three when the first guy simply freezes to death in mid step right there on the battlefield. Keeping them out in the cold will lead to the rest of them dying in a matter of seconds unless you do something about it. This is all without enemies even attacking.
One of the most important elements of Company of Heroes is the value of each unit. This is a game that expects you to develop specialized armies, use them effectively and maintain them. There’s no cannon fodder in this game. Each unit you build can be devastating to opponents if used correctly in conjunction with other units and in the right way. Just because you see a squad of four very expensive tanks rolling toward you doesn’t mean that your well-placed, upgraded mix of anti-tank crews, mortar crews and heavy machine gunners can’t take them out comfortably. They can, just be smart about it. Paying attention to the timing of your attacks and the weather really can make all the difference. Make the enemy battle you and the elements, not the other way around.
The Red Army used the punishing winter to hold off the Nazis effectively by cutting off supply lines and baiting the Nazi army into skirmishes. The Russians were defending their homeland, were used to the cold winters and knew how to fight under harsh conditions. If you don’t do this while you’re in control of the Russian army in Company of Heroes 2, then you’re going against history and not learning anything. Keep those troops warm and, then, when you turn on the History Channel during Russian Army Week, you’ll know you’re a capable real-time strategy game commander.