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Company of Heroes is a classic real time strategy game for a reason. It brought design innovation and Hollywood kick to the genre, and it did it with a stultifyingly familiar setting. You loved Company of Heroes no matter how badly you were burned out on World War II! It did so many things right: the interplay of infantry and armor, the destructible terrain, the commander abilities, the four factions, the victory conditions, the various game modes, the voice acting, the interface, the fancy graphics, the gratifyingly tactical fiddliness.

After the jump, what would possibly go wrong with the sequel?

Company of Heroes 2 might be the steepest tumble from game design genius to crassly missing the point that I’ve ever seen. For starters, there’s basically nothing new here. In terms of the gameplay, this is Company of Heroes 1 all over again. The same resource model, the same victory condition, the same faction concepts (Germany is still Germany, of course, but Russia is basically the US), the same types of maps, the same unit dynamics, and even the same graphics, but with inexplicably stratospheric system requirements (why does this need Windows 7?).

It’s not entirely identical, of course, since this is a sequel set on the Eastern Front. The maps aren’t divided so obviously into discrete territories. To capture a point, your soldiers don’t have to actively “capture” the flag. They just stand in a radius around the flag and the associated resource converts. That’s pretty handy. You can capture vehicles in addition to guns. That’s also pretty handy. But in terms of new gameplay, Company of Heroes 2 doesn’t have much to say beyond, “Look, snow!”

Yes, there is snow. Snow is apparently the fundamental gameplay fact of the Eastern Front. The snow doesn’t always happen. It only happens on certain maps. On those maps, your guys will take damage if you don’t put them in houses or near fires. You know the micromanagement you save by not having to actively capture flags? So much for that. Sometimes the snow slows down your dudes unless you manually path them along a road. Sometimes there’s a blizzard and you can’t see very far. Sometimes a tank falls through the ice on a frozen river. There’s a reason most micromanagement intensive RTSs like Company of Heroes don’t bother with variable weather. It’s the same reason Command & Conquer stopped having random lightning strikes destroying your units.

Actually, although I said this is Company of Heroes 1 all over again, that’s not quite true. It’s less than Company of Heroes 1. For instance, one new feature is a bewildering lack of information. The previous game had numbers to represent how effective units were, and to help you compare them to each other. Company of Heroes 2 has no such numbers. One tank might as well be like any other tank except for the general text in the panel where information normally goes. The interface doesn’t even tell you what kinds of weapons your units are carrying. You just get a weapon silhouette without so much as a tooltip. Not that knowing the silhouettes helps. Once you can tell a MG42 from a Maxim, Company of Heroes 2 has no meaningful information about what sets them apart.

Relic’s take on the Eastern Front really falls on its face with the pared down commanders. In the original game, you would pick one of three commander skill trees as soon as you earned your first commander point. Each tree altered significantly how your faction played, and furthermore each tree had two paths. During a drawn out game, you might work you way up both paths.

But instead of a commander skill tree, Company of Heroes 2 only gives you a set of whittled down commander sticks. Each stick has five abilities on it. No more, no less. Maybe a single new unit, a couple of special attacks, and a passive bonus. It doesn’t allow for much of a sense of personality. One commander doesn’t feel that different from any other commanders, particularly since there’s so little information available to evaluate the units. Once you’ve chosen which of the three commander sticks you’re going to use in a match, you don’t make any further choices. You’re done. You’ll max out your stick pretty quickly. Then you watch the number of commander points you’re earning tick up meaninglessly. Can I get these to go? Maybe on a gift certificate or something? Where Company of Heroes 1 felt broad and varied, this sequel feels cramped and limited.

The idea, of course, is that you have to unlock additional commanders. You start with three for each faction, with two more you can unlock after considerable leveling up. It seems Relic and Sega will gladly sell you more commanders. At least I’m assuming that’s what goes into all the empty spaces on the commander panel. This is one of the most egregiously incomplete games I’ve played in a long time.

It also feels like a petty game. You have slots to equip bonuses that you unlock by grinding away. And I mean grinding. Serious grinding. You level up to unlock the bonus. But you also have to fill an achievement bar to enable it. You’ll play entire games just so you can get specific kills of specific units with specific weapons. Eventually, you’ll kill 80 half-tracks with a panzerfaust or whatever. For your time, you’ll be able to slot a 5% faster reloading time or a 10% range bonus. The sort of stuff that Relic used to carefully balance is now in the hands of players willing to grind away at bonuses. Not since Age of Empires Online has a supposedly serious RTS been so thoroughly undermined by pointless grinding. To the catasser go the spoils!

Although this isn’t a very good RTS, at least there are several ways you can play it. Well, two. The expected multiplayer, and the various permutations of single-player AI whack-a-mole, which include the usual terrible campaign and a handful of options in the theater of war mode. This theater of war mode gives you several missions to represent 1941 on the Eastern Front, including unique commander sticks, much like how Starcraft II lets you play with a whole set of units in the campaign that have zero bearing on the multiplayer and skirmish games. So don’t get too used to those awesome partisans that one commander guys gets. At least not yet. 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945 will presumably be for sale later on.

What makes this particularly galling is that Company of Heroes 1 holds up so well. I’m still having a grand time playing Company of Heroes. Do Sega and Relic really expect us to pay for a boondoggle this riddled with DLC shaped holes?

1 star
PC