Company of Heroes 2 is what happens when history buffs make videogames. Seven years on from their first World War II real-time strategy, Relic has spent the interim slamming books about the war's Eastern Front. Fierce fighting between German and Soviet forces underpins three modes - Campaign, Skirmish and Theatre of War - with nary an American or British squaddie to be found.
And that's a good thing. The Red Army provide a fresh spin on the done-to-death heroics of kick-ass Allies, Stars and Stripes traded for senseless carnage on icy wastelands, disheveled cities and rugged country. Relic's series has always strived to put a human face on conflict, and here the emotional beats stay hit despite our protagonists now speaking in Russian-inflicted English. From Barbarossa to Berlin, the war's darker corners (for most Westerners, anyway) are illuminated.
CoH2 is nothing if not cathartic. Unlike Eisenhower's US-powered steamroller, Stalin's troops - for a large part of the war - were the ones being flattened. The wolf is at the door, and early missions in CoH2's dozen-hour campaign see you not advancing, but fleeing. One set in an outlying Russian village about to be besieged asks you to enact a scorched earth policy, torching your own supplies before the enemy gets his hands on them. Another has you slipping between Panzers in an occupied town, more like rats than soldiers. It's war on a personal scale: you're not liberating the world, but yourself.
At least liberty is never taken with the time period. Each mission is preceded by a chunk of text explaining its wider context, with maps and quotes from famous figures further detailing the fight. It's as detailed as any TV doc, and written keenly as any book, with the added bonus of being, you know, a videogame. Listen up and it's impossible not to learn something.
The three F's - Find, Flank, Finish - inform most engagements, with troops needing to take cover before engaging
The game prides itself on not just authentic scenarios, but authentic tactics within them. The Three F's - Find, Flank, Finish - inform most engagements here, with troops needing to take cover before suppressing opponents. Keep in mind, though, that cover can be destroyed. Cower behind a brick wall or a wooden shack and there's no guarantee it won't splinter, topple over, or catch fire. Mortar rounds pockmark the earth with black craters. Even the sandbags and barbed wire you can plant are merely temporary. Just like in a real war, things break.
And, just like in a real war, adaptation is key. Come across an embedded machine gun nest, for instance, and you'll need to improvise. How about chucking a smoke grenade to cover your advance? Or a full frontal flamethrower offensive? Or maybe, provided that particularly level lets you create your own units (because some make you work with what you have), you should bide your time and rush them later in a tank? Units also have unique cool-down talents, too. Some can chuck molotovs, while others have a rally cry which boosts all attacks for a time. There so many unit types, and specific skills for each, that if you're not already well versed in the ways of CoH, it can all feel a little intimidating.
The clunky menu doesn't help. A rusted skin which functions even worse than it looks, it's almost an unintentional callback to 90's strategy games like Commando, with too much spread over too little. SimCity should be the watermark here; also a PC-exclusive strategy, and one packing similar complexity, just with a much friendlier interface.