Company of Heroes was hailed as one of the best real-time strategy games of all time when it came out in 2006. With a score of 93% on Metacritic, it is the highest rated RTS and the second-highest rated strategy game of all time. While it has not gained the mainstream popularity of StarCraft, it is a damn fine game that presents all the visceral brutality of war in a way that no other RTS had done before.
At long last, developer Relic Entertainment is coming out with a sequel. In the original, players got to fight with the good ol’ boys of the 101st Airborne in scenarios like D-Day. For Company of Heroes 2, the focus is on the savage Russian campaign. There is no word yet on whether hard-drinking sergeants and young, scared recruits writing eloquent letters home about the horrors of war will make an appearance in the story. Or rather, how many.
For this installment, Essence (3.0) has been upgraded with a few new tricks. In addition to various graphical tweaks, a few new game mechanics have been added. Chief among these is Truesight, which makes unit sight paths more realistic. Obstacles like trees and buildings actually block units from seeing to the other side, just as they would in real life. This means that players will have to be more wary when venturing into unknown territory, as there might be an antitank gun sitting around the corner waiting to ambush your armor column.And what would a trip to the Eastern Front be without a few million cases of frostbite? To more accurately model the brutal conditions of the frozen Russian steppes, Relic is introducing a new weather system called ColdTech. At temperatures well below zero, freezing to death was just as much a threat as enemy bullets, so it would not make sense to have troops sit there idly in the trenches. Exposed infantry will freeze and eventually die if players fail to build fires or garrison them in buildings. Sudden blizzards may also sweep through, accelerating the freezing effect and stopping an infantry advance in its tracks faster than you can say “Not one step back!” It is a unique aspect of the winter battlefield, and something that successful players will have to keep track of on top of combat and economy.
Speaking of freezing, ice will now also play an important strategic role on winter maps. Frozen lakes and rivers will now be crossable, opening new attack routes and forcing enemies to pay attention to non-obvious chokepoints. At the same time, this new utility is also a risk. If the enemy happens to have artillery presighted on a point players are attempting to cross, or if the ice is too thin to support the weight of tanks, players could be sending their forces to an early watery grave. Another aspect of the ice and snow is the tracks that units make. Observant players will be able to guess the army composition of their opponents and make adjustments to their strategy accordingly.
The economy of Company of Heroes revolves around the capture and control of resource points. In the original, every point had a preassigned resource assigned to it. Some had fuel for vehicles, while others had ammunition, and if players knew which points the enemy controlled, they could figure out what kind of strategy the opponent was going far. In CoH 2, players will be able to choose what kind of resource they need, making for a far more fluid and dynamic playstyle. Scouting will be of paramount importance to make sure that machine gun defenses are not crushed by a wave of Panzers.
As anyone who’s actually played a game set on the Eastern Front knows, Russian armies were apples to the American armies’ oranges…if apples were tossed out in the cold to be frozen, shot, and stabbed. A lot of soldiers were barely trained and sent to the front without adequate weapons or supplies. The Germans were highly disciplined and well-equipped. The historical difference in army makeup will definitely affect the way the Russian side plays.
Meatshields Conscripts will be trainable units, mostly used to absorb fire and fill in holes when a machine gun crew loses members. The Eastern Front was by far the deadliest front in the war, with at least 15 million men killed in total. Whichever side you play, be prepared to take exorbitant losses.
With a very deliberate pace and a lessened focus on actions-per-minute, the first Company of Heroes was a revolutionary gameplay experience. The incredibly detailed presentation was more than enough to draw my attention from the fact that my poor paratroopers were getting crushed under the treads of German armor, presumably leading to Allied forces getting thrown off the beaches on D-Day, and Nazis eventually conquering the world (yeah, yeah, so I’m better at being the boots on the ground than the commander in the sky).
More skilled players than I will be able to play out history the way it should be and properly destroy the fascist war machine under a million Slavic boots when Company of Heroes 2 ships out for PC sometime in 2013.