War, with all its death, destruction, perils and atrocities, is a difficult thing to navigate. Whether in movie or game or music or even history textbook form, if you get too close, the blood, guts and terror of war can be overwhelming. Stand too far removed, however, and you lose the humanity and cost of war. It becomes just a game. Just a heroic adventure.
Company of Heroes 2 is a real-time strategy video game that does its best to find balance in history and gameplay, triumph and loss. It may not always succeed, mind you. But it does try.
Red Ruled Snow
The first Company of Heroes focused on Americans in the Battle of Normandy. This second game takes place in the trenches of WWII's eastern front as the Soviet Red Army battles against Germany and the European Axis troops. Players experience a bird's-eye view (and control) of troop movement and strategic campaign challenges, while the game mixes in regular story cutscenes. Those story elements involve a Soviet lieutenant who struggles with both the questionable orders he's been given and the copious loss of life that those orders have triggered.
Whether in online multiplayer mode or offline campaign mode, your primary task is managing resources, often involving the capture of specific flagged points to collect manpower, munitions and fuel credits. Then you're charged with building a variety of forces, from infantry and vehicle units to combat engineers and tanks, and ordering them into specific battle positions to take the next town or enemy compound.
But there's more than simple enemy forces to be aware of. Nature itself can be a great threat on this gaming/warring front. On the snowy maps in front of you, you quickly discover that you must keep track of available wind-blocking structures or warming bonfires that can repel the frigid chill and keep men from freezing to death as they trudge through deep drifts. For that matter, just the weight of a tank on the wrong patch of ice can change the entire flow of a battle.
Snow Stained Red
It's realities like those during the 15 campaign missions that help drive home the pain and despair of combat here. And it simultaneously creates a challenging and even rewarding backdrop—even as the cinematic cutscenes, on occasion, fall short.
There's one more emotionally stirring gaming element that needs a bit of attention: Order No. 227. During the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin commanded all soldiers to shoot any retreating troops on sight. Thus, avoiding such a fate becomes part of your strategy after the fourth mission, as AI characters shoot at will when fighters run from the blitzkrieg on the front.
Of course the result is hundreds if not thousands of virtual on-the-field deaths as the various pounding and pummeling battles progress. Troops are bombed, hit with flamethrowers, riddled by machine guns or even frozen to death by glacial winds. From our perch above, we see bloodstained ground and tiny characters falling and disappearing. Cutscenes show battling from a closer range, revealing puffs of blood and broken bodies amidst the rubble.
Language is messier than that, with frequent uses of f- and s-words along with "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑hole" and "b‑‑tards."
I began by writing that war is a difficult thing to navigate. So I'll end with a demonstration. Company of Heroes 2 has drawn criticism for its negative portrayal of the Soviet Army. Even though the storyline clearly depicts the soldiers on the front lines as heroes, higher-ups don't come off quite as well, with the game including portrayals of brutality toward German prisoners and inhumane tactics against their own troops.