Single-Player Showdown: Company of Heroes 2, Mission 1

by northernbeholder

One epic laptop failure later and we’re back!  I’ve decided that the rest of this series will focus less on the specific actions of the campaigns and more on the underlying mechanics and the way those interact with the presented narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay of either campaign; the issue becomes when gameplay and narrative fail to coincide – or, occasionally, when the gameplay represents a false depiction of the actual mechanics.

Similar to its predecessor, Company of Heroes 2 uses the first few missions to introduce the player to basic gameplay mechanics, both those common to strategy games at large and those unique to it alone.  The tutorial section of the campaign extends over several missions, with some devoted almost wholly to the new mechanics present in Company of Heroes 2, notably the “True Sight” system, which allows obstacles such as thick forest, buildings, and dense smoke to block the line-of-sight provided by your units, and the introduction of temperature and blizzard mechanics which serve to change the way you move and act across the battlefield.  It does not, interestingly, provide a condensed tutorial mission outside the campaign, instead having the main menu link to video tutorials that show mechanics without allowing the player to experiment with them.

It also teaches the player about mechanics that do not exist.  If I recall my experience correctly, Company of Heroes 2 will end up with many, many more Gameplay Mechanics Sins than its predecessor.  If I do not, I’ll look a bit silly and perhaps owe Relic an apology.  Either way, it’s time to dive in to Mission 1.

The loading screen for Mission 1 tells us we’re heading to Stalingrad – probably the most recognizable, and in some cases only recognizable battle from the Eastern Front to Western audiences who haven’t taken a personal interest in learning about that theatre of the war.  A good starting point to ground potential players in something with a bit of familiarity.  However, the following cutscene does not take place in Stalingrad; instead, we see a man in what is clearly a prison camp being shouted at for betraying the State and suffering flashbacks of wartime fighting. We then cut to a train travelling through winter weather, get the title card, and then a Soviet colonel enters the room with the prisoner. They exchange words, and what are supposed to be the central themes of the narrative are established: Brutal pragmatism vs. impractical idealism. The prisoner, naturally, is the idealist. He is presented with his war diary, told the contents could condemn him, but the Colonel insists he must know the ‘truth’. The diary is opened, and we are introduced to the game as a recounting of the battles the prisoner was in.

Aside: One of the unfortunate ways in which CoH2’s capaign is mishandled lies in the portrayal of the idealism vs. pragmatism struggle, namely, that the player is unable to affect or connect with the struggle in any way.  Sometimes during a cutscene a commissar will do something horrible and we will see our protagonist react in horror; there will also sometimes be in-gameplay voiceovers to the same effect and, at least once, the player is required to do something brutally pragmatic in order to advance a mission.  However, none of these use the game mechanics to connect the player with the ideas being portrayed; there is no feedback over whether something idealistic or pragmatic is being done.

What could have been done would be to make the brutally pragmatic orders of the commissars function as secondary objectives in the mission.  They do not need to be completed in order for the mission to progress, but fulfilling them makes the main objective easier in some fashion, i.e. by diverting enemy forces or slowing their reinforcements.  Sometimes the idealistic choice could be the secondary objective, and fulfilling the objective is very challenging and requires diverting significant amounts of the player’s resources. In both ways, these would mechanically play into the narrative justification already being given for the brutal pragmatism: They are difficult but necessary decisions made to win the war, represented in-game by the path of pragmatism being a more efficient use of men and resources to complete each mission.  Sadly, this is not what we got.

One loading screen later, we bear witness to another cutscene showing a Red Army counterattack into Stalingrad from the banks of the Dnieper river.  For anyone who played the Russian campaign in the original Call of Duty, or saw Enemy at the Gates, it will all be very familiar, with shouting commissars, not enough rifles for the men, withering German machine-gun fire, and rickety river barges being strafed by the Luftwaffe. After a few minutes of pre-rendered glory, it cuts to black, then cuts back in to in-engine view, with the camera rushing across the map to show the action, finally centering on the docks and the squad of Shock Troop given to the player to control.

Aside: Both CoH1 and CoH2 start you off in an area full of allied troops to give the scene some scope and drama. However, where in CoH1 you could take control of those troops and co-ordinate their advance, in CoH2 the conscript infantry is merely so much window dressing, endlessly charging forward to be butchered by MG42 (German machine-gun) fire.  I also find it interesting that you are handed an expensive elite infantry unit to control rather than the basic infantry as you were in CoH1. Certainly the the shock troops are more durable, but the grinding horror of fighting in Stalingrad would have been better represented by allowing you to take control of the infinitely-spawning allied conscript troops and using them to bloodily push your way through.  It also would have added some needed challenge to the mission.  A sniper team wouldn’t have gone amiss either, both for the Enemy at the Gates callback and for some gameplay variety.

The mission is very thorough in telling you how cover works and how to use it as you advance your team forward.  In multiplayer, shock troopers are an expensive elite unit only available if you select certain command doctrines, and this is reflected in the ease with which they cut through the enemy forces.  If at any point the player runs into serious trouble, they have the ability to call in infinitely more replacements, though due to the population cap of the mission, can only have a few active at any one time.  Once the initial area is successfully cleared, the action is interrupted to show a brief in-engine cutscene of the allied troops charging directly at an MG42 emplacement and being slaughtered in droves – which could be the result of slightly lazy coding and not wanting to have them be scripted to pull back, or could be a crude call-out to the idea of Soviet human wave attacks – which were an early-war tactic, but quickly fell out of use as the Red Army firmed up into the combined-arms force which ultimately crushed the Ostheer.

