Gamescom 2012: Company of Heroes 2 Hands-on preview (PC)

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Company of Heroes 2 is looking great. It has a lot to live up to – the previous game is one of the highest rated strategy games of all time, but it already feels like a very quality game even in its pre-alpha state.

Company of Heroes 2 Banner Logo

Company of Heroes 2 moves the action from the West Front of World War II to the East Front, arguably the more important front of the war. The main difference noted by the developers is the addition of cold because it played such a huge role in the war in Russia. The new Essence Engine 3.0 enables features such as snow that can be moved or melted, ice that can break and re-freeze and persistent tracks through the snow with real terrain deformation using DirectX 11. The build we played was only using DirectX 9, but even so the graphic detail is very impressive.

Company of Heroes Screenshot 2

Relic is calling the technology ColdTech. They’ve named it because it operates almost independantly of the rest of the gameplay and permeates everything. Blizzards roll in affecting line of sight and adding layers of snow to buildings and vehicles, the cold gets to soldiers who can die if they don’t get to a heat source (either a building or a fire), snow build-up will slow infantry down and flamethrowers and grenades can melt paths through the snow. Ice is destructable too, and tanks can fall through weak ice into rivers. Tanks themselves affect the integrity of an iced-up river as they drive over it, so you can’t drive too many tanks on the same path or you’ll risk them falling in. If the ice does break (either through enemy fire or weakness) it will refreeze after sometime, depending on the weather.

Company of Heros 2 Screenshot 2

All of these ColdTech weather effects impact gameplay tremendously because they open up new tactics for tackling your opponent’s position and they mean you have to permanently worry about the “warmth” of your soldiers. Although the warmth aspect is realistic it adds to the micro-management you need to do as you can’t simply send soldiers from one place to another; you have to tell them to wait beside fires before moving on to ensure they get to where they’re going without dying.

Truesight is another trademarked technology included in Company of Heroes 2. It’s a marketing name for realtime updating of line of sight based on true visibility. Each unit will be able to see different distances and over different objects, and different materials will allow different visibility. The blizzards that blow through lower troops ability to see far, and smoke will also block line of sight making smoke grenades an effective weapon for hiding your movements.

Company of Heros 2 Screenshot 1

But how does all this feel when you’re playing it? I played two missions: Rzhev Meatgrinder which is a simple small-scale tactical mission and Battle of Moscow which is a map with capture points and bases that took about 45 minutes to play. Both were a lot of fun. I am not a fan of micro-management in RTS games and I’m pleased with the way your soldiers react sensibly for the most part to whatever happens.

The cold was a bugbear though – engineers will freeze to death unless you tell them to make a fire. Soldiers don’t know how to make a fire. Because of this when I started playing I spent most of my time concentrating simply on keeping my soldiers alive and didn’t realise the capture points that are needed for vistory had been taken by the enemy.

Soon I got the hang of the cold and adapted my play: build a fire-camp along each supply path and move the soldiers from camp to camp until they get to the battle front. This is a little more onerous than simply sending them to a meeting point blindly, but it worked to keep them alive and meant I had fall-back positions that were warm too. I also started ensuring that every squad had at least one engineer unit so that they could make a fire at any time if they were getting cold (I still had to tell them to make the fire, but at least they had the capability). My second play-through of the Battle of Moscow map ended with a overwhelming victory for me (after being thoroughly trounced before), so I’m happy that hypothermia will play a part in how you approach a battle but won’t overwhelm the gameplay.

One thing I found missing in the game was the ability to zoom out further. The furthest out you can zoom doesn’t give you a sense of the grand sweep of the battle, and the mini-map is too tiny to convey much information. I would appreciate a mechanism to see things a little more schematically so I understand better the lay of everything before I go back and tell my infantry which next steps to take. You can zoom very close in and the detail on the units is incredible, but it’s not a view that gives you better ability to apply tactics.

Company of Heros 2 Screenshot 1

Company of Heroes 2 is shaping up to be a very exciting real-time strategy game. Fans of the original game should look forward to a new but not too different experience – a different arena of battle in the same era as before. The war on the Eastern front has many interesting battles to play out and the campaign will take you to the best of them. Those with high end PCs will be treated to what is almost certainly going to be the best looking RTS game around. Company of Heroes 2 will be out in the first half of 2013 on PC.

Thanks to THQ for allowing us hands-on time with the game in this early state.

Note: the screenshots in this post are previously released screenshots.

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