Company of Heroes 2 Preview
If you were a little worried about the future of the Company of Heroes franchise during these few months when Relic's owner and publisher THQ was auctioning off assets and going out of business, I don't blame you. This is one of the few western strategy game developers left that have (mostly) stuck to their roots and kept playing to their strengths, and while games like Warhammer 40K Space Marine and Company of Heroes Online showed that even an excellent developer like Relic doesn't always strike video game gold, it's my opinion that they'll be back to their winning ways upon the release of Company of Heroes 2.
During THQ's developer and IP auctions, Sega acquired Relic Entertainment to go alongside Creative Assembly, creators of the Total War games. Say what you will about Sega, but they generally do a great job supporting their RTS franchises and developers - well, at least until this last week when they closed the Australian arm of Creative Assembly (this is the team responsible for Medieval 2: Total War amongst some other, vastly worse, games). Still, Relic was already nearing release of Company of Heroes 2 when THQ went under, and from what I'm seeing in the currently running beta, the only impact of the Sega acquisition on their development of the game seems to have a few months' delay - nothing affecting the quality of the game.
Company of Heroes 2 takes place entirely on the Eastern front of World War II between the Germans and the Russians. Battles are on relatively standard RTS-style maps, but Relic's take on all of this is that units can do many of the things that you'd see in a movie or first-person military game. They can enter buildings, take cover, vault over walls, crawl, retreat, charge, and more. Vehicles are immensely powerful and are generally easy to control, but tanks can be inaccurate or ineffectual against some fast-moving units, and half-tracks aren't as durable as you'd probably hope when they're in your hands. Vehicles can also be disabled or destroyed in a wide range of ways, and you'll almost certainly have to take advantage of these ways at some point in pretty much every battle if you want to do more winning than losing.
The current beta includes six maps that range from small two-player areas to up to a six-to-eight-player battlefield. The game always enforces two teams and it's always the Russians versus the Germans, but luckily the developers are using persistent rewards to get you attached to your setups on both sides. You'll be able to configure your commanders which bestow specific bonuses at key points in battle along with other perks you'll pick from, but then you'll lose access to other abilities. Players will also get to see Relic's new engine in full force, as physics and destructible buildings, objects, and terrain all make for a more dynamic battlefield that makes for tactical implications as well as solid eye candy. If one section of a map becomes a hotspot of explosions and troop activity, you'll see it as trees and foliage are swept away, buildings and walls crumble, snow is cleared by explosions and replaced by charred terrain, and more. In many of the ways that today's AAA action games show a world changing as the player moves through it, you'll see those same things happening in this game as skirmishes are fought on a map.
The other major feature added in this game is a dynamic line of sight system that is constantly updating with only the things your own troops can see at the time. We're not to the point of calculating individual cones of vision - so you can still see enemy troops running in the open behind your squad, for example - but you won't be able to see what's behind a building until you send someone around to take a look. This works well with the cover system, too, as your guys hiding behind a low wall will be concealed to an enemy until they start firing. Again, this goes a long way towards enhancing the tactical feel of everything, and gives further advantages to flanking maneuvers.
While I'm usually a fan of bigger-scale strategy games with hundreds of units, Company of Heroes 2 appeals to me because I feel like the depth you can explore with the relatively smaller unit count makes it worth it. You'll have to mix together infantry, machine-gunners, engineers, mortars, anti-tank guns, and a wide range of vehicles all together to win, and use each of these units' special abilities well in order to maintain a hold on the capture points that give resources and contribute to actual victory. The game puts lots of capture points around the map to increase your resources, along with special ones that add to a specific resource - so you can capture a few points to bring in more Manpower for infantry units, then build munitions depots at them or capture specific Munitions points for more Munitions (which are spent on heavier hand-held weapons like mortars, RPGs, and the like), and finally capture Fuel Depots for the Fuel resource required to build vehicles.
But all of this is useless unless you're capturing one of the few key points on the map that actually contribute to a win. The game gives each team a number of points (default 500) at the start, and takes a team's points away slowly in a steady stream when their enemy holds a majority of these victory points. This means that your team can choose to focus its fire on maintaining two points, but if the enemy starts pouring in a ton of stuff to one of those points and overwhelms you, you can shift your resources to that third point, where the enemy is likely weaker, and take that instead. What's important here is that in Company of Heroes 2, very little of your resources are tied up in stationary objects; the biggest cost is in the expensive troops and vehicles, and you need to keep those mobile and be fluid on the battlefield to win.
And since enemies can take cover or enter buildings, and their vehicles' armor are weak in the rear, that means that flanking an enemy gives you a sizable advantage. The maps are designed in a way that makes this relatively easy, as players won't have enough resources to cover every "lane" on a map equally. Those who prove to be the most flexible and knowledgeable about their troops on the battlefield will generally do best. Maybe none of this really serves as news to Company of Heroes veterans, but I haven't even gotten into the extra depth added in the snowy maps where troops must build fires to warm up or where frozen rivers can become hazards for tanks moving across them - especially when the enemy uses explosives like mortars. Combine it with the features already mentioned, and we've got a game that builds on a solid foundation with well-balanced, new depth.
Even with a pretty interesting range of strategy games out today, Company of Heroes 2 will fill a unique niche that Relic's games in the past have enjoyed as well. It's not a huge, epic game with hundreds of units, but unlike StarCraft, the game moves a little more slowly, and micromanagement isn't so vital for victory. You'll need a wider range of units along with proper tactics, flexibility, and movement to win, and this puts it more firmly in the realm of cerebral wargame (despite still being an RTS) than the many faster strategy games that wind up being tied more closely to build orders and actions per minute.
Some gamers are taking issue with the news that CoH2 will have some kind of DLC and paid transactions, and that comes in because players do go through a Call of Duty-like progression system with unlocks and the like. At this point, as long as money can't buy you anything that will screw with balance and players who just keep playing can unlock all the same rewards, I'm fine with it. But if someone can spend twenty bucks and gain clear advantages (rather than added tactical options or "sidegrades"), then that could backfire on Relic as well as on the new publisher, Sega, who hasn't seemed to dissuade Relic from including this stuff. At this point, I'm cautiously optimistic about Relic making sure that they won't screw up their game with a few paid items.
It's been a while since I was excited to play a strategy game, but here we are, and I haven't even seen much of the single player campaign yet. Company of Heroes 2 did suffer a delay with all that publisher craziness, but it's clearly back on track and now set for release, exclusively for PC, in both North America and Europe on June 25th. If you want to get in on the same beta I played for this preview, a pre-purchase of the game on Steam will allow you immediate access.