Either way, the cutscene and the immediately-following objective serve as the introduction to the idea of emplaced weapons and avoiding the arcs of fire.  However, rather than accurately showing how heavy machine-guns suppress and eventually pin you soldiers, they chose to show mass death.  The ultimate impression is the same – don’t stand in front of heavy MGs – but the underlying mechanics are explained poorly.  The player can certainly learn about suppression the hard way if they ignore the tutorial tips to flank around the MG42 and charge directly into its line of fire, but the mission and its objectives do their best to guide you around the side and have you use grenades to clear it out.

Mechanics Sins: 1: By this point at least one of your shock trooper squads will have reached veterancy level 1 (all units gain experience from combat, unlocking additional abilities and providing passive bonuses, thereby encouraging players to preserve units from destruction – while you can always build another tank, it’s not going to be nearly as effective as the veterancy-3 one that just got blown up) and have unlocked their veteran ability: Fire Superiority!  This causes the troops to advance more slowly (at walking speed) but they will fire more rapidly and cause suppression on their target.  Wow, what an incredibly cool skill!  Except, this skill does not exist outside the campaign. It may not even exist outside this mission – we’ll see in mission 2, which also features shock troopers.  In multiplayer, the veteran skill for shock troopers is to lay down cheap trip-wire flare mines.  Fire Superiority isn’t even taken from another unit; it does not exist in the entire game, and only recently did a skill that functions somewhat similarly be added via the new Western Front Armies expandalone content – and it belongs to the American paratroopers.

After clearing the MGs, the objective changes to taking out some German howitzers, and a secondary objective pops up to relieve a surrounded infantry unit which is defending a building full of civilians. Here is the first example of how the primary conflict of the narrative (idealism vs. pragmatism – because World War 2 isn’t enough of a conflict, apparently) fails to be adequately portrayed in gameplay. If they insist on going with this theme, both the howitzers and the civilians should be mutually conflicting optional objectives.  If the player chooses to be an idealist, they go to save the civilians, and as a reward are given control of the allied infantry which was defending them, expanding their forces (in this scenario, the infinite free shock troopers have been removed).  However, their advance in the next section is hampered by barrages from the German artillery, which has been safely withdrawn to the next line of defense.  On the other hand, if they choose to be a pragmatist, they can storm and wreck the German howitzer batteries.  They will be untroubled by artillery, but will have lost the opportunity to have gained valuable units, as the soldiers guarding the civilians have now been overrun. Both options could have included an in-mission voice-over (as they do for many other objectives) reinforcing the path the player took. Instead, saving the civilians is an optional objective that has zero effect on gameplay or narrative.

Once the howitzers are eliminated, a Panzer IV tank appears.  The infantry the player has can’t affect it, so the new unit-based line-of-sight system needs to be exploited to hide from it until a conveniently placed anti-tank gun can be captured and turned against it. The first shot always bounces, but the second destroys it.

Mechanics Sins: 2: Yes, flanking with an anti-tank gun is a good strategy, and yes, tank armour deflecting incoming rounds is an important mechanic.  However, only the superheavy doctrinal tanks are going to have any chance of deflecting a rear-armour shot from a PaK-40 gun at close range, and even then it’s slim.  More importantly, that same gun is not going to take a Panzer IV (or its Soviet equivalent) from full health to dead with one penetrating shot.  Some important lessons are being taught, but in doing so, false expectations are being raised. Having the tank arrive already damaged, or having the successful shot followed up with artillery, a bomb strike, or friendly AT weaponry to eliminate the threat, would have done better.  In fact, the best move would have been to have the tank withdraw once it was damaged and face down the player again in the next segment, where currently a fresh tank awaits instead.

The destruction of the tank triggers another pre-rendered cutscene, in which Russian soldiers are thrown back from the German defenses and then gunned down by the order of a Commissar when trying to retreat back to friendly lines.  It is, once again, straight out of Enemy at the Gates, and while the Red Army did deploy ‘blocking units’ in the real war for exactly this purpose, highlighting it in this way did not buy Relic any favour in the Russian markets – especially compared to the general blind eye turned towards any American or Allied wrongdoings in the first game’s campaign.

Following the brutal massacre the next wave is ordered forwards and gameplay resumes.  The final section is a network of German defenses that requires the player to exercise everything they’ve learned so far to outflank, overpower, and overcome the opposition, concluding with the arrival (and destruction) of a second tank.  One more cutscene closes it out, depicting Russian troops shooting a surrendering German (something much more common than the ‘blocking units’, as the soldiers were frequently enraged by reports and direct witnessing of the atrocities committed upon their country – and also something the other Allied troops indulged in) and then some manner of flash-back (or flash-forward?) that shows a woman in an army uniform, no doubt a character to be introduced later.  The mission then ends.

As far as tutorials go this mission was a good one.  It was much longer than CoH1’s first mission, but also far more thorough in the mechanics it explained.  Some of the mechanics could have used a better hook (infinite free shock troopers really trivialize the difficulty curve) but like with the gameplay in general they were largely tight, refined, and enjoyable to interact with.  On the other hand, the narrative was weak and the attempts to push the idealism vs. pragmatism theme in the cutscenes only results in a feeling of distinct disconnect when it comes to the gameplay, where no such decisions or moral choices exist.  However, apart from the unfortunate attempt to include an extra level of thematic conflict on top of the already dramatic conflict of World War 2, Stalingrad makes for an excellent jumping-off point for a campaign as contained and tautly-scripted as the one in CoH1, going from Stalingrad in 1942 through the successful Soviet advances of early 1943 and concluding with the epic clash of arms at the Battle of Kursk, one of the largest armoured battles in the history of warfare and the final blow which broke the spine of the German army in the East.

Unfortunately, that is not what we received. Next time on CoH2: Welcome to 1941.