Five months have passed since the release of The Western Front Armies, the first multiplayer only expansion for Company of Heroes 2 that brought players to the Western Front, allowing them to take command of the Americans and the Oberkommando West factions.
An important point to remember before taking a closer look at the new expansion, is the impact that the release of the singleplayer campaign of Company of Heroes 2 had on the global market: we cannot forget the controversy that arose from the questionable decisions Relic made in a storyline that presented on one side the black humor element between soldiers and officers (like jokes full of irony, sadness and resignation), which we greatly appreciated, but that on the other hand has exacerbated the situation on the Eastern front, focusing the attention too much on questionable and unethical choices made by the Red Army officers instead of remembering, as we will see in Ardennes Assault, the soldiers' acts of heroism and great sacrifice. Soldiers that fought for ideals that go beyond political choices or crazy acts of individuals, like honor, friendship, respect for your own soldiers and for the defeated opponent.
We have not seen much of the ideals mentioned in the campaign of Company of Heroes 2 and Relic seemed to have understood where the mistake was made. Ardennes Assault goes back to Relic's roots, presenting itself as a dynamic campaign where every mission emphasizes the ideals mentioned, exactly like we have seen in the Company of Heroes 1 campaign.
Even without a rich and interesting storyline behind the single player experience, like on previous titles, Relic was able to achieve its objective by developing a strong characterisation of Company Commanders, each with different origins and personality that is perfectly reflected on the companies players take control on.
Relic decided to move away from the single player experience we have been used to seeing since the first Company of Heroes, in order to come closer to the dynamic and full of customization model seen instead in Dawn of War II. At the beginning of the campaign players have to pick three companies out of the four available to use (the fourth one was available for free to all those who pre-ordered the game, else it can be bought on Steam), each with its own playstyle and to adapt to complete the available missions in a different way. The theater of war where the whole campaign is played is defined by Relic "MetaMap".
The MetaMap is nothing else than a map representing the 17 major areas of battle during the Battle of the Bulge. Each territory area is divided into 2 or 3 transition zones and a main battle zone (where you play the mission). Every time you move one of the companies through a territory you might run into one of the many random events present in the game: players might be called upon to make choices whose outcome will provide bonuses or penalties to the company, unlock units and additional passive skills to the company that wins a specific mission within a certain number of turns. Every move on the map is equivalent to a turn.
The MetaMap is constantly evolving: it will be crucially important for players to manage the sequence of territories to conquer since each time you successfully complete a mission Axis forces will rout and they will try to strengthen the adjacent territories with more troops.
Each area may have 1 to 5 levels of military presence, each of which ensures the special bonus ranging from a better equipped infantry squads to heavy tanks presence, offmap artillery, elitè troops or even heavy air support. Being able to win a mission with 5 levels of military presence is quite a task even for seasoned players, especially if you set the difficulty level "hard". There is something to add especially about difficulty: on some maps it seems extremely hard to beat the AI, while on others the AI seems way more passive and with less clue on how to accomplish the victory conditions (especially the missions with dynamic objectives). It would be great if Relic could implement an "Hardest" difficulty for players that want the ultimate challenge creating all "almost-impossible to win" missions. Emphasis is also put on the possibility for players to be defeated in a specific mission: in this case the enemy will strengthen further and it will be even more difficult to beat him next time.
The dynamism of the MetaMap is not limited although to the mere presence of random events on it: in addition to 11 missions that can be defined more scripted and "major" (because they have always the same main objectives and they come with an introduction and a debriefing video) all the other missions are completely dynamic. So even if dynamic missions will feature the same maps when playing the campaign multiple times, the main, secondary and bonus objectives, as well as victory conditions will be different. Relic has just thought of a dozen or so different ways of winning in order to increase the replayability value of the campaign, (objectively very high) ensuring that the same missions are different not only in the different approach due to the company used but also on their objectives. For example, some missions require players to collect airdropped supplies randomly located on the map before the enemy reaches them, while others take the player to acquire as many abandoned vehicles on the map as possible and to use them to eliminate enemy forces.
