Why Company of Heroes’ single-player campaign works, and the sequel’s doesn’t.

by northernbeholder

The same studio, making the same sort of game, using broadly the same mechanics, produced two very different campaign experiences, with the well-constructed if slightly cliché experience from the first game giving way to a muddy, disorganized and narratively criticized experience in the second.  What went wrong?

Company of Heroes is a real-time strategy game with a World War 2 theme, released by Relic Entertainment in 2006.  It features broadly accurate portrayal of soldiers and equipment in use during the Normandy Campaign and mid-to-late 1944 in general, both visually and in function, and an economic system based on taking and holding territory rather than managing worker units around resource nodes.  It received two expansions: Opposing Fronts, which added two new half-length campaigns and two new armies in 2007, and Tales of Valor, which added a number of alternative units and mini-scenarios in 2009.  In all, it featured excellent multiplayer and skirmish modes, and a superb single-player campaign.

Company of  Heroes 2 is the sequel to the first game, released in 2013. It maintained the core gameplay while shifting the focus from the Normandy Campaign to the Eastern Front, and introduced new mechanics such as a “true sight” line-of-sight system to allow use of terrain to hide from enemy troops, revamped armour penetration, and the introduction of inclement weather conditions which complicated scouting, maneuver and infantry management, rather than being purely cosmetic effects. It received a selection of downloadable content including co-op mission packs, vehicle skins, and the introduction of two new armies in 2014.  In all, it featured excellent multiplayer, co-op and skirmish modes, and a lackluster single-player campaign. In fact, it was so dreary, I stopped playing it partway through.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time playing both games, I think I’ve found the underlying issue.  The campaign in Company of Heroes (as well as those in its expansion, Opposing Fronts) utilizes the Normandy Campaign as its overall narrative and framing device. The missions are tied together with brief cutscenes (both using artistic visuals and in-engine assets) introducing why and how the previous mission led to the next while maintaining a coherent narrative.  There is a very bare-bones cast; only the bare necessity to provide pre- and in-mission briefing and commentary, this being two American officers and a German antagonist.  The main character and protagonist of the campaign is the U.S. Army infantry company which the player controls, Able Company, a depiction made strong by the coherent movements as well as the in-game mechanic to purchase surviving veteran units from prior missions rather than re-training fresh troops constantly.  The pain and drama of the Normandy Campaign sweeps Able Company along, and the player with it as they become invested in the progress and survival of their soldiers.

By contrast, Company of Heroes 2 chooses to focus on a single individual, a young officer in the Red Army.  The framing device for the story is a post-war gulag, where the officer is being interrogated by a commissar who he used to serve with.  Using the officer’s memoirs, the player is taken on a whirlwind tour of the Eastern Front across locations from the southern steppes to the frozen northern lakes around Leningrad over a period spanning several years.  The officer and commissar argue rather ham-handedly in pre-rendered cutscenes over the value of idealism versus pragmatism, while in-engine cutscenes tell the story of the war itself.  Unfortunately, this leads to a very disjointed and incoherent campaign, as the officer (and player with him) leap from flashpoint to flashpoint, jumping months or years of time and skipping between commands all over the front.  There is nothing to hold on to, no chance to invest in the story being told, because the story and the gameplay are divergent.  Worse, unlike in the first game, the single-player campaign frequently makes use of custom game mechanics divorced from those utilized in the skirmish and multiplayer modes. These mechanics will even change from mission to mission, frustrating attempts to come to grips with the game itself.

In short, Company of Heroes 2 tries to be far too ambitious with its single-player campaign. By attempting to encompass all of the massive Eastern Front, rather than focusing on a particular campaign like the first game did, it creates a disjointed and incoherent experience.  The issue is made worse by a framing device which does little to successfully tie the missions together, and the use of ever-changing custom game mechanics which bear no resemblance to the finely-tuned and balanced sets available for the multiplayer and skirmish modes.  There is no chance for the player to invest in their soldiers, for there are no mechanics encouraging the promotion and preservation of units, and the titular main characters are not represented in-game at all.

That is the overview of the problem, as I see it.  The thesis, if you would.  Now, in order to see if it bears out, some research is required.  I will be playing through the campaigns of both games, mission by mission, taking notes and images with which to provide a comparative and contrasting review of the campaigns as a whole.  We will discover how well my assertions hold up when confronted with the fresh experience.