A Pyrrhic Victory
When Company of Heroes 2 was still under the auspices of THQ, they invited me out to California to spend some time with Relic’s latest World War II RTS game. At the time, their focus was very much on the title’s multiplayer, which we spent most of our time playing, the guests fighting one another in pitched 1v1 and 2v2 battles. The only representation of the single-player experience on offer was a brief foray into skirmish mode, which is effectively multiplayer with bots (though this map was specifically structured to force us to be aggressive).
In the past few months, there has been both a closed-press beta and a closed-user beta, which some of you may have actually participated in as part of a giveaway we ran. However, as the title nears release, its new publisher, SEGA, has decided to grace us with the opportunity to engage in the actual single-player campaign. The press build they offered wasn’t the full experience, but it did contain a smattering of missions from both early on in the campaign and later on when the challenge has spiked and you’re expected to manage against greater odds.
Seeing as the early missions in RTS titles tend to serve as extended tutorials, I jumped right into one of the later missions on offer. While I definitely needed the instruction an extended early-mission tutorial would provide, I wanted to avoid spoilers. (Though I’m not sure how much one can really spoil WWII.) This may have been a mistake as my performance was not a particularly graceful one, though it did result in victory.
The mission opened with a brief, well-produced cinematic. It struck me that the cutscene was actually constructed specifically for the game, lending a personal touch to the proceedings. Too often, WWII-centered games opt for the use of stock footage to piece together something resembling a story between the missions, and it’s only during gameplay that any personality the title actually has is on display. This rule certainly doesn’t hold true in the more fantastical titles (those that merely use WWII as a backdrop for a more personal or even a supernatural conflict, as with the Wolfenstein series), but I had assumed it would be so in Company of Heroes 2. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case, and I wager it might have something to do with the action taking place on the Eastern front, which is territory less worn by past media.
Soon after the cutscene, I was dropped into a small town near an airfield. I moved my troops along as directed, only for the game to wrest control from me to introduce a large German tank that quickly made a mess of my forces. It’s done with such casual abruptness that I was wholly taken aback. Here I had been just following the mission objectives and the game hits me with a scripted ambush that was detrimental to my forces. Typically that sort of structure is used for cinematic effect, making the player feel as though their success is threatened. Here, I suddenly had a large, armored vehicle in the center of my paltry infantry, only a few of whom actually had anything that could penetrate its thick hide.
So my units hid in buildings, chucking grenades and firing impotently at the tank’s sides. It razed the safe houses in quick order, but my soldier’s damaged it enough that I was able to sneak into its blind spot and find cover. It slunk away, and, relieved, I prepared to continue on, happy to never see it again.
And then I was ordered to hunt it down.
We found the tank patrolling between supply depots, which I captured as surreptitiously as I could. Reinforcements were called in and anti-tank guns were scavenged, but the final showdown with the tank was still a bloody one for my people. They ended up caught out in the open by one of the supply depots, scrambling for limited cover that the tank’s powerful main gun devoured with ruthless efficiency. We flanked it, though, and managed to wear it down to where it could no longer move, at which point picking it off was a matter of mere persistence.
It was victory, but barely — just by the skin of one’s teeth. This isn’t a game of building up armies and pitting them against one another in grandiose pitched battles. This is a struggle for survival, to reclaim what one has lost and retain what little one still has. This is a bleak, bloody war, and every fiber of the campaign is designed to convey that. I don’t know what I expected going into the mission, but I certainly didn’t expect to come out of it with my hands shaking as they left the mouse and keyboard.
I have one minor complaint: This game is a resource hog. I have a modest PC, yes, with a Radeon 5850, 4GB of RAM, and a Phenom II X2, but most new games run decently on medium-to-high settings. Company of Heroes 2 ran into trouble at its absolute lowest settings. Given that I far surpass the base requirements and that we’re less than a month from release, this strikes me as worrisome for the title’s optimization. Here’s to hoping that this issue gets cleaned up, because this is a game I sorely wish to experience in full.