Company of Heroes 2 [Preview] – Surviving General Winter
Relic Games and publisher THQ are clearly worried about confusing us about their intent with Company of Heroes 2. We’ve now seen the game in action twice, and on both occasions the demo/presentation has been laser targeted at a specific area of the game. First time around it was the history; why we should care about a game based on World War II’s Eastern Front conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This time it’s the weather and how it impacts gameplay.
The narrow focus of each of our two sessions so far is understandable, this is quite clearly a complex game and one where small changes from the original can have a marked effect on gameplay. We’re shown a mission dubbed General Winter, a nickname given to the Russian winter – the idea being that the weather is so fierce that invaders have no chance of conquering the country during that season. Literally, the weather is acting as a defensive army in its own right.
Without wind chill, temperatures would drop as low as minus 40, factoring in wind chill you’re looking at minus 60. That’s what we’re told, at least. We’ve got no reason to argue.
In a bid to present the kind of harsh reality that soldiers would have faced on the ground, Relic has been hard at work designing and implementing what it’s referring to as ‘cold-tech’. Cold-tech covers everything from the way wind attacks your troops to the changing depth of snow and the dynamic manner in which blizzards can hit and everything can change.
The big thing to take away is that cold-tech is not a ‘mere’ aesthetic feature, it forces you to change the way you play and engage the enemy depending on the intensity and style of weather you find yourself engulfed within. That’s not to say that it doesn’t alter the visual appearance of the game, because it does. But we’ll come to that later.
Cold-tech’s most obvious integration comes in how it changes the default route your troops take across the battlefield. They naturally move along the path of less resistance, avoiding areas of deep, soft snow that make walking slow and instead focus on the compacted snow of roads and smaller footpaths. This is knowledge common to both sides, however, and it’s likely that easier paths will be flooded with landmines and small squads of enemy troops waiting to ambush the unwary.
Weighing up which route to take clearly plays a big part in the way the game plays out and, even more so than in the first game, will determine which tactics you can realistically employ. At times, as showcased in the demo, you’ll need to face the dangers of the open road because the alternative option is just too slow.
Troops can become a ‘casualty of weather’, with each squad coming equipped with a thermometer icon signalling their resistance to the cold. If the thermometer drops below a certain level individual soldiers drop to the floor and die, let the practice continue long enough and whole squad will be consumed.
Your best bet when it comes to keeping them healthy is to avoid open areas that are consistently battered by the wind, take shelter behind cover whenever possible and to light fires at preset camps. None of those options result in the thermometer rising back up to a healthy level, but they do prevent it from dropping any lower.
Because the weather changes dynamically it’s not a case of memorising which kinds of weather will hit a mission where and when. Sometimes that risky trek across the open field could lead to you getting the drop on an enemy not expecting anyone to be dumb enough to attempt such a thing, another time might see a blizzard suddenly roll in and freeze everyone under your command. It’s a case of weighing up your strengths, the odds and the enemy position and then making an informed decision.
Expect roadside buildings to be heavily guarded and viciously fought over, not only for the protection they offer from the cold but because of their strategic position. It’s also important to remember that whatever affects you, affects the enemy. If you can draw the Nazis into the open and force them to battle you and the wind then so much the better.
Snow, wind and blizzards are not the only factor to contend with, there’s also ice. We’re told that the gameplay design is not yet set in stone, but at present, soldiers can move just fine across the ice; but it’s worth remembering that large areas of ice forms in open areas, making you susceptible to the wind.
Vehicles, though, have a more difficult time on the frozen water. Turning is more difficult, with trucks and tanks sliding across sideways in a struggle to find grip. In our demo that resulted in some easy target practise for the Nazis stationed on the opposite side of the frozen lake, with more than one personnel carrying vehicle failing to make it to the other side.
Heavy vehicles such as tanks visibly crack the ice as they pass over it and, yes, it will crack completely if you remain stationery on the same section for too long. In one particularly dramatic moment, a tank crashed through the ice and took two nearby squads of men with it to the frosty depths below. No one survived.
We’re told that the ice will eventually refreeze, so you don’t have to worry about permanently cutting off your access to another part of the map. At the moment the refreeze time is set to five minutes, but that has yet to be finalised and the time will change depending on the weather conditions in the area.
It’s also worth pointing out that wintery conditions will account for roughly a third of the game’s campaign, with the other three seasons represented throughout the remainder. So if battling the snow and ice, as well as the Nazis, seems like a lot of work there will be moments of respite from the cold.
Aside from the weather, our demo also displayed other elements of Relic’s impressive tech at work. The real-time ‘true sight’ mechanic is especially striking during live gameplay, with the fog of war dynamically changing all the time depending on what your troops can and can’t see. For example, to see the other side of a barn you’ll have to send a squad around to scout it out. Bring them back to their original position and you’ll no longer be able to see what’s on the other side.
Like the weather, true sight will play a key role in deciding which troops to place where and when to move them. Those two elements in particular seem to force a slower pace of play, no longer will brute force or a gung-ho attitude get the job done. Victory will generally go to the players who can turn the dangers into a positive by employing the uncertain elements against them.
As with our first look at Company of Heroes 2, we came away impressed by what was shown. Relic is clearly not looking to reinvent the wheel and is more than happy to make lots of smaller changes that ultimately add up to a larger whole. Given the quality the first game still demonstrates today, that’s probably a very good idea.