When Company of Heroes was released back in 2006, I was over the moon. An incredibly tactical, ‘realistic’ RTS set in World War 2. Could it get any better? Apparently: Not only did the multiplayer make for some of the most intense, exhausting gaming experiences I’ve ever had, the single player campaign exhibited some of the best storytelling I’ve seen in the RTS genre.
Then the first expansion was released, and it didn’t really capture that magic a second time round. The campaign was so-so, and the multiplayer was getting a little complicated. The arrival of the second expansion was even worse: Strange tank driving mini-games made it seem like the franchise had completely gone off the rails. After playing it for all of five minutes, I knew it wasn’t my beloved Company of Heroes, and didn’t go back.
But I didn’t give up hope. I played the open beta of Company of Heroes Online, and felt that same excitement again. When it was shut down with the excuse of transferring focus to a new RTS project, I assumed that project would be another Dawn of War. As much as I enjoy that franchise, I was much happier at the announcement of a new Company of Heroes game, and happier still when Player Attack asked if I’d attend and cover THQ’s preview event in Sydney.
The new game has chosen a different theatre of World War 2 to create what THQ describes not as a ‘different’ CoH, but as an opportunity for more of what made the original great. The simplicity of only two factions returns: The Soviet Union and the Nazis. The single player campaign tells the story of the Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front beginning in 1942: An offensive that ultimately cost the USSR around 1 million men.
The demo we were shown highlighted one of the defining features of the Eastern Front: The harsh Russian winter. Relic’s new engine not only ensures this all looks stunning, it allows them to try to reflect the harsh environment in gameplay. Infantry move slower in snow, and will leave tracks other players may spot, and follow. Tanks and heavy vehicles will leave permanent tracks, and infantry will move faster on the compressed snow they leave behind. Even artillery affects the snowy landscape - the force of explosions will clear snow from the area.
This feels like a natural extension of what made the original so great: A harshly realistic RTS game where using your environment was essential, and a wrong move cost you dearly. Except of course there was always that retreat button, right? Well, not so much in the Soviet infantry. We were shown a Commissar unit ordering his troops to open fire on their comrades, and they did so with great efficiency. There have been units like this in games before, and I can’t say I’ve ever really used them. This looks like it could be wonderful in scripted campaign scenarios, but I don’t really see it being used as effectively, or as smoothly, in multiplayer games.
In line with Relic’s aim to deliver ‘more’ of the authentic CoH experience, the developer has also improved on their cover system. It’s worth nothing that this system was already, for me, the best thing about the original. Its use was essential, and most of the time it was functional enough that you enjoyed doing so. In CoH 2, they’re trying to make it easier to use and more responsive. One of the frustrations in the original was that if you wanted to take cover behind a wall, and then run from behind it to assault your enemies, you had to run around the wall before charging the enemy. In the sequel, infantry can vault walls, making falling back to take cover easier, and encouraging you to charge your enemies for a typical, gung-ho Soviet assault.
Relic has also sought to reach the next level of realism for their fog of war system. Labelling it ‘true sight’, what the player sees will be a direct reflection of what is visible to his forces. If there’s a tall tree, a building or a disabled vehicle you wouldn’t expect to see past, then the fog will wrap around it, forcing you to consider what might be lying in wait when you make your advance. Smoke grenades will also alter this true sight, blocking an enemy’s view of your assault. Ultimately, this system should encourage even more creative use of cover and terrain by players, drawing them deeper into the life and death world Relic is trying to create.
Relic hasn’t only been improving the way the games’ infantry behave, of course. They showed how the new engine allows for more realistic and more detailed physics models for all their tanks - encouraging players to go for that flanking move to reach the thinner armour. One feature we didn’t see is a change to allow any knocked out vehicle to be captured by either side. This sounds pretty great, but I do worry it doesn’t necessarily fit the supposed realism they’re going for. I do, however, like the idea of finally knocking out a Tiger tank, then being able to capture it for myself.
Ultimately, it feels like Company of Heroes 2 is an attempt by Relic to get back to basics, to recapture what made the original so great. They’re using improved tech and making small evolutions - precisely designed choices to enhance all the strengths of the game, and to fix its weaknesses. We were shown only basic mechanics and new features, with no mention of storytelling or multiplayer specifics, but I’m excited. Excited, at the very least, to get another chance to see a T-34 tank sliding around a frozen lake. Watching that 25 tonne monster losing control, trying to avoid holes blown into the ice by grenades and anti-tank weapons made my day.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.