Company of Heroes 2 Preview
Ever since the release of Supreme Commander over five years ago, I've had a very tough time finding an RTS game I liked quite as much. In fact, I haven't at all yet, but Relic's Company of Heroes 2 might just make it, although for entirely different reasons than Gas Powered Games' big bad strategy game appealed to me. After some time spent with an older single player build of the game and a more recent multiplayer build, I'm really happy with the direction that Company of Heroes 2 is going in, where it's relatively small in scale but with many fine visual and gameplay details to make up for it. The reason for this is that most of the new tech and extra features that Relic has built for this sequel not only makes the game look impressive, but it actually affects how you play, too.
Company of Heroes 2 is a World War II RTS game that focuses entirely on the Eastern front of the war between the Germans and the Russians. Defined by especially brutal combat through some frigid winter battles and the ingenuity of the exhausted Germans pitted against the overwhelming numbers and stubborn tenacity of the Russians, these battles proved to be grueling and extremely costly for both sides. CoH2 details these battles with a focus on semi-rural maps that have players capturing control points around the map and using their infantry, heavy weapons, and a wide range of vehicles to defeat the enemy.
As the game itself goes, we start with physics, as that's the most apparent innovation that Relic has made right off the bat. Sure, the game has fantastic visuals that hold up when you zoom in on units and the deformable snow, ice, and shader special effects look wonderful, but what you play is even more important, and you'll find quickly that CoH2 is doing more fine-detail physics simulation than any big-name RTS game out there. From tanks knocking over trees and fences to infantry vaulting over low walls, from ice breaking under a heavy vehicle (sending it into the drink) to a true line of sight system that is constantly updating to only show the specific angles your soldiers can see, all of this affects how units deal with each other and how you or your opponents can conceal units, set up and use cover, and create deadly ambushes.
The snow most certainly affects your play on the selection of winter-based maps included with the game, as you'll leave obvious tracks as they move, your troops will slow down when wading through deep snow, and your troops will need to find warmth by way of firepits you can set up, troop transports to drive around in, or buildings you can enter. Blizzards will roll in for minutes at a time, limiting infantry movements in the freezing cold, but vehicles can move around freely. The only frustration I had with this system was that only engineers could build firepits, which seems a bit silly, especially when your freezing engineers die seconds from completing a fire and the infantry standing next to them wind up helplessly dying as well because they can't finish putting a few logs in a pit and finding a light.
Just as with the first Company of Heroes, you gain resources by holding points and spend them on a basic set of buildings at your base and on new units, but this isn't a heavily efficiency-driven RTS game, nor is it defined by constant micromanagement of each unit. Instead you'll need to use your troops' ability to get into cover and make use of fairly realistic tactics and hard counters to trump both the enemy's movements and equipment selection. Tanks will overrun infantry, but they're beaten by much cheaper anti-tank guns, but then those guns are useless against standard infantry - these kind of rock, paper, scissors situations serve as a core part of strategy in the Company of Heroes franchise, and they're still alive here in the sequel.
Snow maps certainly seemed to be the best way to show off most of the new features going into CoH2, but for this preview event, the most fun I had was on a map set in the town of Pripyat (yes, the eventual location of the Chernobyl disaster) during the spring. A center capture point includes tight, blind corners and little room to maneuver with bridges leading to this key area, and I was able to fortify here with tanks, engineers for repairing my armor, mortar teams a few steps back, and a few anti-tank guns pointed down the long bridge lanes in order to completely wreck anything that dared to try and cross. My opponent only ever half-commited to this spot, allowing me to mercilessly destroy everything he sent; eventually I created a roadblock on the bridge, as the husks of destroyed tanks piled up and blocked further access. Of course, this whole time I held the point which ate through the opponent's tickets, so that worked out exceedingly well.
A more resourceful opponent would have started taking the other points which I had only put light defense on, started dropping mortars on me, or even gone around to approach my equipment from a rear flank, and that would have forced me to adapt, especially as my cover would have been exposed and anti-tank guns take a painfully long time to get spun around. What I like about this is that Relic is purposely creating moments entirely unlike those you'd see in Starcraft or even Supreme Commander, and the Relic way of involving more realistic unit tactics and employing hard counters is just as valid of an approach to strategy gaming. It doesn't involve the high-energy commentary of Blizzard's cash cow, but I think I'm just fine with that.
What Relic showed us with this event is that even with THQ's recent troubles, Company of Heroes 2 is trucking on, and it is looking damn good. They've implemented new technology, expanded gameplay ideas, and maintained a tried-and-true approach to strategy gaming that, despite using the basic mechanics of first CoH as its core, it still manages to feel fresh today since no one has outdone Relic on this style of strategy game. I'd been cautiously optimistic about CoH2 since seeing some of the excellent tech at E3, but I was wary of how it all worked together in a game. Now that I've had the chance to try it, I can say that this is one of my most anticipated games for early 2013 - and there are a lot of great games coming out during that period. If you're a strategy fan or an old-school CoH player, don't hesitate to check out Relic's upcoming sequel. A beta will be starting relatively soon, and the game is set to ship exclusively on PC this coming March.