“The significance of the Western Front armies is we have the full European arena of battle,” Alex Price, Relic’s brand director, tells the group of journalists assembled to play Company of Heroes 2’s first expansion, The Western Front.
Once again you’ll be able to play as the US and German forces as they battle for Western Europe but it won’t be as you remember them. Both sides have been completely rebuilt since the original Company of Heroes, they not only look and sound different but there have been some fundamental changes to how they play, too.
Relic have tried to make the US a beleaguered infantry force who survive on versatile, mobile squads, while the Germans are equipped with vehicles that, while extremely powerful, aren’t built for the terrain they’re fighting on, and it shows.
The Western Front expands Relic’s World War 2 RTS, Company of Heroes 2, by adding two new factions, the US paratroopers and the German Oberkommando West. Along with the new units there are also eight new maps set in different seasons across all of Western Europe.
The first map I was shown was a skirmish map set in Hürtgen Forest on the German-Belgium border. The forest was the setting for the longest ever battle in American history. For three months American and German forces fought over the dense forest. Heavy cover and steep terrain made it difficult for armour to advance so it was a largely infantry led battle.
The map is thick with trees and the capture points that are dotted about the level are surrounded by cover making it easy to assault a defender. Cliffs and woods block tanks from being much use in the centre of the map, instead they have to take dirt roads to the north and south of the main forest.
I was commanding the US forces. Relic looked to late 1944 for inspiration for both factions in this expansion. As such, the Americans “are an army that bent but never broke,” Price says. “Their whole strategy is that of maximum firepower for the minimum infantry, they’re a flexible, versatile, and very mobile force.” Hürtgen should be a cakewalk. Its forests make it difficult for armour to move about the map and I can hide anti-tank guns at major cross sections.
It took about half the match to get used to the changes to the US troops. The paratroopers and riflemen are instantly recognisable from the original Company of Heroes, though they’re now looking a lot more detailed than before, but they play quite differently. “In the original Company of Heroes you could just click on a bazooka and upgrade,” producer Greg Wilson explains. “Now we’ve got this new system, the weapon rack. So your base actually has racks of weapons that you can unlock. Then you can send your troops over to pick up a bazooka or a BAR.”
This threw me at first and didn’t seem like an improvement. In the original you could upgrade your riflemen squads on the fly, buying them weapons they needed at that moment. Now you have to equip them when they’re near a weapons rack - either retreating to base to retool or having the forethought to arm them up with what they might need later in battle. But it’s not meant to be an improvement for the riflemen, but for all your other infantry.
“Now bazookas aren’t only limited to the riflemen,” Wilson says. “So any infantry with free weapons slots can go over to that weapon rack pick it up and use it.” This really comes into play with your Rear Echelon, a new squad type in Western Front. They’re engineers who you can - with weapon racks - arm to the teeth. They can takeover vehicles, repair armour and bridges, and take command of weapons like the AT guns. They can even be kitted out with mortars.
With these well-equipped troops I quickly took control of about two thirds of the map. The German’s control points started to whittle down and it looked like it would be an easy win.
That’s when they brought their armour to bare.
“We see the Oberkommando West as a resurgent force,” says Price. “They’re predatory. At that point in the war they have battle-hardened divisions and they’d been newly equipped. They utilised heavy armour extensively but they were challenged by fuel shortages and terrain.” So when they meet with a thick treeline they simply blow it up or drive through it.
In the late game the German AI had built some heavy armour and it was destroying my squads in the forest. The trees were destroyed, opening up new paths for the armour and infantry to advance on the capture points and the AI started to take them back.
Whenever I launched a counterattack the Germans would retreat and attack elsewhere. At one point I managed to pin an enemy tank between a Sherman and an anti-tank gun. I had it on the ropes only for it to reverse past my AT gun, which is much slower at turning than the Sherman, and make its escape.
When I told Wilson about it he said proudly that a focus of this expansion has been improving the AI: “There’s a lot more intelligent behaviour happening.” Units repair bridges and use them to flank your troops, tanks will retreat and find an idle engineer to repair their armour, they’ll even prioritise salvaging discarded equipment over buying new gear. The journalist I was sat next to saw the enemy AI flank his forces, kill the infantry, and take the equipment which it then used to assault his base.
“We want you to jump up from your seat and go tell your friend about what you’ve seen,” Wilson says.
I did, eventually, manage to take back control of the forest. The heavy shelling had cleared large parts of the woodland cover but the newly formed craters made great cover for my riflemen.
When I got my hands on the Oberkommando forces I faced a similarly difficult battle but I had some great kit to play with. The new infrared half-track can see through the fog of war so I was able to get the jump on the US troops taking cover in buildings and behind walls.
You half-tracks can now convert into buildings, too. This makes it easier to stage your assualts closer to the action.
However, whereas with the US I felt I was using my troops tactically, positioning them to take advantage of the cover provided by the map, with the Germans I simply threw them at the enemy. I was being heavily supported by an AI ally but I didn’t get a sense of equal tactical depth. The result that my win on the second map was a hollow surprise. That depth may well be there but waiting to be teased out from a longer time with expansion.
The Western Front also marks the first time Relic have released an expansion where they’re treating Company of Heroes as a platform. Both factions can be bought separately and without owning a copy of the base game. So, if you bought just the US faction you’d only ever be able to play as them but you’d have access to the eight maps that come with Western Front, all the 1,200 player made maps in the Steam Workshop, and when you go into quick matches online you can still be paired up with players who own the other factions and play on the maps they own. If you’re paired with a someone playing as the Russians you’ll be able to fight them on the maps that came in Company of Heroes 2. And, as “[Relic] update the platform you get all the improvements, updates, balance changes, and bug fixes.”
Price revealed that there have been over 22 million Company of Heroes 2 multiplayer matches player so far and they’re using data from all of those games to tweak how the different units work, keeping everything balanced across all four factions.
I asked Wilson what was planned for the future, now that Relic have the whole of the European conflict covered. Would they just keep adding new units into the mix? “We’ll hit a ceiling at some point - there’s only so many different versions of a Sherman we can introduce - but once we have those tools the stories we can tell with them are unlimited.”
The slice of The Western Front I was shown was too brief and too narrow to form a final opinion on the expansion but Price is convinced “this is some of the best content we’ve made in years.”