As the second major expansion to World War II strategy game Company of Heroes 2, Ardennes Assault set out to upend the established formula with an entirely new single-player campaign featuring brand new units, abilities and mechanics. For those unfamiliar, Company of Heroes 2 is a real-time strategy game developed by Relic Entertainment and published by Sega. Set at the height of World War II, the vanilla campaign follows a company in the Soviet Red Army from their brutal fighting retreat across western Russia in 1941 to their victory at the battle of Berlin four years later.
What differentiates Company of Heroes 2 from other real-time strategy games is the emphasis on unit positioning, terrain, and cover. Placing units inside vehicles and structures is nothing new (the original Command & Conquer) had similar mechanics all the way back in 1995. But Company of Heroes 2 allows infantry and artillery units to take shelter behind walls, trees, sandbags, and even the wreckage of vehicles, most of which can be destroyed with explosives by ramming them with armored vehicles.
The game goes so far as to introduce what it calls negative cover, where units take extra damage when standing in open streets or empty fields. Soldiers are even somewhat good at taking cover of their own accord, although it can be challenging to get a large army positioned properly. Heavy machine gunners, in particular, seem to have an annoying habit of facing the wrong way and take time to reposition.
Infantry squads can collect discarded weapons, up to and including artillery pieces, from the battlefield, making it easier to recoup the loss of more expensive units and even steal them from the enemy. This might not seem like a big deal, but a well-placed anti-tank gun can turn the tide of a battle. There’s something to be said for turning enemies’ very expensive toys against them. Players need to be careful though, as enemy infantry can and will attempt to do the same thing.
Ardennes Assault Expansion
The Ardennes Assault expansion adds a variety of new maps, units and off-map abilities centered around the titular “Ardennes Assault” campaign mode. Players begin by selecting which three of the four companies (Mechanized, Airborne, Support or Ranger) that they will use throughout the campaign. The first three come standard with the “Ardennes Assault” expansion but Rangers are only available to players who purchase the “Fox Company” DLC pack.
Each company has access to unique units and abilities. Matching the right specialization to the right mission goes a long way to achieving victory. Each company has a health rating which is depleted when taking losses or retreating from missions. The health rating can recover by leaving the company idle in friendly territory or by spending requisition points earned by completing missions successfully.
Most battles are created dynamically, with randomly generated objectives and additional modifiers. Even predesigned missions will feature randomized bonus objectives. A defeated enemy’s forces will regroup with other battalions, giving them bonuses like more troops and better equipment. Periodically, the game will even offer special incentives, such as reinforcements or unique units, as a reward for clearing specific sectors within a specified amount of time. These factors combined mean that two playthroughs will never be the same.
In theory, these new features add both substantial replay value and additional layers to the strategic aspects of the game. But the developers didn’t really do enough to flesh some of them out. Companies can’t support each other beyond blocking an enemy’s retreat, and their respective upgrade trees are narrow and unremarkable. The only really interesting idea is the Company health system, but that has its own problems.
Mistakes made early on when the player is still getting used to the new units and mechanics can very easily haunt the rest of their campaign. In a game as fast-paced as Company of Heroes 2, one or two bad calls is enough to sink a mission. A single failure can reduce a company’s strength by more than a third. It’s far too easy to end up in an unwinnable situation, and the game is long enough that starting over feels like a chore.
In turn-based games like XCOM or Fire Emblem, the knowledge that your next move might have a profound effect on the rest of the game adds to the tension and excitement, but that’s because the player has time to think everything through beforehand. In Ardennes Assault, it was just annoying. It doesn’t completely ruin the game, but it’s such a significant component that my feelings toward it ended up coloring my attitude toward the expansion as a whole.
While I don’t hate Ardennes Assault, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the vanilla campaign. The Soviet missions were just as challenging without the added frustration of a poorly implemented gimmick, and the writing is pretty good for an RTS. If you’re interested in trying it out for yourself and don’t already have the base game, you can get the standalone version available on Steam, which includes the vanilla campaign and multiplayer content. I found Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault to be a disappointment, but if you can look past its flaws there is still plenty of fun to be had.