Eyes On: Company Of Heroes 2’s Cold Front

By John Walker on July 24th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.

Snowball fight!

We sent Craig Pearson out to brave the icy storms of Company Of Heroes 2. Could he weather the assignment? Or would he find it a cool breeze? Snow problem, he said… He was shown the cold weather in the game, see, and quite what an impact it has on how you play. While he was there, Craig spoke to the game’s director, Quinn Duffy, and lead animator, Brett Pascal, about the difficulties of portraying snow, the methods behind creating immersion, and dynamic ice.

I fail at a lot of strategy games, but the game I fail the least at is Company Of Heroes. I think it’s because it’s slower and less abstract. Intensity and authenticity are favoured over speed and complexity. I can figure out how to do things on the battleground, and without the added pressure of having to deal with a base that built a better soldier or recording my mouse clicks in a diary, CoH clicked. I felt that little ‘snick’ happen again while watching THQ’s recent Company of Heroes 2 presentation in Dublin: I could probably handle this.

“Company of Heroes can be very intense, but it’s not an APM type of game,” Game Director Quinn Duffy agrees. “You have people that pride themselves on having 300APM, I don’t know what they’re up to now, I can play Company of Heroes with just the taskbar and the mouse. You can make very deliberate actions and decision, and you don’t need to make any micro-control that you get in other strategy games.”

The sequel is a familiar friend, even after all this time and new tech: a WW2 set strategy game where the camera is free, but still tight in on the action. The presentation begins focussed so closely on a Russian squad that you can see them rubbing their hands together to keep the cold at bay. I note that you can see five fingers on each hand. They start to walk cagily through the knee-deep snow. The game is set on the Eastern Front, a tricky scenario to adequately capture. The cold killed more than the fighting: it’s as deadly as a well-aimed bullet, and its inclusion is the reason it’s taken so long for the sequel to arrive.

“We couldn’t do snow,” explains Duffy. You could just paint it white, but we wanted to try and connect those things to the gameplay. We’ve got layers of snow. It’s not just a texture, it has gameplay impact. We’ve got deep snow, you can see troops leaving their footprints, and they actually labour through it. So deep snow isn’t everywhere, but it’s also unavoidable. Being slowed down increases your exposure.”

On the screen the troops are doing an odd, open-legged walk through the snow. It’s doing more than encumbering them: to the right is a temperature guage, and when it bottoms out the troops start succumbing to the winter. One stops and curls up in the snow, dead before a gun is fired. Is this really a strategy game?

Duffy points out, “We talk about authenticity, it’s not about getting every bolt right in a tank or being accurate to a degree. It’s about tone and experience. We don’t have the simulation depth of a super-hardcore combat game, but what we offer is immersion. In Company of Heroes, when we set a goal of capturing the realism, a lot of it starts with presentation. And then you have figure out how to build a game to support that. So we have this cool gameplay element, how do we build the visuals to support that, that don’t take us into a level of abstraction?”

Lead Animator Brett Pascal chips in: “The presentation can bridge the gap. We’ve got a good gap between the facts and occurrences of the war and the realistic nature of what the combat was, and putting an entertaining skin on it as well.”

So while you can die under the frosty horror of the minus 40 degree Russian winter, you can fight it off was well. The cold has to be a defeatable adversary. Cover provides protection from a bullet as well as a pocket of warmth to allow the foot soldiers to cuddle up. There are firelighters in the squad that can set up a recuperative little hollow of heat. I’m fascinated by the odd dynamic: the squad are hunkered down, trying to keep warm while a few feet away a tank starts to fire; they’re cowering, not from the fight, but from the cold. It’s scarier than the Third Reich.

“The winter stopped the Germans from taking Moscow”, Pascal says. “You start with that.”

So there’s pervasive permafrost to engage, as well as the occasional blizzard that will add more snow. Under a blizzard your troops will freeze faster, and your air-strikes can’t operate. Cover and buildings will help mitigate the effects, as will vehicles. But those pose their own challenges against the weather. Augmenting the squad’s clumsy trudging are people carriers and tanks. Tanks, so often the solution to all life’s problems, suffer from the tracks losing traction across ice, but their weight poses bigger problems. Find a frozen river and there’s no guarantee it’ll support the tank’s tonnage, but daring commanders might see the opportunity, as Duffy points out. “It’s a dangerous surface. We all know how fragile ice can be. It’s also a life-saving surface. During the siege of Leningrad, when they brought trucks across the lake, that was one of the only ways to supply the city. So for us it’s a barrier, but it also allows access. Conditionally, it’s slippery, it’s dangerous.”

On the ice, the tanks leave a trail of cracks behind, but it remains solid until a huge blast from off screen rocks the battle. The tanks vanish into the exposed water, a smiling Duffy points out, “Ice is a fully destructible layer. It’s also a very dynamic layer, so this area of the map that’s destroyed now will eventually refreeze. It can be destroyed and refreeze again, so players can adjust how they move around.”