It is finally clear Relic's "master plan" especially after, at the end of October, mod tools got released to allow players creating maps with different objectives and victory conditions: in fact developers did not hide the fact that this single player experience aims, more than anything they have done before (maybe except for Theater of War) to bring players as closer as possible to the multiplayer experience, offering unscripted missions where the AI uses its own army dynamically trying to simulate another human player.
At the end of the campaign you will get a global score based on all the evaluation from each single mission played before and players will receive a significant amount of war spoils: intel bulletins, vehicle skins and faceplates to decorate their profiles, all based on the global evaluation obtained (from bronze to gold, where each level unlocks a certain number of objects).
The only issue I personally experienced is that at the end of the campaign it is not possible to "carry" the veterancy gained by the companies to another/next campaign, which is something hardcore fans of the single player would have definitely liked to see in my opinion: from my experience it was practically impossible to get to the third level of Company Veterancy (we'll talk about this in a minute) during a single campaign concerning one of the companies I used. On a second attempt I found out that it is possible to reach vet 3 by playing each mission trying to focus entirely on units getting experience rather than the main objectives. To conclude this paragraph, the overall experience in single player looks excellent although the main missions are the best in my opinion, presenting a difficulty level above the average, while dynamic missions are generally easier to approach.
Before going into the characteristics of each company in depth, I will describe the basic premiss. For Ardennes Assault, each company has two global values, "Company Strength" and "Company Veterancy".
Company Strength represents the strength of the company and losing units during each mission will decrease the value of that Company's Strength, so that if it is diminished to the value of zero (0), this will result in your Company being wiped out and unavailable to use, due to the losses taken. Company Veterancy instead represents the global experience of the whole Company and it is acquired
Company Strength and Company Veterancy are linked by a new resource added by Relic in Ardennes Assault: "Requisition Points". Requisition Points are acquired by completing main objectives, secondary goals and bonus objectives. (bonus objectives are dynamic and vary continuously between missions) There are two uses for Requisition Points: The first, which is Strengthening Companies is done to avoid losing them permanently. This, however, involves the arrival of new recruits, a situation that Relic represents in the game by the loss of a few points of Company Veterancy, whenever a player strengthens a Company. The other use for the Requisition Points is to unlock new upgrades for Companies, in order to make them more effective. It will therefore be important for the player to choose wisely when reinforcing Companies and when upgrading their abilities.
As for upgrades, each Company has 4 main skills, each one with 6 upgrades. Some of them improve the effectiveness of the main skills, others make them cheaper, or more suitable to deal with a particular type of enemy.
Together with the 4 main skills, Relic added a set of passive skills and unique units for each Company, such as Cavalry Riflemen, Rangers and Assault Engineers. The amount of customization is such that each Company has a different gameplay feeling from the others.
At the beginning of the campaign, the player will have to choose three out of the four available Companies: Able (Airborne), Baker (Mechanized Infantry), Dog (Support) and Fox (Rangers). Each company is led by a charismatic figure, with his own history and personal view of the war, something that Relic has managed to depict in the gameplay.
In the following subsections, you can read an overview of each of the 4 Companies.
Able Company (Airborne) - Johnny Vastano
Born into poverty in the Chicago Prohibitionist era, Johnny has had a very hard life since childhood. Without a true guide to help him, Johnny started to commit small crimes in order to survive in a world that did not seem to offer him any opportunity. After being caught in the act of stealing, he was fortunate to escape a jail sentence, thanks to a judge who understood his social position and offered Johnny a chance to join the army, first, for a chance to redeem himself, and second, having consideration of the national requirement for army manpower, in view of the Allied advance in Europe.
