Victory at any cost is a maxim that will lose the war in Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault, Relic’s second standalone expansion for its World War 2 RTS. Instead of being a series of battles linked by a narrative - like the original Russian campaign - Ardennes Assault is a brutal, dynamic war split between real-time battles and a turn-based strategic map, where each battle between US and German forces has a tangible impact on the rest of the game.
So it’s hard. For the first time, I found myself struggling with a Company of Heroes game. It didn’t matter how many battles I’d won; what mattered was what state my troops were in after the battle. As the three different US companies I controlled moved from battle to battle across Belgium, becoming smaller and smaller, I started to wonder if I could even win this war. It’s a campaign with weight and tension, and subsequently, it’s great.
I should have been celebrating. Dog Company, my support specialists filled with assault engineers and artillery, had just taken a major source of fuel from the Germans, weakening the Nazi war machine. But protecting the area from a series of increasingly aggressive counter-attacks had whittled down my man power, and the bodies of countless troops were draped across sandbags and piled up in craters.
The human cost made the battle a pyrrhic victory. Dog Company was down to half strength, and many of the dead were veteran units, stalling the experience growth of the entire company. I had options, though, but none of them were easy.
I could use requisition points gained from my victory to recruit fresh troops to bolster the ranks, but that would reduce the overall experience of the company even more. Alternatively, I could save the points and use them to upgrade commander abilities, like calling down artillery strikes or dropping new units into the battle instantly. Not recruiting more men, however, would increase the risk of the entire company knocked out of the war for good.
Staring at the map of the Ardennes, I was feeling pretty glum. Not just because of the state of my soldiers, but because the retreating Germans had managed to link up with another force in a neighbouring province, increasing their strength considerably.
Enemy strength contributes to a lot in Ardennes Assault. Each main mission and dynamic scenario has difficulty tiers not linked to the overall game difficulty. An enemy with a strength of 1 will just be a bog standard force with no tricks up its sleeve. A strength of 2 could mean that the Germans have increased veterancy, making the troops hardier, or it might add a new unit type to the force. The strength goes all the way up to 5, and the changes can be radical, giving the Germans bunkers, mines, artillery support or whatever else they might need to defeat the Americans.
Unfortunately, the fleeing Germans ended up bolstering a force that was already at level 3, and it would be a good long while before I’d be able to take them on.
It was all my fault, really. Ardennes Assault is tough, but there were so many things I could have done to improve the outcome. While Dog Company was the best choice of company - the mission was primarily a defensive one, and as a support company, these guys had all the tools I needed - choosing Able Company, with its paratroopers and air support, or Baker Company, with its tanks and vehicles, might have opened up different strategies. Unique units, special abilities and upgrade trees ensure that they are all distinct, and any of them can be used in any mission.
In the battle itself, I could have done a better job of protecting my veterans, which would have increased the overall experience of the company and left me in a stronger position when the dust settled. And perhaps I shouldn’t have split my forces. Every mission has random objectives, which can be completely ignored, but I chose not to, and ended up losing a few units in an attempt to assassinate an enemy officer on the other side of the map.
The retreating Germans could have been dealt with as well. If I’d positioned another company between them and the other army, they would have been completely destroyed. I was in a hurry, though. Random events crop up as companies travel across the map. Sometimes companies can come across enemies and lay an ambush, weakening the entire army, if the ambush doesn’t fail. In other instances, intel might be discovered, unlocking a new, timed post-battle bonus for completing specific mission. It was one such bonus that lead to me rushing into battle instead of waiting for back up. I’m a loose cannon.
Each fight is a product of a important, meaty decisions that substantially change the scenario. These battles never take place in a vacuum, encouraging not just repeat playthroughs but a more thoughtful approach to the entire war.
Missions can be undertaken at any time and in any order, simply by just moving one of the US companies into the appropriate province. They’re a diverse bunch, split between dynamic scenarios and main missions. The former pits players against a random AI opponent, tasking them with a random objective. Main missions, on the other hand, are scripted affairs with a bit of story injected into them.
The attention given to the dynamic missions is so great that it’s actually hard to tell the difference between them and the main missions. Besides a cutscene at the start and a debriefing or speech from the officer of one of the companies at the end, the same amount of care has been given to both.
Gorgeous, intricate maps filled with a broad variety of terrain and level of urbanisation keep each conflict feeling fresh, and the challenges are an equally varied lot. There are tense capture and hold style missions, where soldiers holed up in bunkers, behind sandbags and in buildings face an almost relentless assault from seemingly indomitable foes; rescue and protection missions, where troops or convoys must be looked after, all in the middle of artillery strikes and tank assaults; and even a mission where the Americans and Germans race across the map to capture supply drops before the other force gets there.
Punctuating each battle are small stories, created in the heat of conflict rather than by a writer. There were the brave paratroopers that saved at least twenty men and an entire outpost by landing behind a tank, killing a panzerschreck unit, stealing their weapons and then unleashing their destructive potential on the tanks bombarding their allies. All the way on the other side of the Ardennes, merely a day later, a unit of engineers, alone and vulnerable, managed to run across an entire battlefield, avoiding artillery strikes, snipers and German riflemen, all in an effort to rescue a beleaguered camp by shoring up its defences before a Nazi assault.
These are the types of stories that made the previous expansion, Western Front Armies, so compelling, even though it was a multiplayer-only affair and entirely absent a narrative. And in Ardennes Assault, they entirely overshadow Relic’s own story.
The narrative of Ardennes Assault differs greatly from the Russian campaign in Company of Heroes 2. It’s simple, honing in on the experiences of the three officers that lead Dog, Able and Baker company. It’s poorly told, with uneven voice acting and Band of Brother cliches, but it only really exists on the peripheries of the game. The player stories are what it really thrives on.
While still an RTS, Ardennes Assault takes a lot of cues from wargames. By opening it up and providing countless meaningful choices and random events, Relic has put the war in the players’ hands. It’s not a directed journey through a bunch of scenarios where winning is all that matters; it’s a persistent struggle where failure is always nipping at the Americans’ heels, where an entire company can be lost in battle, making the war seem even more desperate. It’s exhausting, and the best game in the Company of Heroes series.