Company of Heroes 2 outdoes its peers not in tactical nuance, but in raw spectacle. Its battles are governed as much by physics as they are data and numbers. And, just like the original, Company Of Heroes 2 is a bloody good RTS.
Don't think you're just playing a retread, though. Comparing Relic's 2006 original side-by-side with this SEGA-rescued sequel shows just how far the series has actually come. Ramp up the graphical settings (curiously my version auto-detected to a level of detail that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Game Boy, so double-check that one yourself) and Company Of Heroes 2 looks glorious; somewhere between a modern FPS shot from above, and a painted, die-cast model playset.
It moves beautifully too - tanks visibly jolt on their tracks when they fire, little soldiers struggle as they pick up weighty field guns and push them through the snow, snipers slide into cover with precision and menace. The animation is so good that you can feel the difference in confidence between an experienced riflemen squad and a group of fresh conscripts, and everything from the voice work to the perfectly lit battlefields capture that Russian Theater starkness as well as Call of Duty 2, the previous standard bearer.
Ah yes, those Russians. In Company Of Heroes 2, you do indeed play as the tirelessly patriotic sons of the Motherland. The action is interspersed with ropey cut-scenes, but when you're out on the field, there's a harsh bitterness to everything that not only comes from the visuals, but also the gameplay.
Snow and hostile weather were crucial factors in how this vital part of World War 2 played out, and they have a significant part to play in Company Of Heroes 2. Some missions (and skirmish arenas) are buried in deep snow, which acts as a secondary fog of war at its simplest, and a freezing death hell at its worst. Most soldiers (apart from the unbelievably badass sniper teams) can't cope with the temperature, and will literally freeze to death if they don't find regular warmth.
What could have been a gimmick ends up being an interesting tactical consideration - is it worth sending out a crew of engineers to fix your tank if it means they might not make it back? It helps, of course, that the snow looks absolutely beautiful, all thick powder and blizzards. And it also helps that the action in Company Of Heroes 2 is so engrossing that you'll be making tactical choices like this every few seconds.
Company Of Heroes has never been the most complicated RTS on the market, but it's definitely one of the most intense. There's not much here that's not been before, but rarely has it been done with more panache. This sequel does broaden its range a little, but this is still a game that's more about moment-to-moment action than long-term resource management. The campaign does an excellent job of tutoring you through its systems (although it expects you to know your arse from your elbow, so true newbies might want to stick it down to Easy), and only after 5 or 6 missions does it truly open up.
Once base building, resource management and multiple objectives come into play, so too does Company Of Heroes 2 as an RTS monster. Even though most campaign missions can feel more like complex puzzles than truly open-ended skirmishes (there's online for that), there's enough scope to try out all manner of tactical approaches. One memorable mission saw an incredibly brave team of gunners take over a Nazi half-track vehicle and plough through one of their camps single-handedly, just managing to survive long enough for a team of grunt reinforcements to arrive and move the hell out of the way before a German artillery strike destroyed everything in its wake.
It's breathtaking stuff; the kind of drama you'd expect to see in a Battlefield game, but with the scope of an RTS. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the online Skirmish modes, which allow you to play alone or cooperatively against human or AI opponents in broad, open battles.
Nothing hugely new there, but Relic has infused its online modes with FPS style team customisation, and kept it bang up to date by incorporating Twitch TV streaming and recording at a software level. While Company Of Heroes 2 won't be able to compete with Starcraft 2's global assault on connected strategy, Relic has provided the tools and the canvas for a community to establish itself and grow.
It's a fantastic package. Theater mode rounds it off, giving seasoned players some extra-tough co-op missions to battle through, and specific historically accurate scenarios. It's a beautiful, gritty and spectacular strategy game, and while it doesn't do much particularly new, it doesn't have to.
More so than hi-res First Person Shooters, and perhaps even indie games, it's stuff like Company Of Heroes 2 that makes the PC such an inviting platform. The flexibility in both processing power and controls lets the PC play host to so many ways of playing: in the light of new consoles that will match the PC's firepower (in the short-term, at least), Company Of Heroes 2 is a testament to PC gaming's breadth.
Played through the campaign in 9 hours, alongside multiplayer sessions.