This preview originally appeared in issue 240 of PCG UK.
When Hitler's Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he caught Stalin's armies unprepared. To avoid being trapped behind enemy lines, Soviet soldiers, civilians and entire industries retreated, falling back further east. Fearing the Nazi's swift and relentless progress towards Moscow, Stalin issued Order 227. “Not one step back,” it said. Now any retreating Soviet soldier would be shot by his own side.
During my time with Relic, the team stopped just short of threatening themselves with guns, but they're similarly resolute that Company of Heroes won't take any backward steps. If you've forgotten exactly why that might be a challenge, consider that Company of Heroes' 94% review in PC Gamer remains the highest score we've ever given an RTS.
Unlike Stalin, Relic are anything but unprepared for the challenge. They've spent the six years since that first game's Saving Private Ryan-inspired tour of Western Europe planning how to better it. Now they think they know how. Company of Heroes is heading to the Eastern Front, to put players in control of the Soviet army during the largest and bloodiest battles of World War II. This raises the question: how do you build a sequel to the best-rated real-time strategy game of all time?
Step one: make it fresh. When the first game came out in 2006, gamers were already fatigued from the onslaught of WWII-set titles. Since then, first-person shooters have moved on, but people are no less wary of a return to the fields of France.
That's where the Eastern Front comes in. While games have ventured towards Moscow before – notably the Men of War series – Relic feel there's still room for their own interpretation. For one thing, they're keen to emphasise the scale of these battles.
The famed Normandy beach landing that kicked off Saving Private Ryan, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and the first Company of Heroes? “That was the 23rd bloodiest battle of World War II,” says Quinn Duffy, Company of Heroes 2's lead designer. In comparison, “13 of the 15 bloodiest battles happened on the Eastern Front,” he says.
Company of Heroes 2 will begin in 1941, with the Soviets on the back foot after 600,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 cannons and 3,000 airplanes have poured into the Soviet Union. Within months, almost half of the Soviet Union's 190 million population is behind enemy lines.
Relic are cagey on exact narrative details, but the story of the war will be told through the eyes of a war correspondent as he travels through the Eastern Front, reporting on battles and “the failures of communist ideology,” says Quinn. The player's role will be to lead the Russians to fight back, from the defence of Stalingrad towards ultimate victory in Berlin.
The first Company of Heroes followed the Allied forces from the Normandy beach landing through to the capture of Berlin. What made it remarkable, then and now, was its ability to render those battles with the same cinematic flair as firstperson shooters like Medal of Honor, but with greater tactical depth than any other RTS.
Success in CoH is about more than left-click command, right-click conquer. Without traditional base building and resource gathering, beating the Nazis required genuine squad tactics: taking cover in hedgerows, flanking enemy positions, and cannily deploying grenades, artillery and equipment to outsmart smart enemies.
If you're controlling a tank in Company of Heroes and there's a building between you and your enemy, you can smash your way through that building. If a grenade explodes among your soldiers, those men will come apart, pinwheeling through the air. Company of Heroes found a spot on the scale between intelligence and bombast.
Company of Heroes II is loading. With Matthew Berger, one of the game's other designers, at the controls, Quinn is going to talk me through a mission called 'Rzhev Meatgrinder'. It was fought in the winter of 1942, and it's one of WWII's lesser known battles. It led to the deaths of a staggering 1 million Soviet soldiers.
When the mission loads, the camera is zoomed in on a small squad of five dapper Soviets. Their coats are flapping in the wind, and their feet are buried in snow. For shivering conscripts, they look great: just a little shy of the detail you might expect from a third-person action game, and way beyond the visual fidelity most real-time strategy games offer.
Matthew pulls the camera back, showing more of the area. He has a couple of other squads under his control. As he selects them, mortar shells strike. One of his soldiers is sent flying by the blast. When the smoke clears, some of the thick snow has been blown away.
This is one of CoH2's technical marvels. You can't make a game about the Eastern Front and not have snow, but this isn't just a flat, white texture. This snow has depth, will spread procedurally, and will compact when rolled over by tanks. It changes the way you think about the battlefield: tanks can get bogged down in deep snowdrifts, infantry can use it to flank. It provides a blanket of cover for the land's actual terrain. It does everything short of lemon-flavoured snowcones.
Matthew orders his men onto the road, where the snow is thinner and they can move faster. It's a good plan, until a soldier steps on a landmine. Matthew orders them off again. Up ahead, German soldiers take positions behind a farm wall and start firing at the Soviets, who are now trying to sprint in deep snow.
There's nothing to take cover behind here. Matthew sacrifices a few men to engage the Germans, and sends the rest of his squads to flank the enemy from the east. When they reach the wall, Matthew opens a hole in it using explosives, then orders a flamethrower soldier to start incinerating Nazis.
The flame effects get even better when Matthew directs them towards the farmhouse itself. The building catches fire, the snow on its roof begins to melt, and its walls collapse as the Germans inside flee. Matthew has taken control of the position.
Avoiding deep snow, flanking around cover, using equipment to blow holes in walls, destroying buildings... this small skirmish contains much of what made the original CoH so compelling when it forced players to improvise their tactics based on the environment.
