Issues with RTS #1 - Company of Heroes 2

Man, talk about jumping into the deep end. I wasn't prepared for the high octane APM this game demands.

Joking aside, this does raise a comment I was meaning to get to earlier, but simply forgot. My list does not contain Starcraft 2, neither does my list of old school games contain Starcraft (1). The reason for this is simple: I'm not a very fast player. Never was, will probably never be.

In my years after leaving the RTS-genre I have kept up with the strategy genre. I've done this through 4X-games and grand strategy. They let me play more carefully and take the time to consider every move. The games plays to my strengths. RTS-games, however, play to my weakness. I have a tendency to get easily overwhelmed when swamped with several tasks, assignments and short-term projects at the same time. Multitasking is something I've never really grown used to, and when such an element is added to heavily into a game, which is supposed to be my leisure activity, I lose interest. This is something I've always had suspicions about, but the thought really crystallized while playing the first handful of missions in Company of Heroes 2.

So, on with the show...

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What is Company of Heroes 2?

Company of Heroes (or CoH2 for short) is a second world war RTS focused on the eastern front of the war. In the single player campaign the player takes control of the Soviet forces dealing with the chaos that Operation Barbarossa. The protagonist (for lack of a better word) the player inhabits is one Lieutenant Lev Abramovich Isakovich, who is locked up in a Soviet gulag. There, he is intervjued by his commanding officer and he retells the stories of his actions during the war. These stories make up the missions of the game.

I'm not saying Lev isn't the protagonist, but it's also not like the player is in control of him. The player is more like the spirit of wars passed inhabiting his mind, controlling his forces through that undeniably effective, but utterly immersion crushing, floating camera.

The game opens up at the siege of Stalingrad, where most of the basic concepts around the game mechanics are taught. After we made cheese out of the Nazis in Stalingrad we quickly move on to dealing with the quickly advancing blitzkrieg across the front. Here, we learn the penultimate lessons this game wants to teach: multitasking and quick thinking. See, the action at the front is less of a war, and more of a controlled route. Our objectives are to hold multiple strong points along the front, to allow our allies to pack up, retreat and destroy whats left. We will get overrun at some point, but we have to hold out as long as possible. Both the missions following the intro at Stalingrad have this core concept in mind: hold multiple points, retreat, hold more points, retreat, win.

I'm not a world war two scholar, but from what little I've learned, this seems to add up. It also prepares us for what is arguably the core of the CoH2 experience: the multiplayer.

PLEASE use our online services!

PLEASE use our online services!

Just look at this menu, it screams: PLAY THE MULTIPLAYER, DUMMY! Well, I got good news, and I got bad news: I'm not. Good news for me, since I don't have to add the extra stress that is performing for (or against) others, but bad for the game, since it makes its intentions pretty clear.

The game seems to want to emulate the relatively fast pace Starcraft. A lot of macro, a lot of micro, condensed into nice brief 20 to 40 minute matches. The campaign emulates this idea well in its construction. Most of the missions I've played have been at a pretty break neck pace. The enemy is quite relentless in its assaults, throwing waves after waves against your steadily diminishing numbers. It wants you to feel like you're always on the edge of defeat, it wants you cornered. The idea, I think, is to habituate the player to facing other human players. There is precious little story to be had in the missions, that is relegated to between mission cutscenes in the gulag.

Where the story happens.

Where the story happens.

So, is it any good?

Well, yeah... I guess. I mean, my knowledge of RTS-games have deteriorated over the years. I lack the backlog and experience to make a value call on a product like this. But, for me, it's pretty good. It looks great, it sounds great, and while the gameplay does not suit my particular style, I have to say that there is some entertainment here. The word coming down the grape vine has been less than charitable towards the game, but the largest amount of criticism (that I've picked up) is leveled towards the multiplayer portion of the game. Since I'm not touching the multiplayer, those issues (mostly with balance and connectivity from what I've heard) does not affect me.

The game is quite gorgeous to look at. The level of graphical quality, combined with the staggering amount of effects thrown at the screen makes the game quite appealing to the eye. Adding to that is the fact that the effects ain't only for eye candy. The game has a cover feature, every soldier under your (and your enemys) command can enter cover for a bonus to their defense. This is good, the soldiers last longer. Nearly any object can be held as cover. This however encourages defensive play, which allows the enemy to flank your forces, this is bad (for you, or your enemy). The cover isn't static either. Most man made things can get blown up, and exploding cover is really harmful for your defensive play, this is really bad (for you, or... eh, you know the drill). This constantly changing battlefield encourages at times static defense, and at times movement and flanking tactics. This, I can tell, is candy to someone really into the fast paced kind of game, but for me....

After three missions of steadily retreating, we finally get some payback.

After three missions of steadily retreating, we finally get some payback.

My experience

After playing a couple of campaign missions and trying my hand at the skirmish mode (hey, I never said I'd finish any of the games on my list, just play them), and spending some time naval gazing, I've come to some conclusions: CoH2 shines a light on two issues I get, playing RTS-games. Remember, I'm not saying that these things are faults, just things that rub me the wrong way. I know there are people who love these games for just these reasons, and to those kinds of people I would like to say: I'm envious, how do you do it?

Issue #1: Time investment

First off, it's my own damn fault for not giving a game its requested time. But hey, life's really rough sometimes. Anyways, the time investment requirement for any given match fries my nerves. The idea of investing, say, an hour into a match and then lose kind of sucks. To add salt to that particular wound, you may have lost in the first 20 minutes, without knowing it, and the last 40 minutes are just a slow downward spiral into the determined conclusion. This is mitigated with repeated tries and a keen eye for the details of any given match. Regardless of that, there is always a tiny voice of doubt in my head whenever I boot up a match, saying that I might as well throw that precious time down a well. I'll just play, lose and end up disappointed.

This is a pretty strange issue, for me personally. Because there are plenty of games I have no issue playing and loosing hours on straight. Give me any old roguelike and I can spend hours failing, making minimal progress and generally wasting my time, but I'll love every second of it. I can spend entire evenings (for entire weeks) playing, and loosing, just one match of a 4X-game. So, in short, it makes no damn sense, but it's there.

While this is an issue, I think CoH2 almost side-steps it, but only almost. Any given match played in this game is so fast paced, so APM intense and so demanding of your attention that I could hardly even think the word doubt in my head between actions and mouse clicks. Skirmish mode does also mitigate this issue, since most matches I played didn't go for longer than 30 minutes. This, however brings us to...

Run right into the barrel, Ivan.

Run right into the barrel, Ivan.

Issue #2: Intensity

I've already admitted to being quite slow, and this issue cements that fact. I just can't keep up. I don't know how people do it. But I've seen it, I've seen star craft matches that makes my head spinn.

I do believe that CoH2 might have been the wrong choice to start this series on. It's a game that demands a certain amount of attention and skill that I just do not possess, yet. This makes the game more taxing than fun, and it adds fuel to the fire of doubt that fills my head whenever I play these games. This is, however a problem that is straight forward and (relatively) simple to solve. I just need to repeat. Practice and repetition are the cornerstones to learning. So, maybe I'll have to come back here when this series is over, to compare experiences.

Conclusion

There it is, game one played. Some progress made, some issues identified and some fun had. This project started on an uphill incline, but that might have it's own advantage. I do not want this to be seen as an article valuing the game, and I especially do not want this article to be taken as some kind of review. The focus of this project is to identify my issues regarding a genre I once loved, and hopefully find solutions to those issues, whatever they might be.