What's New in Company Of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault?
Three's a company.
Having found success with its previous Company of Heroes 2 standalone expansion, the multiplayer-only Western Front Armies, Relic is looking to repeat the trick with the exclusively single-player Ardennes Assault. Its story is a reimagining of 1944's Battle of the Bulge--a conflict that saw the German army attempt to wrestle control of Belgium away from American forces--but it's not a historically accurate retelling of those events. Instead, Relic say the goal with Ardennes Assault is to provide players with a means to influence and change the events of that year.
As such, the campaign is set across a map of Belgium split into different regions, each representing individual battles for you to fight and conquer. Win a skirmish in a region and it's under your control for the rest of the campaign, but the impact of dismantling German positions is felt elsewhere. Taking a particular region can cause enemy reinforcements to populate an adjacent area, which in turn forces you to rethink your original strategy for something more reactive, lest those fresh dangers get out of hand. Replayability is the aim here, with the emphasis firmly placed on multiple playthroughs creating new conflicts and problems.
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It works rather well, in part thanks to the additional complexity that comes via the provision of three different companies--support, mechanised and airborne--which are persistent throughout the campaign. Each comes with its own abilities in combat, but what's more important is to stay aware of their relative health and experience levels. Using a specific company in battle is both a risk and a reward in that it's possible for them to die, and take no further part in the campaign, but winning engagements is the only way to improve their skills.
You have to balance the use of each company to suit not only your preferred play style, but also to facilitate your wider strategy for the war. It's all very well and good saying that you're going to concentrate on making your mechanised company as good as it can possibly be, but if they end up being wiped out, your remaining support and airborne units are going to find it tough going if they've never been in battle before. Like it or not, presuming you're playing on a challenging difficulty level, all three companies must be thought of as a single, larger entity. We're stronger together, and all that.
This becomes especially poignant when deciding which areas of the map to attack with each company. The three move around the map independently of one another, meaning it's possible--if you're not thinking ahead--for one to get cut-off from the others and potentially become surrounded by the Germans. Here you have a tough choice to make: does the greater goal make an attempted rescue worthwhile, or would you be better off continuing with the original plan and hoping the besieged company can make it out alive?
Battles play out differently depending on which company you use. Aside from the obvious fact that you need to alter your approach in line with a company's skill set, some missions start you off in different positions. It doesn't take an enormous leap in thinking to understand that attacking a town from the east with your support troops offers a fundamentally different confrontation than a southerly approach with a mechanised division. Again, replayability is key.
Your support company specialises in explosives and blasting its way straight through enemy lines in the most direct way possible. Airborne is much more clandestine and thoughtful, and totally in their element when positioned behind enemy lines and given the freedom to disrupt key units and assets before they become a threat. They do have access to airstrikes once unlocked, but for the most part they're a brains over brawn outfit.
Mechanised is like a combination of the two, requiring equal parts courage and contemplation. Infantry troops are useful for scouting ahead and clearing a path of obstacles, making it safe for the heavy vehicles to roll in and start dealing the real damage. Distracted by the commotion caused by tanks, any infantry still alive can take advantage of the disruption to flank your opponent and pin them down.
While there are plenty of welcome changes to companies, the core rules dictating combat remain the same as in Company of Heroes 2, which is no bad thing. Capture points must be controlled to earn resources that can be spent to improve and buff your forces, while staying behind cover and intelligently taking advantage of high ground and differing terrain conditions makes it incredibly difficult for the enemy to catch you unawares. The missions I saw tended to feature a healthy number of buildings, making the identification of key structures from which to defend a position vital. Company of Heroes 2's combat was skilful and considered, and Ardennes Assault does a good job of adding to those fun mechanics, without damaging what was so great about them in the first place.
What's most interesting about Ardennes Assault, though, is its wider format. While not a new idea, the standalone expansion, on the surface of it, seems to make everyone a winner. Relic can concentrate on releasing more content more quickly, reacting to audience feedback with each new outing and testing new features without the fear of an entire franchise failing. For the audience, it promotes a 'pick and choose' kind of mentality: you might not be interested in this particular content, but that's fine because there's likely to be more just around the corner. And hey, there's a lot of World War II left to explore yet.
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