THQ Pre-E3 Event: Company of Heroes 2, Darksiders 2, Metro: Last Light Previews

With E3 around the corner, gamers everywhere (myself included) are salivating at the prospect of what the expo will bring. New titles will abound and it may be impossible to keep up with everything that goes on, even with an army of typewriting monkeys (or journalists, to some). Luckily, THQ were more than happy to show members of the press some of the titles they’ll be demoing behind closed doors at E3, allowing us to get some quality time with them in a much less stressful and busy environment before we fly out to Los Angeles and get buried under a mountain of games.

Company of Heroes 2 (Due 2013)
When Relic Entertainment first devised the Company of Heroes franchise, they set themselves three goals: to capture the realism of “Saving Private Ryan” in a game, to adhere to the mantra of “real soldiers, real battlefields, real warfare”, and create the highest rated RTS game of all time. They succeeded – the original Company of Heroes was well revered for its pace, attention to detail and tactical depth, and stood proudly at the top of Metacritic’s RTS rankings. It’s also a game that has managed to stand the test of time, with a long-term player base that peaked at two-hundred and fifty-four thousand unique players logged on at the same time in March of this year; a feat that would have placed Company of Heroes firmly in the top ten most played on Steam.

As development on the sequel started eighteen months ago, Relic realised that they had only covered four months of the six-year war throughout the entire Company of Heroes franchise, and so were keen to cover a new part of the war that had seldom been approached before. When people think of World War 2, they’ll often think of D-Day, but that was a conflict that ranked as only the twenty-third bloodiest battle of the war. With this in mind, Relic decided to focus on a side of the war seldom seen in games, despite the fact that it was responsible for the deaths of eighty to ninety percent of all German soldiers, as well as thirteen of the fifteen bloodiest battles of World War Two – the Eastern Front.

In the course of the Nazi assaults against Stalinist Russia, industry was moved thousands of kilometers, ninety of the hundred and ninety million Russians were stuck behind enemy lines, and the losses were so catastrophic that one in seven Russians were killed. It was a war of ideology versus politics, and one that provided such fascinating promise for a sequel that Relic Entertainment were determined to portray the “ruthless truth of war”, and allow players to experience the reality of it like never before. In order to do so, they travelled out to St. Petersburg and Berlin in order to witness the damage and destruction left behind and to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers before them, as well as to get a better idea of the topography and scale of the battlefields to make the experience as close to reality as possible.

That authenticity extends beyond the look of the game as well, with every weapon used during the war recorded using live weapon tests, and the engine having been rewritten to allow realistic movement throughout the snowy landscapes rather than it serving as a cosmetic texture. Fog of war won’t just cast a circle around each soldier, with a new ‘line of sight’ system obscuring anything behind trees and walls. Armies will be asymmetrical, with the Russian army taking on the mantra of “quantity has a quality of its own”. Soldiers will stumble through the snow, take longer to travel through it than on roads, and footprints will be left, betraying the location of troops on either side, should they choose to hide. Tanks are easier to flank, and moments where they moved onto the ice looked genuinely tense as it began to crack under artillery fire. Battles won’t be won easily either, with the uncertainty of victory and having to make comebacks under pressure being a critical part of the experience. Rather than have everything handed to them, players must make their own luck through skill and by paying attention to the events unfolding before them.

All of this was shown to us through a live demo of the game, with the Russians looking to regain some of their lost territory with a push through a treacherously snowy battlefield. True to Relic’s words, the soldiers slowly tried to wade on, with one soldier almost falling over on their way to attack the opposing Nazi forces.  As the demo continued, more elements of Company of Heroes 2 made themselves apparent: much of the cover strewn about was destructible, forcing you to push forward when possible; buildings could be set on fire, forcing out the occupying soldiers, and cover could be vaulted in order for soldiers to traverse the environment quickly at the risk of them becoming more vulnerable.

As soldiers passed the burning building and advanced, they were suddenly wiped out by a barrage of artillery fire, and just like that the party was gone.  The camera panned over other Russian forces in the midst of battle before stopping on a new command-able squadron. They fared far worse than their predecessors, as they became pinned down and attempted to retreat, only to be gunned down at the command of an angry Russian Commanding Officer who then forced his soldiers to walk over the remains of their newly dead comrades to enter the battle.

Make no mistake about it, Company of Heroes 2 is brutal. Relic aimed to make one of the most realistic portrayals of World War 2 in a videogame to date, and in doing so have something that manages to be jaw-dropping, intense, and almost horrifying. It was actually difficult to witness Russians gun down their own and casually march over the bodies, and with battalions disappearing in the wink of an eye, this will not be a game that compromises. “Every battle tells a story”, we were told, and with a story retold by one of the few Russians alive to have been witness to the conflicts that took place, there are bound to be more shocking things on display from both sides than your entire squad being wiped out in an instant. Whether Company of Heroes 2 will set the world alight like the first is any-one’s guess, but I can guarantee the following: you’ve never played a war like this.

Darksiders 2 (Due August 2012)
Sometimes the idea of playing games set after an apocalypse becomes so boring that you decide to just cause one yourself. That seemed to be the idea behind Darksiders, an adventurous romp that kicks off when War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, lands on Earth, only to find that he’s caused the end times to start prematurely. While it wasn’t a critical darling, it sold enough to justify a sequel and allow players to take control of his brother Death in a title which claims to be twice as big as the original. The story takes place concurrently with the first, as having multiple apocalypses (apocalypi?) would probably be a bit of a stretch, and there will be several DLC drops down the line, one of which will be freely available as a pre-order bonus. Darksiders 2 also promises more upgrades than you can feasibly acquire in a single play-through, and that there will be plenty of other incentives to replay the game after completion.

