The original Company of Heroes was universally renowned by PC gamers and real-time strategy fans alike, praised for its stunning realism and fast pace. It’s not a stretch to say that this World War II campaign was one of the best RTS games of all time. After six long years, Relic Entertainment is finally bringing CoH back, with a sequel that aims to do the original game justice. Though we had felt nervous about the state of the series when Company of Heroes Online got the axe, our E3 demo put any worries we might’ve had about the games quality to rest. This is the same raw and real warfare we saw from the original, but with even higher stakes.
Company of Heroes 2’s real-time battles still take place during WWII; while the original CoH focused on the well-known Western front, CoH2 takes things to the Eastern front in war-ravaged European territories, where the USSR Red Army forces struggled to keep German soldiers at bay. History buffs may know that 17 of the 20 all-time bloodiest battles took place on the Eastern front; offensives like the Battle of Berlin and Operation Barbarossa will be part of the campaign, so the brutality factor is even higher for these desperate and grueling skirmishes. Like the original, CoH2 has you commanding groups of troops instead of singular soldiers – though each unit feels like it’s comprised of individuals, thanks to the attention to detail in their textures and voiceovers.
Though we had high expectations for the game’s visuals (given the original’s graphical pedigree), we were still stunned by how amazing the game looks, by RTS standards or otherwise. Relic’s new Essence 3 engine renders every last detail on your units – you’ll see individual digits on the soldiers’ gloved hands, and you can almost feel the scruffy textures of their ushankas. The minute details aren’t limited to your forces, either: the snowy environment we saw had a frigid authenticity to it, as soldiers chilled and huddled up in the harsh cold.
Snow in itself is a technological wonder in CoH2, as demonstrated when one of our flamethrower specialists spewed liquid flame over a German bunker. The heat of the billowing fire actually melted the snow; an effect made possible by the game’s terrain deformation tech, which layers snow to mimic its real-life properties. Units will have to wade through deep snow, leaving them extremely vulnerable, and tanks will have difficulty maintaining traction on icy roadways. As the flamethrower evaporated snow and ice into steam, without a hint of slowdown, we were in awe of how such a tiny detail had a profound effect on the battle’s believability.
Destructibility of the environment in general is a huge factor in the game; elsewhere in the demo, our Soviet soldiers flanked a bunkered position by simply blasting out the wooden wall beside it. Demolitions will factor heavily in the strategy of defense and offense –you might find your “impenetrable” position getting breached from an angle you didn’t even think of. Cover can also be destroyed, but nimble soldiers can now vault over sandbags to prevent getting pinned down behind flimsy shelter. Getting caught in the open is ill-advised, though: with the revamped suppression mechanic, your light infantry might get pinned in place by incoming fire, and you’ll lose any control of those units until you can deflect all the heat they’re taking.
Listen up, RTS buffs: the game’s most significant new feature is called TrueSight, which could change the way “fog of war” works forever. In typical RTS games, your vision as a player-commander was a general, circular area around any of the units you control. Not so in CoH2: here, the environment and unit line-of-sight determines what you can or can’t see during battle. For instance, if your soldiers’ vision gets obstructed by black smoke rising from the wreckage of a downed tank, you literally won’t see past it. This dynamic, ever-changing visibility makes the player feel equal parts empowered and claustrophobic: you can easily set up a bait-and-switch with smoke grenades alone, but cowering in a dark corner will be one of the most paranoia-inducing feelings in RTS history.
Other intriguing new elements (from both a strategic and technological standpoint) were things like improved AI, which is programmed to have the same tactical “thoughts” that a reasoning player might devise, and abandoned vehicles: when a tank’s crew dies, but the tank itself is intact, any player can capture and commandeer the vehicle to include it in their forces. Sound design is also getting even more intricate; for example, the creaks and groans of a T-34, Russia’s most iconic tank, have been recorded by Relic from the actual tank model in motion.
Relic has high expectations to live up to with CoH2 - but as advertised, this game does indeed do the legendary original justice. We’ll have to wait until 2013 to see the finished product, but already, it’s looking absurdly impressive.