In just under 18 months, developer Relic has pumped out Company of Heroes 2, its multiplayer-centric expansion The Western Front Armies, and now a singleplayer experience entitled Ardennes Assault. Throughout these three iterations bearing the World War II RTS sequel’s namesake, we have been given an exorbitant amount of strategy goodness that has blended accessible features with deep, battlefield tactics that only a developer synonymous with the genre could deliver. While both installments that came before this latest standalone DLC were indeed triumphs, sometimes a developer goes to the well once too often and comes up empty-handed as a result.
Folks wanting a radically different gameplay endeavor will likely be disappointed by what Ardennes is selling. At the crux, Assault is a continuation of the mechanics introduced by the previous entries, tweaking what needed slight modification and pouring a few new ideas into the mix, but also presents a an emotion-filled story, something that was obviously missing from The Western Front Armies. In fact, Relic seems compelled to convey stories of the men on the frontlines of the world’s greatest war this time around, just as they did with Company of Heroes 2; but even so, they fall short as Ardennes is an under-developed tale when all is said and done.
Still, Relic’s attempt to develop fleshed out soldiers is admirable. Characters have back stories, and their personal dramas are given ample screen time to play out, be it through cutscenes at the end of a mission or in-game dialogue, ensuring that stronger ties are forged with the title’s cast — but they only partially accomplish this. Sadly, and just as it was in COH2 and even those that came before it, the story here feels disjointed and the characters faceless; moreover, its continued mishmash of fiction and non-fiction further creates a weird historical fiction that only sometimes hits its intended high notes. So, while the narrative seems to have been given a bit more time to shine in some cases, it’s clear that Company of Heroes just isn’t a franchise that hangs its hat on profound writing conventions.
And that’s okay, because where the story falters, the gameplay doesn’t. For the first time, Company of Heroes implements a dynamic campaign map where the player is the one that decides what happens next. Think of the Total War series, or even a kind of Hearts of Iron-lite, to get an understanding on how a larger map of Europe is utilized for troop management, as well as territory attacks, defenses, acquisitions, and losses. Through this, there are no pre-generated lists of encounters, rather a large map given to folks at the start to play with at their discretion. Having this kind of choice is empowering, especially for an RTS that isn’t rooted in the ‘grand strategy’ genre; therefore, it is up to the player to control history, not the other way around. No doubt, history buffs will scoff at this feature, but let’s be honest, the hardcore, WWII history nuts probably aren’t turning to Company of Heroes to get their non-fiction fix. Hence, the vast majority of folks will eat this up, primarily those fans who have been with the series from the beginning and have been clamoring for more direct involvement with how events ultimately play out.
There is a drawback to this new map setup and it’s the fact that, while players are busy figuring out how to contribute to the war effort, the Germans don’t seem particularly interested in ever taking the fight to their opposition, at least not once folks have taken territory from them. Every time we stole away a German-held area on the map, it was never then contested by a counter-attack or anything. Not ever feeling threatened once we took part of the map made the seizure of said land feel that much less important or exciting. It was like the Germans just weren’t in the mood to fight a war and concluded that if we trounced them once, that was enough for them to gingerly hand over their hard-earned territory with their head hung low. If only real war went down like this…
While acting as overlord of this battle map, individuals will need to coordinate three different companies, which are chosen prior to starting the campaign, and are comprised of Airborne, Mechanized, Support, and Ranger units. Each feel tactically different and require a distinct approach on the battlefield in order to optimize one’s combat prowess. Knowing how each one’s strengths and limitations stack up to the intel provided before a mission becomes evidently vital to launching a successful assault. To put it plainly, the wrong tactical choice in this situation can lead to a crushing defeat quickly. Meaning to say, this adds an extra layer of depth to an already strategically rich real-time strategy title.
Each company brings something unique to the table as previously mentioned, but it goes beyond just being able to field certain units when taking Mechanized troops into battle instead of Rangers. What this really equates to is having the capacity to upgrade special abilities via requisition points that are doled out upon completing missions. These abilities vary in terms of purpose, some giving soldiers specific weapons automatically, making artillery hit harder, or toning down the cost of certain skills so as to use them more frequently in battle. The interesting part is, the more a player uses a particular company, the more experience points that group will accrue. This kind of incentive is a sound one in that it encourages players to change up their play style often. Because some missions are extremely difficult to complete without specific units present, choosing not to use that needed company throughout the campaign could put folks in a tight spot with ill-equipped units. Hence, employing them all, and doing so often, makes it far less likely that players will come up against a mission that requires a company that isn’t ready for combat.
Naturally, some folks will just want to pour all of their points into a single company and steam-roll the competition by way of a supreme showing of raw power. But doing this will also lead to disastrous results, as companies lose total health each time a unit is destroyed in combat. Even moving through an enemy-occupied zone results in a loss of overall company health points. There are a few other factors that cause this reduction, thus making it a sure-fire way to succumb to defeat if one just tries to forge some kind of super company.
Like in all COH games, the game continues the tradition of letting players customize their troops to their heart’s content. Folks can customize each of their companies’ four unique abilities with up to six selectable upgrades, and the skill tree offers 72 levels of improvement, making it so that players can specialize their commanders throughout the course of the campaign to whatever criteria they deem appropriate.
Outside of all of that, however, the core gameplay of Ardennes Assault is exactly as it was in the base installment and in The Western Front Armies. We say that with glowing endorsement, as in our review we spoke very highly of the nuances that gave way to intense, epic showdowns. The presentation, in addition to graphics and sound, also remain strongly intact, again delivering a visual and audio experience that is impressive and hard-hitting. Seeing massive armies blast each other with artillery, armored vehicles, and dozens of soldiers brings to light the scale of Company‘s battles. They each feel significant, and as a result, are presented to the eye and ear as a out-and-out war spectacle. The only gripe here is that many of the environments/maps look the same; everything feels very grey and snow-covered. Just look at the screenshots for proof.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault is a standalone title in the venerable franchise that is wholeheartedly worth exploring. It’s hard to say if this is the definitive version of COH2, but it’s the most polished and full-featured. The addition of the dynamic campaign map in and of itself justifies a purchase for anyone who loves the series and RTS games at large. It fails to hook players in the narrative department, and the aforesaid campaign map isn’t everything it could be. It is, however, an effective game within its genre, offering tactical depth, hard-hitting action and the expected Relic polish. Yet again, the developers prove why they are still a dedicated RTS studio with Ardennes Assault.