Company of Heroes 2 – E3 Preview
When Company Of Heroes was released it raised the bar of the real time strategy genre for the rest of the industry, bringing an unprecedented amount of polish and balance to a genre that had been dominated by series such as Red Alert and StarCraft. While these and other titles were by no means bad, Company Of Heroes really showed just what was possible in an age where the genre was becoming stale. The level of detail given to individual units, the requirements to effectively manage an army, the tactical and strategic mindset needed to ensure a win were just some of the things that Relic Entertainment brought to the table. This resulted in Company Of Heroes being identified as the highest scoring real time strategy game of all time – a title it still holds today.
Six years have passed since the initial release and Relic have decided that now is the time to continue the series, with Company Of Heroes 2. Rather than focus on the fighting that occurred between the Americans and Germans, as is usually the case with World War II titles, this one focuses on the battle that raged on the Eastern Front, between the Russians and the Germans. The decision to look at this particular theatre of the war cannot have been a difficult one for Relic. An untapped resource as far as videogames are concerned, and containing seventeen of the twenty most bloody conflicts in human history, it certainly shows a different side to the regular tales regaled by various developers. The human sacrifices from World War II will never, ever be forgotten but the Russian losses compared to the other allied forces is simply staggering. Where the United States and British armies lost a combined total of eight hundred thousand, the Russians lost a mind-boggling twenty million.
When the E3 demo began, I immediately noticed the level of detail. It’s hard not to in a game that looks this good. Company of Heroes boasts that it was the first real time strategy game to give its infantry units ten individual fingers, rather than club hands – quite an odd, yet fantastic, achievement to hold. Relic have considered this and pushed the graphical boundaries even further this time around, squeezing every last drop of explosive goodness out of the engine. Whether that means they’ve given each unit ten toes to compliment those ten fingers remains to be seen but at least shit looks good when it blows up. The demo was playing at DirectX 9 but the developers assured me that it would be DirectX 11 on release. I’ll be looking for the individual hairs on Stalin’s moustache next.
Company of Heroes veterans will have a certain amount of familiarity with the controls, directing units and using abilities. I always found the interface to be extremely user-friendly, so I’m quietly confident that any tweaks would have been minor ones. We were presented with a collection of troops and engineers required to storm a nearby farm house. Everything seemed incredibly straightforward and they began to charge the German front line… and that’s when the charging Russian troops encountered the effects of snow. The Russian units slowed right down, making them easy pickings for the German troops. They began to get cut down, pinned, out-gunned and overwhelmed; this would be the standard Company of Heroes indication that it was time to beat a hasty retreat. However, with Order 227, Russian troops were forbidden from retreating, ordered to fight for the motherland or die trying, which, in this case, most of them did.
The remaining men moved forwards, storming the house from all sides. Engineers equipped with flame-throwers torched the wooden shack that housed a few squads. In the original, flame-throwers were used to clear out buildings and bunkers, with a damage bar representing overall stability of the building. In the sequel, the developers have created realistic fire damage, so that if a building is attacked with fire, it will catch alight and burn to the ground. The fire will start at the point where you’ve indicated and then spread over time, and the building will continue to burn until nothing is left but ash. The enemy made a hasty retreat, using the road rather than the snow, as it allows quicker movement of troops.
The camera panned across the battlefield as more and more Axis posts fall under the sheer weight of Russian numbers; they may have been under-equipped and poorly trained but their sheer volume meant that the German Army couldn’t cope with them. Although the Russian Army pushed forward, they were soon halted by a ridiculous amount of mortar and rocket fire. The camera stopped at one last squad as they were about to enter a village, where we were introduced to the new mechanic called True Sight. The majority of real time strategy games employ a fog of war system, so that you cannot have a real time update of the whole battlefield unless you have units in the area. When you move units, they will reveal a certain amount of the map; usually this means moving to an area and seeing everything in a certain radius, but this is unrealistic as it allows you to see round corners and makes ambushing quite difficult.
True Sight only allows the player to see what the unit could realistically see, meaning that this squad of men rounded the corner and ran straight into the path of a heavy machine gun team. The squad was cut down and the enemy disappeared. The consideration then became that I now knew where they were, but if they moved it would totally change how I would approach the situation. Smoke can also be used to interrupt line of sight, forcing players to make a choice about what routes to take – an excellent feature, which adds an extra layer of strategy to the game. To counteract the game changer that is True Sight, the developers have cleverly made the decision that every unit leaves a track behind them in the snow. This means that you could, potentially, sneak up on an enemy ambush by following their tracks, unless that’s the opposing team’s plan and they want you to do that. The mind boggles with tactical possibilities.
The demo continued and the Russians introduced one of their Su76 tanks – a formidable machine, but unfortunately vulnerable from the sides and rear as the crews cannot see in a direction they aren’t facing, the True Sight mechanic causing more chaos. The Su76 began to get pounded by an anti-tank emplacement and the crew were, unfortunately, incapacitated, allowing the vehicle to be captured by Axis units. This new feature means that your priorities will change on a minute by minute basis; if you’re lucky enough to disable a German Tiger Tank, you’re going to have to decide if it’s worth the gamble to try and steal it.
As the demo drew to a close, I watched as a small group of highly trained Axis soldiers tried to re-take a liberated farm from a large number of poorly equipped Russian squads. This will be a common sight in the single player campaign, the Russian Army focusing on flooding enemy areas and the German Army acting like a well-oiled machine. The developers compared the approaches to a hammer and a scalpel and commented that all the single player will be dynamic, in that the AI will arrive at a battle and utilise any means to secure victory.
Considering what I saw from the demo, I came away feeling very impressed. I’ve got no doubt in my mind that, given the series’ prior achievements, this will be nothing less than the new leader of the real time strategy genre.
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