Matthew orders his Soviet soldiers to a wall at the back of the farmhouse. Like everything else this wall can be destroyed, but before the Germans have the chance, Matthew orders his men to vault over it. That's new.
In the next field, our comrades run up against a German machinegun position. They're pinned down with no cover. The game switches to an in-engine cutscene, where a soldier gives the order to retreat, and the men turn to flee. Another machinegun is waiting for them. This one is operated by fellow Soviet soldiers. They glumly open fire, carrying out Order 227 and killing their own.
When the cutscene is over, Matthew is given control of two new squads of Soviets. This time, he makes his own cover by dropping a smoke grenade. As he does so, a fog of war effect greys out the area on the other side.
Relic call this 'True Sight', and it's another of CoH2's new additions. You can only see what your soldiers can see. That means that you never know what might be on the other side of the next building, beyond the treeline, or even beyond the smoke of your own smoke grenades.
While the smoke provides cover, Matthew again orders his men to flank across the deep snow. The machinegun is still in position, ready to rain hot death down on any squishy Soviets out in the open, but luckily, Matthew now has a plan. His plan is a tank.
It's a small tank, but still able to flatten the snow beneath its tracks, power across the field and destroy the machinegun position. Sitting in a giant, obvious-looking tin can carries its own risks, however, and the new fog of war system means that enemy ambushes are a real problem. The tank is burst by sneaky Nazis hidden behind one of the village houses.
Part of the fun of Company of Heroes 2's campaign will be controlling the fight between two vastly different armies. The German troops you'll be struggling with are well-trained, professional soldiers, with the best military technology of the age.
Your Soviet troops make up for their lack of training and crappy equipment with sheer numbers. Your tanks might not be as good, but you have a lot of them. Your men don't have months of training, but there's always more where they came from.
Matthew brings on another, bigger tank. He orders it towards the village alongside his infantry, and they force the Germans to retreat onto a sheet of ice. The tank follows, sliding on the frozen surface as it powers on.
Just as it looks as if the Soviets have the battle won, the sound of an overhead plane is heard. A bomb hits the tank and the screen fades to white, ending the brief demo.
It's a thin slice of what Company of Heroes 2 should feel like to play, but the heart of the first game is there. The new additions, such as the snow, proper line of sight, and more advanced cover system, all feel like natural extensions of the original's tactical combat. It's not radically different, but it's promising.
“Company of Heroes 2 isn't about different,” Quinn says of Relic's return to realistic warfare. “It's about new, and it's about more.” This takes me by surprise. In a world where sequels strive to justify their existence by twisting and warping original concepts, there's something bold about saying upfront that you intend to repeat yourself.
“We tried a number of things,” Quinn says. “In part, it was 'How far can we push it before we lose the essence of what Company of Heroes was?' And we just had an innate sense that things got out the comfort zone of what the game should be, so we started to narrow in.” Relic have resisted the temptation to shoehorn needless modes and mini-games in where they're not welcome. “We want more authenticity, we want more realism, we want tactical improvements...” Quinn sort of half shrugs. “I dunno, I'm bored of the original Company of Heroes,” he says.
Greg Wilson, the game's producer, is incredulous. “Really!?” Quinn verbally backpedals, laughing.
Matthew Berger, another designer, explains the philosophy in contrast to Relic's last sequel: Dawn of War 2.
“Dawn of War 2 was a very big departure, which was to bring newer players in,” he says. “When we started looking at going to Company of Heroes 2, that kind of departure did come up. We were really very clear that we wanted to maintain the core game, and that was a decision we made and that was in part because of Dawn of War 2.”
Greg quickly counters the obvious thought: “Dawn of War 2 is an amazing game, but there were certain things that didn't suit the franchise very well.”
Company of Heroes 2 should, then, satisfy existing fans first and foremost. From looking at the forums, it seems there are plenty of them, although that raises one last question for the team: what happened with Company of Heroes Online?
CoH Online was a free-to-play re-tooling of the original, with most of its campaigns offered for free and an expanded microtransaction-fed multiplayer. It failed to catch fire, and was stomped out suddenly after a protracted beta period. As soon as I ask what happened, a chilly silence descends on the room. After a pause, Greg says that the project was “interesting”, “challenging”, and a lot of lessons were learned. They're clearly not going to expand on that.
With the presentation over, the interview done, I'm hanging around the halls of Relic's offices. The walls are lined with framed articles about their games. Every games company does this. There are previews of Dawn of War and of Space Marine, and on one wall, all eight pages of PC Gamer's review of the first Company of Heroes. It concludes, “This is nothing short of genius.”
There's still a lot about Company of Heroes 2 that Relic aren't ready to show. They haven't decided which missions will be in the final game, because they haven't built them yet. They don't know exactly how Order 227 will impact your troops outside of cutscenes. The game's economy will be tied to territorial control, as per the first game, but they're not yet ready to talk about it in full. If they've decided how multiplayer will work, they're not telling.
But their ambition not to change, but to outstrip the superlative original Company of Heroes, nearguarantees the same thing the Soviet top brass enforced back in the early '40s: not one step back