With Company of Heroes 2: The Western Front Armies, the first standalone expansion for Relic’s World War 2 RTS, we bid farewell to the frigid battlefields of Russia and once again duke it out in Western Europe. It’s the might of the fresh US army against the veteran Oberkommando West, fighting for supremacy across verdant fields, ambush-riddled forests and shell-blasted wasteland.
Out of the freezing cold and relentless snow, the battles are no less desperate and brutal. They are all smoke and screams; massive tanks getting stuck in forests, struggling as soldiers peck at them like carrion birds; that exhausting push forward to get more resources to feed the war machine.
Western Front Armies is a map and faction pack. It’s focused on multiplayer, so there’s no new campaign. This decision made me uncertain in regards to the expansion’s ability to appeal to new players. Sega and Relic are touting it as an “entry point” into the series, but without a campaign to ease players in, I didn’t rate its chances of doing so.
If I could stomach the taste of ink, I’d eat my words.
The loss of a central narrative and story-based objectives makes Western Front Armies no less simple to dive into - helped by some tutorials - and both armies are so well defined that it becomes clear early on how to make the most of them.
The Oberkommando West and US forces are informed both by their history and their opposite. They are designed to go head to head, each faction bringing in tools that can help them exploit the other’s weaknesses.
The Oberkommando is a mobile army. German industry supply lines are represented mechanically, through the force’s reliance on vehicles and ability to really dig in when capturing points. Supply trucks are at the heart of this armoured faction, moving into captured territory and establishing outposts that unlock new units. These semi-mobile bases provide both offensive and defensive boons when deployed, drawing fire, creating cover and fighting back.
This makes the German’s feel established. They’ve had time to prepare, all set to not just capture territory, but hold it for a good long time. But there’s a juxtaposition at the heart of the Oberkommando West. For all the army’s mobility, many of the vehicles are lumbering things when going off-road, where much of the fighting takes place. Though the mighty tanks can smash down trees, they can quickly be surrounded by US anti-tank units.
The Americans are a challenging enemy. It’s a mobile army, as well, though in an entirely different way. One base is all this force gets, though it’s well-defended. So it lacks the ability to set up mighty defences, but it can still quickly reach a capture point and lock it down. This is thanks to the US’s cheap, diverse infantry. These soldiers can be deployed quickly and sent to ensure that the resources keep ticking away, allowing the force to build up rapidly, very early on. It can still be a challenge maintaining that control when faced with a King Tiger tank, though.
It can’t match the Germans in sheer pummelling power, but the US can field a broad array of units to keep the enemy on its toes. It’s harder to prepare when you don’t know what’s coming. Integral to the Americans’ versatility is the infantry’s expansive toolbox. They can grab new weapons that have been unlocked at HQ, upgrading even the standard rifleman unit into a force to be reckoned with. Special officers can be recruited as well, and with them they bring advanced units.
Both factions maintain a connection to the real forces that inspired them; they’re historically authentic as well as being mechanically interesting. But there’s plenty of room to fine tune them and create dramatically different builds. The returning commanders - which can be added to a loadout before the start of a match - provide room for a plethora of playstyles.
One American commander, for instance, furnishes the player with heavy armour so it can actually stand a chance in a scrap against German tanks. The commanders offers special abilities, advanced units and handy buffs, and importantly give the multiplayer-only expansion a sense of progression - new commanders, along with other goodies, are rewarded for victories - that it might have otherwise lost without a campaign.
Western Front Armies throws a not insignificant eight maps into the mix. They cover all the bases, from 1 vs. 1 arenas to sprawling 4 vs. 4 battlefields, and Relic has crafted well-thought out environments with varied geography - perfect playgrounds for hordes of angry men and machines. There’s Trois Ponts, a half-demolished town split by a river punctuated with three bridges, where the bodies pile up along the waterside and heavy vehicles slowly squeeze through the streets. It’s in stark contrast to Hurtgen Forest, a battle amid massive trees and winding woodland paths, where enemies can come out of nowhere and the sound of snapping trunks heralds the coming of tanks.
There are maps for quick comp-stomps, tricky co-op battles and gargantuan, messy fields of death. They are diverse and so crafted with an eye for detail that they stand well on their own. But they also fit in comfortably with the original game’s Eastern Front maps, adding in new experiences instead of recycling old ones for new players.
It’s definitely the new players who are getting the best deal, though. While CoH2 owners will be shelling out £14.99/$19.99 for eight maps, two factions and some performance tweaks - which isn’t too bad - rookies will be getting all of that and a considerable amount of content from the original game.
Without the base game, new players won’t be able to experience the any of that game’s modes, including the campaign, or choose the original factions or maps in multiplayer. But those maps will be playable through matchmaking - they just can’t be selected independently - and the Eastern forces will also be playable against, though not as. So the expansion doesn’t limit who one can play with.
New or returning player - it doesn’t really matter. This is Company of Heroes 2 at its best, a standalone that focuses on the series’ core: man and machine duking it out across Europe. Those seeking a narrative will find plenty of stories in the tense battles amid crumbling towns and dark forests, so the campaign isn’t missed at all. There’s no fluff, and while there are lots of maps and loadouts to consider, one can still jump into an entertaining, dramatic battle right off the bat.