Preview: Company of Heroes 2
|REVIEWS - VIDEOGAME REVIEWS|
The Company returns with new insight into WWII battles ...
Six years have passed since Relic’s Company of Heroes was released. Six years is a long time, but despite this, the RTS remains popular, remaining one of the highest scoring games in the genre, and still attracting a large number of players. Indeed, speaking before an audience of video game journalists at the publishers’ pre-E3 event, THQ EVP Danny Bilson argued that Company of Heroes “set the benchmark for the tactical RTS.”
Things have changed in those six years, and Company of Heroes 2 will enter a real-time strategy market that’s increasingly embracing the free-to-play model where spending hours gathering resources – or using your own money to buy them – is the norm. Thankfully, for RTS fans, Company of Heroes 2 is definitely not following this path, with this first look demonstrating that if anything, the tactical gameplay and realism of the original aren’t just still there, but they’ve been even further refined to make what could end up being the best RTS for some time.
Along with the vast majority of World War II games, the 2006 original focused on the western theatre of war, the Allied forces vs. Nazi Germany. Company of Heroes 2 takes us to the forgotten conflict of World War II - its most bloody - the Eastern Front where the Soviet Union defended their snow-covered lands against Hitler’s forces. One in seven Soviet Citizens died during the course of World War II, and Relic wants to encapsulate this brutality as realistically as possible.
The studio has gone to unprecedented lengths to do this, with the developers – who obviously take a strong interest in the Second World War – travelling St. Petersburg and Berlin to take in the scars of the conflict still evident in the cities, in addition to visiting museums. The team also heavily researched – and recorded – the sounds of 1940s firearms to give Company of Heroes 2 a more authentic sound than its predecessor.
But with work on the sequel starting a full nine years after the original began development, more has changed than just the sound, with Relic’s internally built Essence Engine 3 rewritten to accommodate impressive vision for Company of Heroes 2. The most obvious addition is that of snow; but as Game Director Quinn Duffy told us, adding a layer of white to the land would’ve been easy - but they wanted more.
A demo showed the extent of this with a small unit of Soviet troops moving back and forth while waist-deep in snow. There’s no simply running over any terrain here, with traversing deep snow obviously a challenge. And it isn’t just foot soldiers that are affected by the laws of physics, with footage demonstrating the challenge of moving a tank across ice. These details may sound small, but they emphasise the everyday challenges of fighting in deep winter conditions that were faced by both forces.
It’s the Soviet troops you’ll control through the campaign, which (in an interesting twist) is told through the eyes of an-ex soldier turned war correspondent, but when it comes to multiplayer, both the Nazi and Bolshevik forces will be available, with each offering their own styles of play. So, in contrast to the well-disciplined Allied forces of the original, Company of Heroes puts you in the boots of the less well-trained, but far more numerous blunt force of the Soviet war machine.
We got to see this in action through a live game-play demo of the ‘Rhez Meatgrinder mission’ part of Company of Heroes 2’s campaign which takes place from June to September 1944. A cut-scene set out the aims of the mission, before troops were ordered to move in on a village with a simple click of the mouse on an isometric view. Here the variety of tactical options were already evident, a promising sign given that Relic are emphasising the use of good tactics, which they want to encourage players to use to win battles.
While using a path up to the village was the most obvious route, it didn’t work out well for the unit that took it, with half dead as a result. However, a second unit struggled through the aforementioned deep snow to flank the enemy units on the outskirts of the village. After taking cover behind a wooden fence, this flanking unit blew a hole in it – a new feature for Company of Heroes 2 – before unleashing the close range fire-power of a flame thrower on troops both inside and outside a wooden shack.
Here we got a first glimpse of the brutal realism Relic is striving for, with Nazi soldiers – some of them in flames – leaping out of the building into the snow. Some fled, some were killed, and others were injured, with the latter futilely attempting to move away from certain death by attempting to crawl away. The Soviet troops moved swiftly on, only to be wiped out, in what was seemingly a scripted action, by Nazi mortar fire, before the camera panned across the close quarters of the village battlefield, revealing more troops that needed commanding elsewhere.
A section of these Soviet forces had been pinned down with SMG fire, to such an extent that they began fleeing back towards their own lines. This demonstrated the brutal nature of ‘Order 227’ - the famous command of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that decreed Russians weren’t to step back when fighting the Nazis. A short cut-scene indicated the absolute nature of this, with a Soviet commander issuing the order to fire upon the fleeing unit. Relic emphasised that this doesn’t just show the barbaric nature of war on the Eastern Front, or how it was different to conflicts of the Allied forces in Company of Heroes, but also that it shows a new spin on mission failure.
Now, taking control of the troops commanded to shoot their own side, we were shown the brand new “true sight” feature of Company of Heroes 2. This feature makes things more realistic when controlling your units. In many RTS titles, you have a full view of the entire battlefield, and are able to control your troops accordingly, knowing exactly where your opponents are. Here, there’s a fog of war, obscuring what exactly might be ahead. Even up close obstacles, buildings example, obstruct the view of what could lurking behind another wall. It means to succeed with Company of Heroes 2, tactics heavily come into play. You’ll need to coordinate each of your units to work together, revealing as much of the battlefield as possible in order to survive. Of course, this fog of war works both ways, and if your tactics are right, you can use it to surprise enemies. We saw the deployment of smoke grenades, allowing the Soviet troops to advance on the German machine gun position and successfully defeat it.
Of course, World War II was about more than just foot soldiers, with tanks and a variety of other military vehicles coming into play, and we saw a 30 foot Russian monster join the battle. It might be powerful, but thanks to true sight, it wasn’t able to see the peril that lay ahead: enemy forces with an anti-tank missile. Here, we saw a new feature for Company of Heroes 2, with the tank troops abandoning their vehicle. This saw a new tactical objective for both sides, with the vacant tank available to whoever recaptured it first. Things like this could be real game changers for both players and their A.I. opponents.
That’s something Relic were keen to emphasise throughout the whole presentation – which ended with driving the German forces back from a machine gun position – that all of the improvements, tweaks and new tactical initiatives brought in for this sequel aren’t only there for the player to use, they’re also there for your computer-controlled opponents to take advantage of too, as Relic aim to make this the most realistic RTS of all time.
Company of Heroes 2 isn’t scheduled to be released until early 2013, but what we’ve seen so far has been quite impressive. It’s evident that Relic has gone beyond the call of duty to properly research this title, with the team obviously passionate about what they’re doing. Company of Heroes 2 could very well be exactly what strategy fans are waiting for.
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