Company of Heroes was a smash success, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise as the team at Relic has had a great deal of practice. Homeworld 1 and 2, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Dawn of War II, Space Marine, and more have all hit like a ton of bricks, bringing revolution to the usual dirt-farming RTS world. Holding strategic points in the field isn’t the only change – the game also brought directional suppression, unit veteran upgrades and recruiting, line-of-sight, meaningful infantry, directional tank damage, and far more to the table, giving players a completely new experience. Amazingly, that was 2006.
I got to sit down with Relic to take a closer look at their much-anticipated sequel, Company of Heroes 2. Set in the Winter of 1942, this title will focus on the USSR’s Red Army as they fight the Eastern Front campaign. The mission for our demonstration is a little-known battle called “Rzhev Meatgrinder” (or Ржевская мясорубка if you prefer). In this mission, Soviet forces struggle to tie up a German division trying to relieve troops engaged in the battle of Stalingrad. In this battle, the Soviet army lost over a million men to Germany’s 300,000.
In this pre-alpha build, we got to see some of the incredible gameplay advancements the last few years have brought us. The team at Relic is trying to capture the brutality of the Eastern Front, and this is clear from the opening moments. The demo opens with a frozen field that has clearly had tree-burst shelling in the area. A pair of tanks lie broken in the deep snow as a group of soldiers begin their charge. With the new Essence 3 engine upgrades powering things, the game isn’t just upgraded graphically. Zooming in far closer than ever before, you can see the soldiers struggle to pull their feet up through the deep snow. Flame on the flamethrower whip in the wind as the soldiers congregate around the broken tank. Their respite is short-lived as mortar strikes quickly force them to break cover and move across the road. The troops take the path of least resistance, keeping their weapons raised to be ready for any incoming threats, so we force the troops over the frozen terrain for a better approach to the German position near a little log cabin. The flame thrower I mentioned earlier comes into play as gunners cover the doorway. The flames set the building alight (showcasing the environmental destructibility), giving the enemy the option of a hail of bullets or burning to death – neither has a future.
Directional and dynamic cover was introduced in CoH 1, but vaulting is something new. Allowing infantry the ability to amble across walls and obstacles more realistically, escape threats, avoid vehcles, and move more fluidly in general. As our demo troops take cover within a small defilade, a German division shells them into oblivion. The map pans over and shows a secondary troop battalion, complete with Russian Kommissar. With Stalin’s order 227 in hand, the Kommissar screams “You will attack, and you will not take one step back” at his troops, pressing them to charge forward. As a German machinegun nest suppresses them, they drop prone in place, unable to move forward. As the troops break ranks and run back towards the Kommissar, he signs their death warrants and orders his own MG nest to execute them. As a new set of Russian soldiers take the field, we get to see one of the best upgrades for Company of Heroes 2 – “True sight”.
Eschewing the circular fog of war system seen in nearly every RTS for a completely new paradigm, Company of Heroes 2 gives us a new gameplay system. In a completely dynamic way, the line of site changes organically. Smoke mortar rounds obscure your vision as well as that of the enemy, tracked vehicles and tanks (because they see through a periscope or slits in the metal) have nearly no peripheral, but also a bit longer forward vision. As our troops rounded trees, their vision widened and they were able to see a SU 76 taken out by artillery strikes. Unlike CoH1, this vehicle can be re-captured or even seized by the enemy. While the SU 76 isn’t an armored fortress, a Tiger or Soviet IS-2 could become a huge tactical advantage to take or destroy.
Back to our squad, we use the cover of smoke and a volley of grenades to press the enemy, causing them to retreat from a farmhouse area. Switching to a secondary group we see five more troops approaching an MG42 nest – the smoke from the SU-76 obscures us from the fire team facing us. With the German fire team pushed out of position, we pull in a Maxim Heavy Machine gun (complete with its iconic wheeled system) into place to fend off the obvious incoming counter attack.
The AI in Company of Heroes 2, even at this early Pre-Alpha stage, has access to the same tactics as you do. They flank, suppress, use True Sight fog of war, and more – they are on the same playing field and have the same advantages and disadvantages. As we vault over sandbags and walls we press to clear the remaining ground troops a Russian T-34 rolls into battle, crushing everything (including trees!) under its hulking 30 ton frame. The battlefield is decimated by the power in this tracked monstrosity, but its tracks slip freely on the frozen lake as it tries to cross. The tank being in a vulnerable state leaves it in ready position for a Nazi strafing run that cuts it to ribbons, ending our demonstration.
The first Company of Heroes won awards and accolades from press and fans alike. From realistic battles, a new resource system, and incredible sound, the game had it all. Company of Heroes 2 looks to raise the stakes with a dotted line to real battles, live-captured weapon sounds, and more realism than ever before – it’ll be hard to wait for its release at some point in 2013. Stay tuned as more info comes available for this gorgeous title.