We were invited to demo the beginning of the game ourselves, and after a short opening explaining the plot and a brief sequence with Death riding a horse towards a giant ice castle, the action began proper and, well, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. The combat was a standard mix of light and heavy attacks with a dodge roll, and some enemies drop items that you can collect or equip to raise your defence or attack. While it wasn’t the most complex system, it worked well enough, but once I’d picked up a giant hammer over a giant axe, every fight became about tapping the heavy attack button and killing any foe in within three hits without them able to land a single blow.

Death seems to be a rather more agile sort than I’d initially imagined him to be, as he’s able to traverse the landscape ‘Prince of Persia style’ in the name of some light platforming. The platforming was also nothing spectacular and, admittedly, I felt like I was playing a poor man’s version of Prince of Persia 2008 whenever it came up – albeit one that didn’t flow as well and felt less responsive to my actions. It didn’t help that the camera angles would sometimes neglect to show or make clear where you needed to move to next, which slowed the pace even more and made it less satisfying to progress.

Alongside the platforming, the demo also tasked Death with taking down a mini-boss and then ended on a boss battle with a foe who may seem all-too familiar to those who played the first entry in the series. These battles are quite different from the skirmishes you’ll charge through on your way, and require you to think slightly more carefully about how you proceed. The mini-boss is your typical “wait for the enemy to attack, then get behind it and hit it until it dies” affair, but the boss battle that the demo ends on was highlight of my time with Darksiders 2. The fight in question was a much more intimate and tense affair, with the possibility of several different tactics that will grant you victory. While I chose to stay close and hit him until one of us was defeated, I saw others attempt classic tactics like staying far away and periodically dashing in for a quick attack before rolling to safety. It was a genuinely fun part of the demo because it was one of the only times where I felt that the action wasn’t strictly on rails and instead allowed experimentation.

Admittedly, I didn’t find myself having a lot of fun with the demo; I felt that the combat outside of the final boss battle was lacking, the platforming was poorly paced and slightly unresponsive, and none of it really excited me. With Darksiders 2 releasing in a few months there are doubtless some gamers out there who’ll relish the chance to be Death, but this may be an apocalypse that I’d rather sit out.

Metro: Last Light (Due 2013)
Are you tired of the way the single-player experience is slowly getting shafted in favour of multiplayer-focused titles? Are you sick of games that simply use the campaign mode as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer? So are 4A Games, and they’re hoping that Metro: Last Light will help lead the charge against the decline of the single-player FPS. Building on Metro 2033, 4A Games have spent a great deal of time polishing and balancing the sequel, with an overhauled combat and stealth system and a more richly detailed world. Those familiar with the original will be pleased to know that Last Light plans to build on the survival horror elements of the original, and that the need to recharge your flashlight, wipe things off of your visor and keep replenishing your air supply are still present, and that there are multiple paths through certain parts of the game to encourage exploration.

The lights dimmed, and we were shown a live action teaser for Metro: Last Light which takes place as war breaks out in 2013; nukes are dropping across Russia, forcing citizens to take refuge in the Metro system in order to survive. It’s superbly chilling and the atmosphere is spot-on with what the live demo was about to show us, as our protagonist and his friend began their journey above ground in order to reach another part of the Metro system. With air canisters attached to their gas masks, our heroes stepped outside to see the rainy ruins in front of them and began to make their way through. The player’s watch slowly ticked down, giving a permanent sense of tension to the proceedings as every wasted moment let the threat of asphyxiation creep ever closer.

When 4A Games said that the game would use survival horror elements, they weren’t kidding; they want Metro: Last Light to haunt you, should you dare to slumber. I can’t think of any other reason why else we were forced to watch a plane crew’s final moments before they were caught up in a nuclear blast as our protagonists traveled through the wreckage. Despite our companion’s teasing that the ghosts of the dead haunted the vessel, the sense of unease grew deeper when, after the flashback, the player had to force him to put his gas mask back on. Elsewhere in the demo the player explored a room and discovered a shotgun, only to be ambushed by a hideously mutated creature, which cued a life-threatening struggle that ended with a nervous shotgun blast to the neck, blood being wiped from the visor, and the realisation that I’d need several pairs of underpants if I was ever to play Last Light myself.

As the demo drew to an end, the player was confronted with a horde of the mutants, with the panic of the battle heightened by the fact that any missed bullet would be doubly wasteful, thanks to the use of ammo as currency, meaning that a cool head and a steady aim would be the order of the day – one that some people may find more difficult to serve than others. The player ran to their destination, only to come across a closed gate and another horde of the mutants, and as they struggled to dispatch them quickly enough, the entrance behind them slowly creaked open, allowing assistance to come and deliver fiery justice to the attackers. Once the gate had closed again and the gas masks had come off, there was a sense of relief that was almost tangible, and that was despite the fact I was only watching a demo rather than playing it.

Some gamers may be concerned about the slow decline of the FPS, and if, like me, they’re considering giving the genre a rest, I’d implore them to play this game. Metro: Last Light was more intense in ten minutes than other games are in ten hours. All the ingredients for a success are in 4A’s hands, and come release it may prove to be a title that will keep players awake until the early hours of the morning, whether they’re playing it or not.

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One Comment

  1. Chris Chris-Toffer says:

    So excited for all of this. Except Darksiders of course. First sucked massive balls and the second isn’t looking great.

    Much respect towards Metro for trying to reinstall some belief that we don’t need shitty tacked on multiplayer to make a game better. Dead Space and Bioshock take note!

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