After all the talk about Company of Heroes 2's portrayal of the Eastern Front, it seems that we're right back where we started: On the western front controlling the U.S. army.
Ardennes Assault, which was announced back in August, focuses on the Battle of the Bulge, which began with Germany's surprise attack on the Allies in December 1944 and ended six weeks later with the Nazis quite literally running out of gas. For those who cut their teeth on the original, this is pretty much the Company of Heroes they remember: An America-positive RTS that feels like a playable version of the classic miniseries Band of Brothers. But that's not to say that it doesn't have a few new tricks.
Of interest is new strategic map that offers players a new level of choice in how the campaign unfolds. It reminds me a bit of the approach taken by Relic's other RTS, Dawn of War 2, which had a similar map featuring both story missions and a handful of side missions where it was possible to find special weapons, drive back the attack Tyranids, or simply earn experience. I like it when an RTS takes this approach, as it tends to offer a richer array of strategic possibilities than more linear campaigns.
In Ardennes Assault, you control three different companies—Support, Airborne, and Mechanized—which can experience persistent gains and losses throughout the campaign. Much as in Homeworld, the RTS that launched Relic as a major player in the space back in the late 90s, it's quite possible to hit a point of no return where your company simply isn't strong enough to beat the Germans. It's not all bad, though. Requisitions can be used to heal the company, and each group can choose from a variety of abilities and upgrades, most of which pertain to which units or weapons can be summoned over the course of a battle.
I should add that, unlike Dawn of War 2, companies aren't just dropped into battles. Instead, they have to move from one territory to the next to reach the German army, who are holed up in various parts of France. Defeating them in one area will invariably prompt them to retreat to another; and if you're not careful, you may find yourself facing a heavily fortified enemy that is impossible to pry out.
The endgame features what you might expect: All three companies in a massive fight to stop a last ditch German counteroffensive, which is the sort of scenario Company of Heroes was made for.
As for the regular missions, it's difficult to tell given that I only got to play one engagement with one company, but they seem comparatively simpler and more streamlined than the average Company of Heroes mission. To wit, the objective of the mission I played with the mechanized company was to relief an Allied force under siege by the Germans to the north, which meant slowly making my way up a long, narrow map and knocking out German positions while periodically bombing the attackers with artillery. The mission didn't have a ton of depth or branching objectives, but I found the balancing act of managing multiple aspects of the mission.
Ultimately, what stands out about Ardennes Assault is the way that it continues the experimental tradition of Company of Heroes expansions. Longtime fans may recall Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor's Tiger Ace scenario, for example, which focuses in on two Tiger tanks crew members who have to evade British forces—a significant departure from the formula of the original game. The strategic map does much the same for Ardennes Assault.
It also does Company of Heroes 2 a favor and largely removes one of the most controversial elements—the portrayal of the Soviet army—in a move to get back to basics. I can't say that I'm that excited to go back to controlling the American forces, but in this case, I suppose its better for Relic to go with what they know. And of course, a meaty new campaign doesn't hurt either.
In that way, Ardennes Assault looks to be the best sort of expansion: A pack that focuses in on the original's key strengths while also trying something new. I look forward to playing this standalone expansion in its entirety when it arrives next month.