Developers: Relic Entertainment
The snow is littered with debris, and the smouldering husk of a German tank is all that remains of the penultimate armoured column on my hitlist. Six are down, only one remains. My veteran anti-tank commandos have done their jobs well, vanquishing their trundling, turreted adversaries with rifles and the occasional river. The fourth and fifth to fall were condemned to an icy grave after weakening a frozen river's surface and feigning a retreat. Now, however, the engineers who built fires to keep us safe from the cold are all face down in the dirt, and all I can do is watch my grizzled team slowly succumb to the freezing clutches of General Winter.
Just as my last triple-starred officer broaches line of sight on the final tank, he topples into the deep Siberian snow and snuffs it. The game's designer Jason Lee simply laughs at me. "To be honest," he says, "I didn't manage that one the first time around. But you came really close!" I can't tell if he's just being nice or not.
It's been a while since I've played Company of Heroes and, in that time, I've revisited my love for other RTS games such as Supreme Commander and Command & Conquer, not to mention real-time tactical gems such as Commandos. I always found that Company of Heroes managed to fulfil both sides of the coin rather well, providing a stage set for large-map strategy and resource balancing, alongside detailed micromanagement and a tactical challenge that few RTS titles could hope to stand up to.
So it is, having spent much of the last fortnight getting to grips with the multiplayer beta for Company of Heroes 2 and the upcoming game's Theatre of War mode, that I've found myself dying a lot. Half a decade of playing lesser strategy titles has only served to dull the mind and stiffen the fingers.
The setting is still firmly situated in the smoke and skirmishes of World War II, although Relic have moved their focus from the West across to the Eastern Front, embracing the Soviet struggles against the advancing German armies, and introducing a number of new elements to present new tactical challenges that take full advantage of the snow-swept locales.
The first, as you might have guessed, comes with a snazzy, buzzword-ish name: ColdTech. The premise is simple: try to brave the extreme cold for too long and your troops will begin to freeze and die if you can't warm them up somehow. If you stray too far from roads and paths, into deep snow and icy wastes, a little thermometer will appear beside your affected troops, slowly decreasing unless you can find a fire or alternative source of heat. Combat engineers can build them, and come in very handy indeed, but you can also think outside the box. Blowing up a vehicle and warming your troops beside its smouldering iron carcass will do just fine too.
"We wanted to make General Winter a part of the game," explains Lee. "It's more realistic, you have to think carefully about where you're sending your troops, about supply lines for your engineers to build fires, and make sure that your troops are never too far away from a point of warmth. There's a sense of urgency to things when you add the elements to the gameplay, and the blizzards can really disrupt the flow of a game. We give you a warning, time to prepare, but then you kind of need to make sure that you're not stranding units out in the cold."
Ah yes, the blizzards. One of the more Marmite-esque additions to the game. See, when it comes to the coldest reaches of Siberia, a snow storm can be whipped up at random by the game. A countdown clock appears to give players a chance to brace themselves, and then the blizzard sets in after a few minutes, destroying your area of view, and killing off unprepared troops left out in the cold. It's a mechanism that can bring multiplayer matches to a complete standstill for a few minutes as players attempt to hang on to the units that they have, and gives more daring folk the opportunity to potentially make ground -- if they've prepared well. If not, the terrain is transformed into a icy graveyard.
Vehicles can operate in these conditions, but thanks to another addition -- named True Sight -- their efficacy is highly limited. It sounds a little underwhelming at first, essentially proving to be a rather advanced manipulation of the fog of war that takes into account buildings, objects, vehicles, and weather conditions to present an ever-changing battlefield perspective, but in practice True Sight presents a number of new challenges and opportunities. Breaking line of sight means that for a few precious seconds you might not be able to see an enemy, and that presents a small window of opportunity for a flanking ambush or other tactical repositioning. Though an RTS for all intents and purposes, so often I found myself likening matches in the COH2 beta to real-time tactics titles, where battles can be won and lost in the blink of an eye with a tactical masterstroke and some deft handling.
Confronting a posse of enemy infantry, guarded by a wounded tank, my commandos made quick work of the majority. But in blowing up the tank, True Sight effectively broke my view beyond the smouldering wreck as smoke obscured the area, and I neglected to notice an enemy sniper who took that opportunity to move and hide before I could get a lock on his new position as he picked off my remaining men.
"I think, for me personally, True Sight is the biggest addition we've made," says Lee. "It really rewards patient, thought-out play. You can't just go rushing into an area, because you genuinely never know where an enemy could be hiding, so advancing is a much more risky. But you can play a waiting game too much either, so you have to find this balance between being cautious and then being really decisive to make the most of any given situation. It's quite an easy thing to understand, but it takes a while to get used to it. Once you do, though, you can really make True Sight work for you and turn things to your advantage."
The beta, truth be told, has been a little bit disappointing, but that's mainly due to how limited it's been. It's a skirmish-only setup, with near inexhaustible manpower, and game set singularly around the to-ing and fro-ing of pinching capture points. There's a limited number of maps, a nerfed selection of commanders, and we want more! But we had a chance to go hands-on with the singleplayer aspects of the game last week, and the overall package is looking very tasty indeed. It'll be a week or two before we're permitted to go into spoilerrific detail about the five missions we played of the campaign, but we can now talk about Theatre of War.
A new addition to the series, Theatre of War sees Relic offering a variety of skirmishes in bitesized chunks. Here you can play as either Russian or German forces, each with nine missions apiece, separated into three groupings. The first deals in solo challenges -- giving players the opportunity to indulge in bespoke missions conducted under extreme conditions. One sees you trying too wrestle back a series of capture points with only a handful of tanks and a smattering of infantry. Another, as described at the start of this piece, has you venturing behind enemy lines with a squad of commandos to take out the armoured vehicles in the area. You start by sneaking in from fire to fire, taking out any pockets of German troops you find along the way, before eventually destroying a German MG nest, and using a huddle of engineer support troops to facilitate advancing further by building fires. The RTS stylings of the SP and MP elements are thrown out of the window and here we find some good old-fashioned real-time tactics gameplay. Of course, that's just one mission. Later on, I get to grips with a larger mission whereby I'm facing down an AI opponent hellbent on vehicular warfare, whose modus operandi is to concentrate on vehicle building so it can constantly rush me with armour.
Finally, we leap into one of the co-op missions, which has two players trying to hold the majority of capture points across a large map, teeming with enemy forces, for three of the game's day/night cycles. The mission is a constant back and forth between friendly and enemy forces. Just as I move to help out my comrade, the enemy flanks me and we're forced to turn our attention to the other side of the map. This isn't your usual base-building, construct-an-army-of-prism-tanks-and-win affair. You have to be locked in constantly, always vigilant, always ready to make use of the tiny, fleeting snapshots of opportunity that can arise. Each morning we have the option of deploying a tactical airstrike and generating a few support troops, but in the end, the enemy AI gains too many of the capture points in the middle of the map and pushes us back on the afternoon of the third day and we fall at the last hurdle. I actually let out a rather loud "Noooooooo!!"
That's the joy of Company of Heroes 2: by the looks of things it can do both epic wartime battles and more personal tactical affairs. All without compromise. "We were never worried, not really," says director Quinn Duffy when I ask him if there was ever a moment after THQ went under that he thought COH2 might not see the light of day. "There was a little uncertainty, sure. But after that one day we just got on with finishing it off. So no I wouldn't say we were ever worried it wouldn't find a home."
It's easy to see why.