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Company of Heroes 2: The Western Front Armies review

The war rages on.

Completely surrounded, with German tanks pressing their advantage against the last of my bazooka-wielding riflemen, I figured I'd lost. I was seconds from defeat. Then I saw an opening: a narrow path that looked relatively unguarded. So I used a few rounds of covering artillery fire, forcing the tanks to back off for a few seconds, allowing a quick opening for the last of my infantrymen. After a few minutes of rapid movement and harassing my opponent's tanks, I had managed to largely immobilise them and quickly capture the strategic points I needed to reinforce my position and push the last of the German forces out of the fields of France.

Company of Heroes is defined by these kinds of dynamic wins. By building play around capture points over standard resource-accumulation, players can press weaknesses in an enemy line and can always have at least one option open for progression. With the Western Front Armies expansion - a standalone, multiplayer-only add-on - that design philosophy gets a bit of a boost with the US Forces and the German Oberkommando West. Each helps balance out the original game's armies while bringing their own twist focused on their respective factions' role and abilities in history.

The Oberkommando are mobile and armour-heavy. At the beginning of each game, instead of starting with standard headquarters that are upgraded and reinforced over time, they have a supply truck that can be broken down and repurposed as an impromptu command centre anywhere within your territory. These command centres can function as forward retreat points or cover for your infantry as well as opening up unit conscription options. At any point, a truck can be put back together and moved to a new point to help manage troops in the new area, or flee an endangered position. It's a really clever way to mechanically reinforce the incredible speed of the German forces during World War 2 while bringing a bit of diversity to the game's play styles.

The other new addition, the US Forces, are much lighter and cheaper than the hulking German tanks. Instead of quick mechanised units, the Americans are adaptable. They don't excel at any particular area. Instead of highly specialised units, the US riflemen can switch out weapons on the fly. Notice that your army's a bit too light on anti-vehicle weaponry? Call your riflemen back to base and get them some bazookas.

Battlefield defensive lines like tank traps and barbed wire are as important as ever, and help stop an incoming assault in its tracks.

Weapon loadouts and cheap, plentiful infantry reflect the historical role of Americans in World War 2. After holding back for several years, the United States could afford to bring millions of fresh soldiers and new equipment to the war effort. Lacking the recent combat experience of the other combatants, the Americans had few highly-skilled, battle-hardened units at that point. When playing as the US Forces, the keys are plentiful riflemen and the supply yards which help boost available manpower.

On paper, the US forces are very similar to the Russians from the original game; they both have a strong focus infantry. But where the Russians excel at survivability through squad size and a more defensive focus, the US Forces are more mobile. Even the light Sherman tanks can fire on the move (unlike the heavy Tigers of the Germans or the medium T-34s on the Russian side). The Americans aren't built for straight-on fights. Most units have some kind of special ability that can help establish a defensive position or cover a retreat with smoke screens. Players instead need to play more tactically and use line-of-sight and flanking to their advantage, or simply scatter and reposition later. The sheer overwhelming number of US GIs means that they can more easily capture and hold supply points than the mobile but thinly stretched Germans or the more defensive Russians.

Despite appreciating the attention given to the Americans' versatility, I personally found playing as the Oberkommando more closely matched my defensive play style in strategy games. In 1944, the German army was an elite, albeit resource-starved force. With the Third Reich quickly losing ground on all fronts, not even their spectacularly efficient heavy industry could keep their soldiers and armour properly supplied in the final stages of the war. Mechanically, The Western Front Armies reflects that with technological superiority that comes at a high price.

Destroying cover can be a valid strategy for those fielding heavy weapons.

In one match, I was playing the Oberkommando West against the Soviets (which, I realise, makes absolutely no sense) and where they rushed to capture critical map points and use their superior defensive abilities to hunker down, I was careful and steady. Gradually repositioning my command centres to maximize resource yield, I could count on the Soviets being relatively static. When the time came, I rolled in my heavy tanks and began demolishing their cover. Ultimately I sent my Tiger B to single-handedly destroy their headquarters. While there was a lot the Soviet Army could have done to halt my advance, I was still able to play carefully, biding my time until I had an overwhelming presence. At that point any building their infantry tried to use as cover I could simply demolish. Without the versatility of the American infantry, they didn't have much to oppose me.

I imagine that if the Soviet Army hadn't pushed back after their defence of Stalingrad, World War 2 might have ended in the same way. Tossing political considerations aside and looking purely at industry and logistics, the Soviet Union stalled the German war machine by allowing them to over-expand and weaken the critical supply lines. Over time, that caused significant losses. Had the Red Army tried to push the eastern front without exhausting German supplies, they'd have lost.

It's not very subtle, but after the significant controversy surrounding Company of Heroes 2's campaign and its portrayal of Russian leaders as, essentially, war criminals, it's nice to see real historical differences play out mechanically in The Western Front Armies, and then see that used to justify substantive differences between factions. It helps that all of these things work remarkably well and add a lot to an already great multiplayer experience. The fact that this is a standalone expansion really sweetens the deal. If you'd like to pick up just one of the new factions, that'll only run you £10, and with that you can start playing one of the best World War 2 strategy games ever made... alongside its near-perfect predecessor, of course.

8 / 10