I powered up Company of Heroes II not knowing what I was getting myself into. I knew that I loved the first game, and after playing it off and on for almost six years, I was excited to finally see what its sequel had to offer. In that way, sequels are a bit strange. We can never view them as just a singular title. Instead, they’re like a strange Siamese twin of virtual entertainment that will either leave us in utter ecstasy or resolute dejection. Or it will just be ok; I don’t want to create any false dichotomies here.
It’s a shame that sequels must be considered in this light because it inhibits a person’s ability to see the game for its greatest qualities. If the first game did something we liked, we often want to see that repeated in future iterations. Yet we demand that the game be different or else we claim it’s a shoddy carbon copy. It’s a virtual catch-22 that makes producing sequels really difficult. I’m not sure there is any way for the gaming world to escape this problem, either. It’s just an inherent problem with sequels.
That being said, CoH II is an average game, and when set beside its predecessor, it becomes a bad game. That’s a strong statement to make, but it’s one that has a paramount qualification: it’s only a failure because the first one is so awesome. I’m going to try and back this statement up in as organized a fashion as possible despite the fact that my first inclination is to spit my thoughts out like machine gun bullets of tempestuous, critical rage.
First, I’ll start out with complimenting the game. CoH II succeeds in maintaining the spirit of the first game. What I mean by that is CoH II feels like CoH. Its game mechanics are the same, its vehicles move similarly, and there is a well-developed cover system. You have command trees that unlock new tactical abilities as your troops gain in experience. Honestly, if you set the two games next to each other, you would think one is a mere expansion to the other. Which leads me to my first criticism: why wasn’t CoH II an expansion?
Relic Entertainment, originally owned by TLC but bought out earlier this year by SEGA, has a long history of making an RTS strategy game and then releasing army packs that slowly build up the player’s faction choices. The Warhammer 40k series must’ve had eight or more playable factions by the time the series ran down, though don’t hold me to that because I haven’t googled it. They did this with CoH, too. The original had two factions, Opposing Fronts released two more, and Tales of Valor, while not adding factions, added more content. CoH II starts me back at square one and leaves me playing two factions: the Russians and the Germans. I’ve gone down from four factions with twelve command trees to two factions and six command trees. More command trees come with DLC or playing the game for a while. This fails when set next to the first game, which provided so much more content without being sullied by DLC. It’s like giving me Mozart, taking that away, and asking me to be content with Skillet. Not to offend any Skillet fans out there, but in the words of my Russian friend: “Not same thing.”
Next critique: present in CoH II is a metascaling system that allows you to level. Leveling gives you small bonuses and new commanders. First, I hate this because I’m tired of playing my game to unlock my game that I’ve already paid for so I can game when I want to game (woah). I shouldn’t have to unlock commanders, they should be there when I boot up the first time, especially if you want to create a vibrant multiplayer community. After all, such a community can only come about from equal and balanced gameplay where everyone has the same opportunity. This is different, mind you, than both sides having the SAME options. They need diversity, but the same amount and kinds of options should be there, varied and interesting. In any case, I can only assume CoH II wants a vibrant multiplayer community because they have a matchmaking system integrated through Steam. You wouldn’t go to all that trouble for people not to use your multiplayer servers. Second, giving me tiny bonuses, like 2% greater accuracy to mortar shots, begs the question: what’s the point of it all? If the bonuses you get from leveling are imperceptible, why have them? If they don’t add to gameplay and aren’t big enough to imbalance gameplay, they’re just a vestigial game element that make me think “Ooh, piece of candy.” Surely we’re not all sitting here being captivated by useless fluff. CoH didn’t need a leveling system; it did something beautiful: it captivated me with substance.
The campaign is less than inspired. Here we have a common theme continued: the game is unimpressive. Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest and most terrifying conflicts in the war, but I found myself with an infinite supply of soldiers and making good progress against the enemy line. Lots of Russians was fine, but it shouldn’t be easy. Well, it shouldn’t feel easy. And for those that may ask, I play all my games on normal difficulty. I assume that is the difficulty setting developers base gameplay around, so I figure it gives the most accurate picture of the difficulty curve. Furthermore, the story is based around a singular character and forewent the “band of brothers” feel the original CoH had. I thought that was a bad idea when Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valor did it, and I feel the same here. Historical war stories are about soldiers, not one soldier in particular. Tailor your narrative to fit your setting; no war was fought by one man and so no story told about war should be about one man. I acknowledge that there are exceptions to this rule in cinema, but you can also portray individual characters better in cinema than you can in video games. So you shouldn’t just tailor your narrative to your setting, but you should tailor it to your setting within the confines of your given medium.
Oh, and the weather system was pretty intuitive, I must admit, forcing units in blizzards to use cover and fire pits to stay alive. It adds a strategic dynamic that, while not game making, was fun to play with most of the time. It was also annoying, but that’s ok, as both sides had to overcome the same hurdle in any given match.
In all fairness, those two big criticisms aside, CoH II is going to give you the experience akin to that of the first game, and that’s a positive thing. The commanders and their skill sets were a bit less defined, which annoyed me to no end, but that’s more of a personal gripe and your average gamer probably wouldn’t be concerned by that at all. They changed the way resources work, but only a little; most points don’t yield fuel or munitions by themselves like they did in CoH. Instead, you can customize the map by taking strategic points and then paying money to specialize those points. If you need fuel, take a blank strategic point and build a fuel depot on it. I thought this was pretty cool because it allows for greater strategic flexibility, and any time an RTS-style game does that, I tend to think it’s doing its job.
COH II is a polished game and a big title, but I don’t think it deserves to stand next to the major powerhouses that have come out recently. The content it gives is less significant; it seems like elegant distraction rather than a true attempt at renovating the gameplay we all came to know and love. Will I keep playing the game? Of course I will, but probably only with my friends and with irregularly.