This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK, just before the game's publisher THQ caught fire, fell over and sank into a swamp. As far as we know, Company of Heroes is still set for release under new publisher Sega, but no date has been confirmed.
Severe hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature drops below 28 °C. Human blood freezes solid at -0.5 °C. Soviet and German forces fighting on the Eastern Front faced temperatures that fluctuated between -10 and -30 °C.
Over the years, the Russian cold season has taken the lives of so many would-be invaders that it has earned the nickname 'General Winter'. The truth, however, is that it is an indiscriminate killer.
The devastating winters of World War II are a cornerstone of Company of Heroes 2's singleplayer campaign. Missions spanning four years parachute players into different battalions participating in some of the most famously frigid encounters on the Eastern Front, from Operation Barbarrossa to the gates of Berlin. What Relic hadn't revealed, until now, is that the winter that devastated armies in 1941 will also appear in CoH's heavily expanded multiplayer.
I met General Winter for the first time ten minutes into a 3v3 battle on a snowy skirmish map. My Russian conscripts were huddled around a resource point, taking cover behind some half dead shrubbery. The enemy had garrisoned a point across a frozen river and we were playing a game of mortar tennis over the glass. The fragile ice was taking a beating from stray shells, and neither of us felt like charging our men over that exposed plane.
CoH2 immediately feels as tense and ferocious as the original. Shells shatter the earth, automatic fire echoes across the map and men die, writhing in the snow. Relic excel at battlefield ambience, but beneath the flash and shrapnel, the game has always been about thoughtful, ordered decision making. The rock-paper-scissors relationships that prop up strategic conflict in every RTS are less decisive here. Encounters last minutes, not seconds. There's always time to retreat and reform.
So I prepare for a flanking attack. I requisition a half-track and call in a sniper team. In CoH2, Russian snipers can shoot from the open trailers of their troop transports. The combination of mobility and precision at a distance should be devastating, but their potential is curbed by Relic's 'true-sight' fog of war. If your troops don't have direct sight of an area, there's no way of knowing what's there.
I need spotters. I equip a unit of engineers with a flamethrower, move them tentatively across a bridge and shuffle them along the shore towards the enemy position. Their sight lines peel back the fog of war as they march. There's no sign of the mortar team harassing my control point. I find something much worse: a heavy machinegun team holed up in a bunker.
They spot my engineers immediately and their weapon roars to life. It's a terrifying din. Relic hired a top sound engineering company to fire off and record working versions of the WWII weapons the troops are carrying. My engineers respond by dousing the bunker in flame. The fire spreads to the surrounding trees. Before they can do much more, my engineers are pinned. They hit the deck and start crawling, terrified, out onto the ice. Suddenly, a message flashes up on screen. A blizzard is coming.
They're doomed, but as they crawl away from the bunker they gain line of sight to the point. There! Three Germans crouched around a mortar cannon. It's the moment my snipers have been waiting for. From the back of a vehicle on the other side of the river a sharpshooter takes aim and lances one of the German gunners in the forehead. My engineers continue to crawl away. The sniper reloads and takes out another mortar crew member. One left. I eagerly listen for the crack of a third bolt, but the last engineer dies moments before my snipers can finish the job. The point falls into darkness once more, then the blizzard strikes.
A howling wind blows across the battlefield and a snowstorm descends. Blizzards reduce visibility and movement speed for troops and vehicles. They also kill exposed units stone dead if they're caught in the open. Soldiers can stay warm by sheltering within range of pyres or hiding inside a building or a troop transport. A small thermometer icon ticks down rapidly if they're caught in a perilous position. Once that expires, they lie down and turn into gruesome ice lollies.
Relic are still fine-tuning the frequency of blizzards. Around three or four struck in each multiplayer game I played, but in the final game this may be reduced to the possibility of one per battle. They provide a moment to take stock of the field and reorder your battle lines. Moving men is risky, but vehicles are fair game. I click on my sniper halftrack and send it ploughing over the bridge along the western flank my engineers braved.
After a minute or two the blizzard clears. The fog of war relents, giving my snipers a new angle on the elusive final mortar soldier. There's a tremendous snap, as though God has stepped on a twig. One sniper slug ends the war for that lone mortar crewman, but even as he falls I hear the grumbling of a monstrous engine. A German tank rolls into view. Oh, balls.
The skirmish represents much of what makes Company of Heroes feel unique. StarCraft II's base assault battles thrive on hard maths, precise timing and finger dexterity. CoH's control points bring the fight into the field. Victory is earned through smart unit positioning and mastery of the map. Your tactics aren't tied to build orders or optimal resource flow, but formed in response to the topography of a crooked wall, the positioning of a tower or the curve of a river.
