Company of Heroes 2 [Preview] – The war in Russia
Seeing as how our Company of Heroes 2 presentation spent over 50 per cent of its duration focused on the history and politics of World War II’s Eastern Front, it’s clear that perspective and narrative accuracy are of paramount importance. If you’re reading this armed with a standard Western education, it’s entirely possible that the sheer scale and ferocity of the Eastern Front conflict may be lost on you. It was on me.
Did you know, for example, that 13 of the war’s 15 bloodiest battles (i.e. highest death count) took place on the Eastern Front – 80 per cent of all Nazi casualties occurred there. The Soviet Union, by the end of the war, lost one in seven of its population and at times the Red Army was so under-equipped that it only had enough rifles for a quarter of its army.
Despite that, through sheer numbers and better understanding of the extreme environment the Nazis had decided to invade, the Soviet Union beat back the enemy and played arguably the most important role of all in scuppering Hitler’s chances.
“Quantity has a quality all its own”, said Stalin.
That’s the arena you’ll be playing in Company of Heroes 2, and you’ll be playing as the Russians. The idea is to provide a different look at the same war depicted in the first game, while implementing gameplay changes that take into account the greater scale of the battles, the harsh climates and the sheer length of the conflict from the initial Nazi surprise attack to the Red Army’s storming of Berlin. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but you’ve had over 60 years to read up on the story.
We’re told that despite the strong political ideologies at play between the two warring nations, Company of Heroes 2’s story will focus on the common soldier and the hardships they had to endure. Relic’s hope is that the player will engage with and understand the incredible stress and difficultly the army went through to carry out the orders of a leader who clearly saw them as mere fodder, the strategy to keep sending troops to their death until there was literally no one left to attack.
A single mission is demonstrated to us, selected to show off how the new game deals with higher troop numbers, more sophisticated terrain and new vehicles. It’s 1942 and the battle of Rzhev Meat Grindger, it’s winter and snow covers the ground in a thick ice sheet. Trees are bare, soldiers are not dressed for the biting cold and, technically, the Germans ended up winning. Barely.
For a game (and mission) focused on fighting, suffering, blood and the tactics of destruction, Company of Heroes 2 is beautiful to behold thanks to the new Essence 3.0 engine. Playing on a PC that is lord-only-knows how powerful, every fleck of snow, every burned wooden house, every tired soldier and frozen-over mud road looks realistic in a dirty, grimy, hellish kind of way. Attention to detail is stunning and conveys a true sense of war and its impact on each soldier as injured troops crawl in agony on the ground and pure white patches of snow degrade into grenade-created pot holes of death in an instant.
The snow itself plays a key role in gameplay and tactical planning. Deep snow slows your troops down as they visibly wade through it, while clumps of it can be used as temporary cover to hide yourself from the enemy. Heavy vehicles, such as tanks, can compact the snow and create a makeshift path for troops, but bear in mind that the enemy can also make use of it.
How true to the real battle is all of this? I don’t know, but the goal of portraying a hostile, dreary place to host a battle has most certainly been accomplished. You don’t want to be there, and you feel sorry for those that are.
Early in the mission Russian ground troops push forwards towards dug-in German machine gun nests and are quickly chopped down. As in the real war, a retreat by Russian troops results in the carrying out of Order 277 – the shooting of retreating soldiers by their own side before they reached safe territory. It’s inhumane and sets a deathly tone that brings the horror of war and war tactics fully to the fore.
What we saw of Order 277 was shown in a cut-scene, so it’s unclear at this point just how much it will affect your experience. Will any retreat in the campaign result in being killed by an invisible line of your own forces? Or will it be saved for cut-scenes and dramatic moments, over which you have no control? Relic need to handle such a mechanic gently if they’re to provide a sound gameplay and historical setup.
The fog of war system has been changed dramatically, now dubbed True Sight with your troops only able to see what they can make out from their position on the ground – that means no magically being able to see what’s around the other side of a building, or over a hill, even if you’re right up against it. It’s designed to force a slower pace to positioning your units, encouraging you to make sure those troops you’re using to scout an area are covered by friends before taking the risk and turning the next corner.
Two-thirds or so of the way through the mission you’re joined by the behemoth that is the Russian T-34 tank. It’s big, powerful and drives with the grace of an oil tanker. It’s the perfect representation of the Red Army itself; all power, no finesse. Only the most powerful German cannon is capable of taking it down, meaning it’s virtually indestructible without the exact tools. I say ‘virtually’ because vehicle crews can be killed separately from the vehicle itself, making it a sitting duck for the enemy to capture and use against you.
Again, like scouting new terrain, the key is to prevent units becoming isolated and alone behind enemy lines. Things get particularly difficult if you’re fighting on patches of ice as the tank has problems turning on its tracks; careful players will want to avoid such areas altogether.
Given how long we’ve waited for just a glimpse of Company of Heroes 2 our demo was woefully short. Yes, it looks great and the ambition is clearly of the highest order. However, we want more info and we want it now. How will urban fighting look? How well will the game provide a sense of perspective regarding the war as a whole? What are the multiplayer plans? How dynamic is the AI?
Like the Eastern Front to many of us in the West, there’s still much to learn about Company of Heroes 2.