Initially reluctant, Johnny soon discovers a natural aptitude for the soldier's life and consequently, under the guidance of Captain Jackson, he becomes an expert and disciplined soldier, as well as demonstrating unexpected leadership skills. After Jackson is listed as M.I.A (Missing in Action), the whole Company is now led by Vastano himself and despite Johnny still retaining some rough edges attributable to his experiences whilst a youth, he is always very resourceful, naturally charismatic and a great instinct for survival: qualities for which he is very much respected by his men.
Able Company fits perfectly with Johnny's persona: paratroopers can be called anywhere on the map, even at the risk of their own lives, if players are not careful; airdropped supplies can help turn disadvantageous situations into potential opportunities to organize a counterattack. Air support is ultimately crucial to the success of the mission, ensuring constant support against both infantry and tanks. Thanks to the Company customization it is possible to request the delivery of bazookas, machine guns and anti-tank guns, as well as Close Air Support, capable of dealing with the deadliest tanks like the King Tiger or JagdTiger, thereby offering an overall experience focused on an aggressive and dynamic use of infantry, capable of facing any threat thanks to the Air Force's support
Baker Company (Mechanized Infantry) - Bill Edwards
Son of a family with strong military traditions, Bill enlisted in the army at the age of 22 with the goal of making the Edwards family proud once again. Having spent most of his military career in the training camps, he has never experienced a real battle at the front line. Unable to imagine himself in the stories of honor and glory told by his grandfather, who took part in the American Civil War (especially once he experiences the horrors of war at the front), Bill begins to realize the reasons for why his father was always so reticent to recount his experiences of war (his father fought in World War I). Finally, Bill becomes a leader, who can be seen as the intersection between the character of his grandfather and father: on one hand, he believes that the war he is fighting for is just, owing to his strong academic background, but on the other hand, he realises that the cost in human lives is so high, that battles should be avoided as much as possible.
Baker Company features "Combined Arms" as its core point: Bill's education makes him well-suited to comprehend and fulfill the role of an all-rounder commander, who takes full advantage of the combined usage of infantry and vehicles, portrayed best by the Cavalry Riflemen, an elite infantry squad that arrives on the battlefield in an M3 Halftrack and is capable of dealing with any infantry unit, thanks to the vast arsenal of upgradeable weapons. But that is not all. Artillery support and the ability to call two tanks from off-map makes this Company excellent for an assault on entrenched positions, using both tanks and infantry; it also highlights a strength which increases the effectiveness of both infantry and vehicles, when they are fighting in close cooperation with each other.
Dog Company (Support) - Kurt Derby
After fighting during World War I and having experienced the horrors of war, Kurt became a high school teacher and tried to start a new life, but the outbreak of World War II, with the news that tells of thousands of young soldiers killed in combat, leads him to return to the field of battle, this time as an officer. Kurt wants to try to help his nation win the war, without losing a whole generation of young Americans. The reasons that lead him to go into battle again, are primarily to be found in his past experience as a high school teacher - seeing the young soldiers as his children (he calls them "boys")- means Kurt would like to save as many soldiers as possible.
Possessed of a cynical character, especially at the beginning of the Campaign, Kurt always tries to analyse every situation and makes meticulous and well-thought out choices, trying to minimise the strategic cost of each decision he makes. Over the course of the war, Kurt's cynical character evolves to a point where he has a strong sense of hope and support for the war effort, conscious that the motivations for wanting victory are much stronger this time, than those he felt when he fought as a young man in WWI.
Extremely methodical and always looking for the best strategy to apply, Kurt Derby fully reflects the Support doctrine: thanks to the lower cost of support weapons such as heavy machine guns and mortars, the doctrine offers great opportunities to those who prefer to move forward in a careful and precise way on the battlefield, placing troops in an orderly manner and taking full advantage of cover. Off-map artillery provides help against both infantry and vehicles, while Assault Engineers synergizes perfectly with support weapons to eliminate entrenched infantry squads, as well as providing protection from flanking maneuvers. The most important skill, however, remains the one that provides a big defensive bonus to all units in cover, emphasizing the importance of careful placement of the whole Company to get the win, staying true to Kurt's core desire to save young American lives.
