Company of Heroes 2 multiplayer beta impressions - of mortars and men

Tom Senior

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There's something especially needling about seeing your troops obliterated by a shell of unknown origin in an RTS. It feels like a petulant deity has unfairly singled them out for sudden, unavoidable destruction. I almost wish that was the case. It's somehow even more grating to know that each shell is the humdrum output of a jobbing trio of soldiers squatted around a mortar cannon just out of view.

I've poured about nine hours into the Company of Heroes 2 beta so far. The first few of those I spent cursing Mortars. Their impacts obliterate cover, and a direct hit can wipe out most of a squad. Shells can hammer holes in houses and shatter the engine of a light vehicle. Three dispersed mortar squads can throw down a relentless barrage that creates impromptu no-go zones for friends, foes and small animals alike.

The trick is to disrupt the Mortar menace before too many squads become entrenched. Like many dilemmas of war, this can be solved with fire. Lots and lots of fire.

Company of Heroes 2 offers Germans and Soviets a loaded platter of immolation options. Your lowly builder units can kit up to flamethrowers once you've amassed enough of the Fuel resource. A base upgrade gives core Soviet Conscript units access to firebombs that can ignite an area for a time. That's perfect for striking at special weapons teams with lots of heavy kit to pack up/abandon in panic.

A perfect solution to the Mortar problem, you might think. But if you can spare the resources more mobile options are available. Soviet flamethrower units can hitch a lift in their cheap and cheerful scout cars and spray death from the back seat. There's an upgrade for the Wermacht halftrack that lets it spray gouts of oily flame from twitching, side-mounted Dalek arms. With these on the field you can harry aggressively, using their speed to slip through enemy lines and flush out the back field, burning mortar squads and chasing reinforcements off the roads. Snipers are also adept at cleaning up special squads quickly, but the new true-sight system

You'll need Fuel, of course, but in Company of Heroes, everybody needs Fuel eventually. Manpower buys fodder, munitions gives you grenades, but fuel gives you fire. What's more, he who controls the fuel, fuels the tanks, he who fuels the tanks, tanks tanks tanks tanks tanks.

Company of Heroes 2 is tough. Tougher than the orginal, I think. CoH has always put pressure on players, but there's even more fighting for precious brain-space. Let's talk micro. Most units have at least one special function you can activate with a key-press while they're selected. Soviet AT guns can launch mini-bombardments. Their mortars can focus fire on a particular area with a key-press. With a couple of base upgrades Conscripts can use AT grenades to disable vehicles, or merge with other infantry units, bolstering their numbers in the midst of combat. Snipers can throw up flares to illuminate areas There are sprint moves, multiple grenades, suppression attacks, and hull down states for vehicles. Remembering what each unit can do and activating their talents at just the right moment is essential to winning close fights, and it's a lot to hold in your head when the enemy is throwing a force at one of your control points and threatening your munitions supply at the same time.

I've frequently found myself craving a level of battlefield awareness that lies somewhere between the main zoomed-in view and the pokey minimap. The added threat of bombardment units like Mortars and Katyushkas makes the support line behind front-line infantry more important, which can stretch a single fight across multiple screens of terrain. Assembling this mental jigsaw while you're trying to order a flank 'n grenade move, keep track of a tiny builder-squad stand-off for a fuel point on the other side of the map and maintain a build order back at base is ... challenging.

Commanders complicate matters further. You can take three of them into each battle and they'll hover as passive avatar icons above the HUD. Once you've selected one you'll gain access to their special abilities as the fight progresses. Each cache of abilities has a theme, improving your anti-armour capabilities or letting you specialise in speedy infantry, for example. Each ability set is made up of a mixture of passive abilities, unit replacements and active abilities like off-map bombardments.

Some are more interesting than others. The commander that gives Soviets fast access to heavier mortars is a golden option for mortarspam aficionados, but I'm a fan of inventive options like the Jaeger Doctrine for the Wemacht. The Jaeger light infantry upgrade grants combat infantry a pair of G43 rifles - accurate long range weapons with a distinctive snap-hiss report - which happen to come with "interrogation training." Using this ability on a squirming down-but-not-quite-dead enemy reveals the position of enemy troops in the fog of war - a fine reward for those sharp-eyed enough to see wounded enemies before they expire.

There have been lots of small, welcome improvements too. Snipers can only cloak when standing still, an elegant solution to their annoying tendency to back-cap (sneak past the battle line when cloaked and steal territory in some distant, forgotten corner). The AI is much more aggressive. They move in multiple squads, support their front line with mortars and can turn out tanks quickly if you let them have too much fuel. The AI also seems to have a better grasp on the battlefield, thanks perhaps to the reduced number of control points. Like a busy human opponent, they'll poke and prod at undefended points and try and harry your supply flow, dividing your attention across multiple flashpoints.

I'm still undecided on the leveling system. Gaining levels unlocks new commanders (nice), camo (nice, I guess?) and Intel Bulletins. These are miniscule buffs you can attach to your army before a fight, but they feel a little pointless. 2% increased accuracy for Conscripts, anyone? A 2% health buff to Halftracks? Perhaps collectively they can allow you generate an advantage that favours your chosen playstyle but for early levels they're not particularly desirable. I'm glad in a way. It suggests that opponents of mismatched level will still be in for a balanced contest. A bigger concern, perhaps, is that newcomers will be steamrolled by the complexity and speed of multiplayer. That'd be a shame, because it's shaping up rather nicely.

Company of Heroes 2 is out on June 25.

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