We had a sit down with Greg Wilson, producer of Company of Heroes Online. He's revealed some interesting new details about Relic's plan for taking their intense WWII strategy game online, and making it free to play for everyone.
The phrase 'free online game' doesn't normally fill me with much confidence. In fact, it makes me think of the billions of Bejeweled and Farmville clones that populate Facebook. Adding Company of Heroes to that mix is like unleashing a Balrog in a nursery. Nonetheless, Relic hope to capture their share of the millions and millions of Facebook gamers out there.
“With Facebook users," Greg says, "we're looking at that and we're seeing amazing things with the casual gaming space. What we're thinking is that some of those players will get tired of that fast food style of gameplay, and they'll want to graduate to something a bit more – whether that's a triple-A PC title or something in between. We know there are new gamers being exposed or created every day based on this social gaming phenomenon and the fact that it's free. It fits another time-niche. We're hoping that people will want to gravitate towards something with a bit more meat on it. You get tired of eating MacDonalds everyday and you want a steak sometimes. We're the steak.”
He adds: “we're very aware of the importance of the viral community, the social connections, and making sure that people can share the information with their friends and just sort of get that update of 'Greg just levelled up, he's level 6' or 'he just won a 4v4 matchup, he just got a rare Hero drop.' And people are like 'what's that? Oh, it's just a free game I can download, oh, yeah I'll definitely check that out'."
The best thing about all of this is the image I have in my head of a Farmville player accidentally stumbling wide-eyed into the violent, war-strewn chaos of an eight-player skirmish, seeing the bloodied remains of his troops devastated by a relentless off-map artillery strike, and just sitting there with a slack-jawed expression of horror on his face. Maybe with a single tear trickling down his cheek.
Company of Heroes Online is due to receive content and balancing updates every month after launch. “Players will be exposed to new maps, new army units and new Heroes on a regular basis," Greg says. "I think on launch we're looking at 300 units, army upgrades and Heroes combined together at launch, and we'll just be adding more stuff as we go every month, and this is all free content. Everyone who downloads this game gets this for free as a possibility, you'll get it as a drop, or find it in the store.” We've already covered Company of Heroes Online's item store in depth.
While we can't be sure yet exactly what these updates will contain, Greg drops a clue when he mentions Company of Heroes' two expansions. “CoH is an amazing franchise with a ton of content we have to draw on, a ton of maps, a ton of commander trees from both expansion packs: Opposing Front and Tales of Valour.”
It's not too great a stretch to imagine the maps added by the expansions making their way into Company of Heroes Online, but there a few other interesting things lurking in Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valour that could make the transition to the new game, not least the two extra factions.
Relic will undoubtedly be concentrating on the Americans and the Wehrmacht for a good while yet, but there's plenty of scope for them to add the sweary, artillery driven British and the fast, expansive, “we nail mortars to our halftracks, that's just how we roll” style of the German Panzer Elite. Yet as great as these armies are, I'm much more excited at the thought that some of the largely overlooked game modes from Tales of Valour might make a reappearance.
Namely Stonewall, a game mode in which you and three friends try to hold out against 16 waves of enemy attacks – an early large-scale prototype of the excellent Last Stand mode that Relic later added to Dawn of War II. Imagine fending off huge armies of attackers with your mates, earning more experience for every wave you repel. It's almost too good to contemplate.
Last but not least: you know that Company of Heroes CD key that you were about to throw away? Don't do it! Rescue it from the bin, say you're sorry and hold it close. There's a chance it could earn you some free goodies in Company of Heroes Online.
As Greg says, “we are urging people to hang onto their CD keys, we don't have the details yet, but we really appreciate our current retail CoH fanbase, we love them and we recognise that they helped us get where we are today with this franchise. We want to make sure they feel appreciated, so there will be something special for people who are retail owners. News of that will come."
'News of that will come'. Mysterious. Almost ominous . What could it be? A unique Hero unit, perhaps? A special army item? To be honest all I want from Company of Heroes Online, and indeed from life, is an awesome moustache for General Vague. Relic, you'll notice I've mocked up, to exact specifications, what such a moustache should look like in the image above.
Company of Heroes Online is due to hit the US later this year, and Relic say they'll be trying to get it out in Europe as soon as possible after that. I'm really excited.