Sometimes you really have to feel sorry for the rest of the Allies. Often, the period before the US entered World War II is ignored in videogames, or glossed over tactlessly with subtitles and timecards. American accents are ubiquitous across the various theatres of war.
Company of Heroes 2, like a few influential war titles before it, opens up the Red Army to players. The sequel to 2006's critically-acclaimed real-time strategy classic Company of Heroes is mostly more of the same, which is definitely not a bad thing. There are several significant gameplay innovations and tactical changes, but the core multiplayer experience remains very much the same. Cover and micro-management are just as important as ever, and the sequel continues the franchise's doggedly realistic approach to warfare.
Access to the Company of Heroes 2 beta is available now by liking the game's official Facebook page.
The development process has been far from certain. Publisher THQ’s bankruptcy late last year left a question mark hovering over the future of developer Relic Entertainment. Sega came to the rescue, buying Relic and its existing projects, and after various delays, the game is scheduled to launch on June 25th.
As with its predecessor, traditional real-time strategy staples such as health bars are de-emphasised. These are replaced by squad based, highly tactical combat. No turtling in a base here – resources are won through active domination of the battlefield, this time through building resource outposts.
The two sides, Soviet and Axis, are fairly well balanced, and each offers slightly different units and tactics. Russian conscripts stream on to the battlefield, and large numbers can be used to win enough resource points to upgrade to more powerful weapons. The Axis side takes a more measured approach, with smaller squads, and specialists such as snipers who can supplement other squads for best tactical advantage.
Fuel, munitions and manpower are heavily contested via resource points. A healthy fuel supply enables generals to power up their conscripts, leading to jets of flame spilling out across the frozen wasteland. Mortars too are the biggest worry for an enemy – a good player will block off key strategic points by laying down a barrage of mortar fire.
Overall victory is determined by a ticket system that will be familiar to players of the Battlefield franchise. Players must hold victory points to decrease their enemy’s ticket count.
The new line of sight system, dubbed “True Sight”, creates a cone of vision, dynamically representing the visual range of a squad or vehicle. This really builds on the already impressive detail of the terrain. The new Essence 3.0 engine delivers stunning graphical detail: fallen rubble can block a squad’s line of sight, making cunning ambushes by enemies possible. The graphics are polished, even at beta stage, and do their best to remain lively and colourful despite the drab uniformity of the genre.
Unit audio, which too often becomes campy or irritating in many modern real-time strategy titles, is handled well here, and there may be even more depth in the finished campaign. Squads react with emotion in a way that brings each battle to life.
The weather engine also plays a huge role on the Eastern Front, and maps available at the time of writing included several that feature the new blizzard system.
When blizzard conditions are in effect, troops are slowed down considerably and players need to have campfires ready to keep squads active. Tactical thinkers will already be planning to sabotage an enemy’s camp fires, and indeed this can be very effective.
The learning curve is steep for those coming fresh to the franchise – even for experienced armchair generals who will be used to a more health-based approach. Those unprepared to spend time mastering the sometimes frustrating micromanagement aspects might not find Company of Heroes 2 to their tastes.
Additionally, the AI in the beta is set to a difficult level, so those picking it up cold may want to wait for the full game with the inevitable tutorial missions in order to learn the ropes.
Nonetheless, it’s clear Relic is on the precipice of delivering a fantastic game. Company of Heroes 2 is shaping up to be one of the most addictive real-time strategy titles of 2013.