Many of CoH2's new features are designed to make those all-important battlefields more dynamic. The number of resource points on each map has been gramatically reduced to make each sector matter more. In the original, points were scattered liberally across fields and roads. Here they sit at the heart of strategically useful zones. You'll find one on top of a hill by a watchtower that overlooks a highway. You'll find another in a copse near a river – the perfect hiding place for a mortar team. Additional munition and fuel resource points provide tempting secondary objectives that stretch the front line.
Relic are approaching Company of Heroes 2 with the benefit of six years feedback from fans of the first game. This has prompted much fine tuning. Tanks have a 'reverse' command that makes it easier for them to retreat and keep their heavy forward armour facing the enemy. The slimmer interface offers instant access to all your troops in a list on the right side of the screen. The Wermacht, playable only in multiplayer, are now faster and more flexible to represent their status as the more organised and well-drilled force.
The new maps have been designed to cater to differing tastes. Open field maps reminiscent of CoH 1's Angoville Farms should provide a good arena for 2v2 multiplayer battles, but Relic know that many players enjoyed facing off with friends against the AI. Tight maps with plenty of choke points have been created for those that love a good 'comp stomp'. The AI has been improved so that it will no longer slip small units behind your battle line to 'back cap' a useless patch of territory. And there's been another significant AI change, as multiplayer lead designer, Matthew Berger, explained.
“We've also actually stopped it from cheating,” he said. “The AI in CoH 1, to achieve a certain level of difficulty, actually cheated a lot, to the point where it got extra resources, its units moved faster, they shot faster at the higher levels of difficulty.
“We've really clamped down a lot on that and I believe that right now the only thing we do is, on the highest level of difficulty it has a little bit of a resource boost and on the lowest level of difficulty it has a little bit of a resource hindrance.”
Whether you're facing a human or AI opponent, every completed game will earn experience for your Company of Heroes 2 profile. Over the course of 20 levels you'll unlock a series of tweaks for Soviet and German forces. The commander skill trees that unlocked bombardments and special units over the course of a CoH1 battle have been replaced by 'Commanders'. Each offers a linear series of five mid-battle unlocks consisting of a mix of passive unit upgrades, bombardment abilities and special units. There are seven commanders for each army, which, once unlocked, can be combined into a set of three to take into battle. New vehicle skins based on authentic tank livery can also be used to customise each army.
As part of your profile loadout, you'll also be able to equip up to three 'intel bulletins' before battle. These are subtle passive abilities earned through Steam achievements, conveying minor boosts to your troops in the field. Berger explained how Relic want the system to work:
“If I really like to play with cover... I might get an intel bulletin that increases my cover bonus by 10%, or something like that. It'll be things like units take a little bit less damage in cover, units move a little bit faster, units do a little bit more damage against a certain type of vehicle. It's always going to be very slight.”
Commanders and intel bulletins feel like the last remnants of Relic's free-to-play experiment, Company of Heroes Online. Relic are still reluctant to talk about why that was shut down, but designer Ryan McGechaen voiced one of the most important lessons learned: “We learned people don't like pay-to-win. We don't want to allow people who have lots of money to have a leg up on people who don't want to spend a lot of money.”
Berger seconds this. “One thing that was very important for us is that if you unbox the game, and I've been playing for a hundred hours and have access to everything – if you're a better player than me you will beat me with your straight-out-of-the-box experience.”
If you're thinking that commanders, unit skins and intel bulletins provide the perfect opportunity for future DLC packs, then you're bang on the money. Relic have big plans for free and paid-for DLC additions after launch. Priced updates can be bought individually, or ahead of time with a one-time Commander Pass purchase similar to Battlefield 3's Premium edition.
New maps, skins and commanders are planned for multiplayer and a 'Theatre of War' mode will host standalone singleplayer scenarios. Game director Quinn Duffy describes it as “a great way for us to target little historical elements, a particular battle, or a particular time period and really dial into that experience.” These singleplayer scenarios don't even have to take place on the Eastern Front. “There's an opportunity to take this game just about anywhere,” said Quinn, cryptically.
Intel bulletins weren't in place when I played the multiplayer, which leaves me with a hint of trepidation. It's impossible to know how much or little those boosts will affect the action, and there's always a chance that a future DLC drop could inject imbalance or unfairness into the mix.
Relic are RTS developers of formidable experience, however, and the three or four hours I spent with the multiplayer was reassuring. This is no Dawn of War 2 experiment, it's an attempt to perfect the near-perfect and represent an aspect of WWII often glossed over in western media. Playing it reminded me why the original was such an important RTS. StarCraft II is about sport, Supreme Commander about spectacle, but Company of Heroes is about stories. Its little men are a detailed homage to a generation that faced off against unparalleled hardship. The death of three engineers under fire on a frozen river means more than the splattery demise of a billion Banelings ever will. Company of Heroes is back, and that's a great thing for PC gaming.