Hands-On: Company Of Heroes 2
The realm of historic World War II battles might have had it’s time in the limelight when it comes to gaming, but if there is one franchise that capitalizes on this rich part of history and keeps it feeling fresh it’s Company of Heroes. From the very first entry to the not so recent Tales of Valor, Company of Heroes not only delivers realistic and historically accurate battles from the world’s largest war, but it also executes one of the best real-time strategy formulas games have to offer. So with so much success behind them, you’d think it would be a big task for Relic Entertainment to build an even better sequel. Judging from my brief time with the game yesterday, they’re well on their way to surprising a lot of people.
Company of Heroes 2 is the franchises first official sequel, with numerous changes to the setting and engine, but not so much the gameplay. Company of Heroes 2 takes you to the Eastern Front, putting you in charge of forces in Russia as they try and turn the tide during the German invasion, which will eventually lead to the assault on Berlin and the end of WWII. As you might gather if you’re rather sharp with your history, this is probably one of the more exciting periods during World War II, the turning point at which it was believed that the German army could be defeated. Not only that, but it was a time where mother nature really came into play during the war for the first time, with soldiers having to endure extreme conditions while keeping their heads low and avoiding fire. All of these factors have there place in Company of Heroes 2, and they were well demonstrated in the short but eventful mission I was able to play through.
The mission put me in control of a small Russian force consisting of some regular infantry and combat engineers. As I’m the most forward thinking strategy player out there, I immediately began grouping troops according to their abilities, with all the same shortcuts from the previous games being retained. There was no tutorial on offer, and I hadn’t played Company of Heroes for a good few years, but somehow the U.I was immediately familiar. The small icons in the top right comer gave me vital information about my forces on the filed without feeling obstructive, and the concise descriptions let me know how to utilize my troops in the best way possible. Too bad I only chose to pay attention to this on my second playthrough. Needless to say, I learnt more about how harsh the enemy can be in my first outing into the frozen wastelands of Russia.
If you’ve played a Company of Heroes title before, then you know cover is everything essentially. Placing your squads in cover, with their exact positions being highlighted and colour coded according to how effective it is, is one of the most important aspects of this strategy franchise alongside flanking and pinning enemies down with fire. Relic Entertainment have also taken real lines of sight into more consideration this time, so the exact placement of every troop in your squad is even more important now that they will only engage enemies in their direct line of sight. With this information seemingly in hand, I embarked on my first assault, which resulted in the death of two out of my four available squads. Good start right? Not only is cover important, but so is the time it takes to get there, and that’s where the weather started playing games with me.
As soon as the came under fire, my squads kept closer to the ground, which had some disastrous results in the deep snow. Their movement speed was drastically reduced, meaning more dead squad members before even establishing some form of retaliation behind some medium cover. Not only the, but some well placed MG nest made quick work of one of my poor squads that decided to take the short route to a given point. To cut things short, my troops were slaughtered quickly and efficiently by the German forces, purely because I did not factor in the weather when planning my flanking routes and assault paths. If you want to implement a weather system that has a noticeable effect on gameplay, Relic has a good example on who to do this perfectly. Throughout the campaign the season will change, forcing some different harsh elements for you to deal with, but if they’re all implemented as well as the snow I got to sample, then it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to experience.
My second run was a lot more successful thankfully. Taking time to quickly recap on the specialties on each squad type had allowed me to effectively use combat engineers to take out building while my regular infantry took care of the German foot soldiers in my path. Having a limited number of soldiers at hand really made me think about my moves, forcing me to use paths through farmers fields and churches. It was during these stages that I took note of just how stunning Company of Heroes is. Zoom all the way in and you’re treated to an enormous amount of detail, from troops hopping over fences in their path to the little animations troops have when throwing grenades or reloading large MG nests. Zoom back out and the detail follows, with the winter battlefield looking exceptionally beautiful despite the war going on around it. Frozen lakes crack as personnel walk across them, which more than often resulted in my skipping a heartbeat as I worried about the poor souls I had just possibly sent to a frozen grave. Fires create a nice glowing backdrop to the icy background, and it really does feel like you;re in the middle of World War II’s hardest battles.
Unfortunately, I only got the chance to fully experience Company of Heroes in this short demo. While I did have access to a more broad and skirmish-type mission, which included troop deployment and tank manufacturing, the level was far from complete and therefore it would not be fair to judge an incomplete portion of the game. While the game was previously slated for an early 2013 release, the recent financial crisis at publisher THQ could mean that we only get Company of Heroes much later this year. However, from the short time I had with it, I can honestly say that this is a sequel made for the fans. Core gameplay is largely similar, with the “if it’s not broken, don’t try and fix it” philosophy being applied, but it’s the small changes in the weather system and true line of sight technology that really propel this sequel forward to possibly new and interesting heights.