Company of Heroes 2 – Hands-On Preview
The original Company of Heroes (CoH) was a ground-breaking real-time strategy game that really nailed the feel of WW2. From the beaches of Normandy to the loneliness of the paratrooper assault on the French mainland, Relic captured the feel of the advance on Berlin from the western perspective. It’s now been a few years since the original CoH, and there have been many games that have used the same style and gameplay mechanics, but none that have done WW2 the justice it deserves. Then, earlier in the year, we were told that Relic were doing a sequel, telling the story of the Eastern front and the Russians’ perspective on the great war, and that we may even get to see it at E3 in July.
Sadly, only that lucky git of a colleague, Chris Tofferton Toffchops III, got to see the E3 presentation and I was left out in the cold. See what I did there? However all was not lost, as I was told a few weeks ago that I would actually get hands-on time with CoH 2 at Gamescom and that all would be right with the world once again.
So I headed along to the THQ suite at Gamescom, where the back rooms had been set up in the style of a military bunker, complete with maps and a light machine-gun in the middle of the PCs which had been set up to play. We were given the chance to play through around ninety minutes of gameplay across one section of a single player mission and a multiplayer 2v2 map while the developers explained that they would like to move towards a more simplified control scheme, with gamers using only the Q,A, S and D keys for many of the basic commands. In game, however, I’m afraid I defaulted to my typical style of just clicking everything so didn’t really get the feel for this new control scheme. I can see how they are pushing towards a more Starcraft style of control to allow a level of advanced accessibility to the multiplayer game.
The single-player level involved moving troops up through a small village, looking to take out a German re-supply point. Straight away, the level of detail is striking, from the shadows of dead trees to the vivid colour of the flamethrower as it burned down the buildings our enemies were hiding in, but I’ll get to the flamethrower in a minute. Visually, the game is looking great; soldiers will kick up snow, blizzards will sweep in reducing visibility on the screen, even down to the way the grenades explode, everything has been re-done to appear more accurate.
Relic have introduced a new line-of-sight feature, giving the player the ability to effectively sneak around and flank enemy units. One squad can be left in a position, drawing fire from a machine gun, while other squads move around buildings and cover to flank them. There have been a number of changes in the way units move around, and to accommodate the idea of more effective flanking they have introduced, well, jumping over walls. Yes I know, you may be thinking “that’s a bit lame”, but when you need to sneak through back gardens, staying off the streets, it helps if you can get over those pesky knee-high walls.
In the demo we were shown, the developers really wanted to show off the fact that buildings were now destructible. Hiding in a house no longer means a slow drawn-out battle or the odd grenade toss to clear it out. Tanks will have devastating effect on wooden structures and perhaps flame throwers even moreso. I started the mission with two riflemen squads and one squad of engineers with flamethrower; this gave me the ability to advance house-to-house and burn the German troops out quite effectively, using the line-of-sight to draw fire to the riflemen while the flamethrowers moved up to burn the house down.
As I moved through the village, the Germans finally counter-attacked and tried to drive me back from the centre of town near an old church. Using the church as cover, along with the surrounding sandbag walls, they were eventually defeated. I then moved up to the re-supply point which was more heavily defended, but there was ample opportunity to flank and so the flamethrower really came into its own as the weapon of choice for the Russians.
After taking the re-supply point from the Germans, I was told to hold the position against a counter attack, and given access to a number of light machine-gun squads to hold the area. Sadly, the new destructible buildings came back to bite me as one of my squads was burned alive inside a small hut I was using as cover. Half way through the battle, the Russians called in some aircraft bombing support that did seem a little under-powered, yet still had the desired effect of routing the enemy.
Finally, I was ordered to capture an enemy Panzer tank that had broken down in the west of the village. They happily gave me some reinforcements very close to the tank, but little did I know that the tank – and everywhere around it – was covered by enemy machine-gun positions which then proceeded to kick my ass. Moving my units down from the reinforcement point to the tank, I noticed that the ice on the river I was walking across started to break up, leading to some brave men falling to their death.
The developers explained that, where Company of Heroes was based in a much warmer climate, much of what happens in Company of Heroes 2 is takes place in the middle of the Russian winter. For that reason, they pulled out all the stops on a new weather system which really comes into its own in the multiplayer. I finally managed to capture the tank and use it to take out some enemy armour, ending the single player mission.
In multiplayer, the objectives are similar to the original game; Relic invented the capture-ground-style RTS multiplayer modes it made popular through games like Dawn of War, and it makes a welcome return in CoH 2. We played through the Battle of Moscow map, which has both teams start across a frozen river from the other and, with the new weather effects, blizzards will roll in and troops can freeze to death if left out in the weather. This, as you can imagine, effectively slows down the multiplayer experience.
As you advance to an objective, you have to ensure that there are engineers available to build cover or fires to keep your men from dying off; this also makes tanks and troop transports that much more vital. You have to keep your men out of the harsh weather or, like me in the demo, you will go into battle with squads of only one guy by the time you get to the enemy.
I did eventually win the multiplayer game, although many others struggled, although I only defeated the enemy AI by around 50 points, and with the weather on the map the challenge really is cranked up. That’s not to say it’s unbeatable, and I’m sure there is some balancing still to do. I really enjoyed what I saw from Company of Heroes 2; it’s everything the original had, with some new and improved features, and a much sharper look.
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