The standalone expansion for Company of Heroes 2 will give players another opportunity to thump the AI in a lengthy single-player RTS campaign set during the Battle of the Bulge. It's significantly bigger than the Eastern front campaign included in CoH2, which makes the addition of unit permadeath especially challenging. If you lose a squad to a stray mortar, or a flanking heavy machine gun, they're not coming back for the next mission. If your veteran Sherman gets pancaked by an airstrike you'll leave its burned out remains on that battlefield forever. Good news, strategy fans, Company of Heroes is about to get harder.
An obvious first question for game director and Relic veteran, Quinn Duffy, then: if you keep throwing men recklessly to their doom, can you completely screw yourself before the campaign is done? “You can screw yourself over and you can sort of lose, and we've built it with the hardcore audience in mind for that. If you're looking for that type of experience, similar to XCOM, you can have that,” he says. “There's not a sort of hard line 'you just played a mission and completely screwed yourself', it's a lot of setbacks. When you get one of those setbacks the hope is the player's going to reassess their situation.”
I'm reminded of 1998's Warhammer: Dark Omen, which carried a particularly gruelling implementation of a similar system. It's a better fit for the US forces in the Ardennes, famously cut off from reinforcements during the siege of Bastogne. For lead campaign designer, Mitch Lagran, permadeath fulfils one key purpose: “we want there to be consequence to decisions. Consequence adds tension, it adds drama, it adds to that mission narrative because there's things at stake in a way that we haven't done.”
The sprawling nature of the Eastern front made it difficult to follow a single band of soldiers through the whole conflict. Ardennes is different. Your company levels up between missions, which will unlock rewards. Relic's designers aren't talking about what those rewards are yet, but it's easy to speculate based on the recently added war spoils system that lets you socket buffs into units to make them slightly better at shooting guns and ducking bullets. Thanks to the evolving company, and scarce, precious units, there's more reason to become invested in your army in Ardennes than any prior CoH campaign.
I watched Duffy and Lagran fight through a single mission in a heavy forest surrounding a snug Belgian village. Duffy performs an efficient cover-to-cover sprint up the right flank, shrinking back at the occasional appearance of a German half-track. The town is taken after a difficult, noisy exchange of grenades and gunfire. The battle is heavily weighted around infantry and close-quarters fighting, encouraged by the intricate layout of the townlet's narrow streets. I only see one run of the mission, but I'm told it can be approached in various ways. “You can go left, you can go right, you can go up the middle, you can cross over halfway and go up left. There are lots of pathways fighting in and around the village itself,” says Duffy.
“Each of those different routes actually has different styles of gameplay and different things that players can do there,” Lagran adds. “I've played the mission so many times, obviously. I've driven straight up the front right through the most heavily defended parts and I've done it pretty successfully, but it's a completely different experience from when I've gone left side and tried to do super-sneaky and stealth it.”
At a glance the US force closely resembles the one released in the recent Western Front Armies standalone multiplayer release, which marked a return for fan and dev favourites like Paratroopers and, as Duffy describes it, the “much-maligned” Sherman tank. This reflects a new “cadence” of releases that sees Relic building multiplayer armies, and then designing single-player campaigns around them later. The resulting campaign is hopefully better for the six months of player metrics and playtesting, but should also bring the single-player and multiplayer armies closer together. That ought to make it easier for players that traditionally only fight the AI to hop into CoH2's expanding multiplayer ecosystem, or so the designers hope.
Ardennes Assault marks the end of a busy year for Company of Heroes 2. Incremental updates have tightened up performance, a new server system has improved online drop rates, and numerous balance tweaks have polished it up very nicely. It's a promising trend for a game that wants to become a World War 2 platform, capable of travelling between the war's varied theatres over the course of a long life of updates. Blatantly fishing for clues on CoH's future, I ask Duffy how he pictures Company of Heroes 2 five years from now. “Vast,” he laughs. “It would be awesome if it was vast.”
Ardennes Assault will arrive November 18 as a standalone release.