Fox Company (Rangers) - Monte Durante
Monte had a strange childhood: bored with a quiet town life that did not offer exciting prospects for such a talented guy of his age, he turned into a delinquent. At the end of his school days, he was introduced to military life by his parents, hoping that this would offer him the challenges and the necessary structure to discipline him.
Although he initially liked a soldier's life, Monte ended up feeling held back by a structure which for him, was too rigid to be respected, until he heard about the British Commandos for the first time. Particularly interested in their organization, Monte came to realize that small groups of elite infantry would have the flexibility to complete key objectives, without having to rely on a larger force. Once the unit was formed, he immediately joined the 5th Ranger Battalion and he became its commander soon after. Although the role of commander has partially calmed his character, Monte still maintains a strong personality and a rebellious nature, ultimately being the type of person not constricted by too many formalities.
Rangers are an extremely flexible elite infantry squad, able to deal with both infantry and vehicles threats, through the use of their own as well as captured enemy weapons like panzerschreck and bundled grenades. The Company is focused on strong customizations of Rangers and Riflemen, which can use two additional weapons, making even small infantry squads much stronger than usual.
The M83 Cluster bombs depicts perfectly the idea of "getting the job done, no matter what": while they are initially meant to be used against infantry, they can be upgraded to perform well against tanks, to be used as mines, or upgraded to become like bombs that explode on contact with the ground. The presence of artillery fire and manpower supplies makes this Company ideal for players (especially aggressive players) who want to focus on micromanagement of a few elite units, instead of having to rely on big numbers to win missions.
Finishing a Mission
At the end of each main mission, the Company Commander will report to the American army, giving details on the progress of the mission in a charismatic and realistic way, so that the player is able to understand, beyond the completion (or failure) of the objectives, how much his actions have damaged the Company. Reports vary from being extremely positive, if there was a limited number of losses, down to negative sentences full of black humor and exasperated resignation, if the losses have been particularly heavy.
The work done in the audio department is excellent and covers a large part of the story, owing to the almost complete absence of a narrative thread between the various missions. This is thanks to a truly inspired interpretation by the voice actors who portray the Commanders, although it may present some problems of interpretation for those who do not speak perfect English, trying to understand colloquial American jokes and sayings (for this case, subtitles may come in handy).
While not offering a story as complex as the campaign from the first Company of Heroes (vCoH), Ardennes Assault is surely one of the best single player experience Relic has created so far. The high charisma of Company Commanders is reflected perfectly on the structure of the Companies themselves (which I greatly appreciated), together with the degree of customization and unique gameplay.
The whole experience of the game is focused on the replayability of the campaign and this goal has almost been entirely achieved: the dynamism of events and missions, with the addition of awareness for the player who could lose not only a mission but also a whole Company, creates tension in the gameplay, which can keep you glued for hours. It also leads players to plan on how to use a particular Company, and when it is better to spend the Requisition Points to upgrade the abilities, or to reinforce the Company strength.
Ultimately, Ardennes Assault is a very good product, but in my judgement, the price set on its release is too high for the number of missions available, despite the high replayability of the title.
If the total number of missions had been about 20-25 (with at least 3 or 4 more main missions), or if the price was lowered to 30€/$30, then I would have found a way better balance in the quality/price ratio. Looking at the current videogames market, I can see much bigger expansions than Ardennes Assault sold for a much lower price (I'm thinking, for example, the Total War series, which has expansions with whole new game maps, and with many different new factions and armies while still keeping the same degree of dynamism and replayability). These are the reasons why I do not consider Ardennes Assault a 'must-buy' at the current price.
Even though the high quality of the finished product is still a reason for Relic to feel proud about, I strongly recommend to all the non-hardcore fans of the series to wait until the Steam Sales before purchasing Ardennes Assault.