I imagine scenarios where you stifle the opposition by trollishly breaking ice ahead of their troops. But to do that you have to see them, and CoH2 has that covered as well. Everything is affected by the cold, but the obstacles aren’t just based on the stuff of snowmen. Under that chilly layer is stodgy Russian architecture. The landscape that the snow drifts over has tactical implications. The smallest tweak of these is allowing the players to vault over fences that dot the world, because they’re nothing but lines on a map anyway. But the biggest is True Sight. It’s a dynamic line of sight system that properly takes into account what can be seen: there’s no vision cones, just what you can see, and it’s altered as the ground shifts. If a house is crumbled to the ground, it no longer provides cover. If a tank is stopped dead in the middle of a street, the squad can use it to hide their movement. The light shadow that True Sight drapes is a constantly morphing, lumpy, tactical blanket that lets tanks and squads to leap out of cover like a cat in a horror movie. It’s jumpy, as the demo shows a village becoming a bogged down battlefield of counter-manoeuvres around appearing and disappearing enemies. Quickly the Russians are left with a single tank and an overbearing influx of Gemans.

It’s a trap: Duffy is luring the Reich, clumping them together for a show of Russian firepower. Elsewhere on the map sits a Katyusha, an artillery rocket launcher. Several truckloads of artillery are launched at the Germans, who’re unfortunately placed over a frozen river. The barrage is ferocious: before the tanks melt into the frozen river, they’re swallowed by the flames bursting from the missiles. When it clears, all that’s left is a churning river of ice.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

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39 Comments »

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  1. BlackeyeVuk says:

    Nobody has anything to say? Here goes nothing….

    Snow potato..

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      Phinor says:

      What’s there to say? It sounds just about perfect and when’s the release date!

      Easily my most anticipated game in the past few years. Only Valve could spoil that by saying something about HL3.

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      dartt says:

      I’m sure that now that you’ve commented, activity in this thread will snowball.

      • neonordnance says:

        Ouch. That’s cold.

      • Inglourious Badger says:

        Ice see we’ll keep punning ’til snow pun is left unpunned.

        • BlackeyeVuk says:

          Puns aside . Im looking forward playing this game. I have all COH+DLC stuff , and pretty much play with my GF every week at least once.

          Altho … she has that habit of icing me away in 1v1 maps…

      • Geen says:

        I think this game is rather cool, when it gets released I’m going to chill out for a day and play it 24/7.

        I’m sorry.

        • The Infamous Woodchuck says:

          Hold on now, with all of these new features, the game will probably freeze alot during launch.

      • Heliocentric says:

        I don’t care what people say, this looks so much better than the frostbite engine Dice use.

  2. Aideh says:

    I dont remember the KKK being in WW2? (3rd pic)

    • Kaira- says:

      KKK? Not sure what you mean, but BM-13 Katyusha was indeed in use during WW2, in Finland it’s known better with the name “Stalin’s organs” (you know, the organs in the church), which I believe originated from German troops use of Stalinorgel.

      • valiantjared says:

        well he said 3rd pic but he meant the last one. He was referring to the conical white hats for the russian uniform which looks similar to the Klu Klux Klan uniform (an ultra conservative religious white racist group originating in antebellum southern United States formed to combat integration of different ethnic groups)

        • Kaira- says:

          Yeah, I was just confused when he said KKK and wondered if Katyusha had a nickname of KKK that I wasn’t aware of. The American KKK is too well known.

  3. Tuggy Tug says:

    SNOWFACE?

  4. subedii says:

    Definitely looking forward to this.

    I pretty much bounced right off of Starcraft 2 (partly because of the aforementioned gameplay design priorities when it comes to things like APM), but I was a big fan of the first CoH in singleplayer (never really got the chance to get in on the multiplayer properly), and I still play DoW 2 as well (very different in multiplayer, but has a lot of the same thinking behind it).

    Hopefully they’ll give us some proper gameplay footage soon.

  5. Macaw says:

    Have Relic said anything about skis, sleds and other winter equipment affecting game-play?

    • presheaf says:

      Has there ever been a strategy game with soldiers using skis? I love the idea of having troops skiing down a mountain, zig-zagging between trees while fighting off enemies, before finally arriving to reinforce the rest of the army, and putting their skis on their backs.

      • LordCraigus says:

        The Winter War game ‘Talvisota: Icy Hell’ had ski troops.

  6. UncleLou says:

    I see they are still doing the silly thing and show mostly zoomed in screenshots, with a tilted perspective. Not only does that make the (from the top down, gameplay view) gorgeous looking game look like a low-budget shooter, I also remember people being genuinely confused about CoH at the time because they did the same thing there.

    • Hug_dealer says:

      they are showing just how detailed there game is. Its the little things that sets Relic above every other RTS maker out there. Including blizzard. Relic takes their level of immersion to the next level when it comes to animation, graphics, and sound. Even gameplay, they are never content to say this is good enough, they always kick it up a notch. While other devs, such as Blizzard say meh we have innovated enough, why fix what isnt broken ie SC2. But Relic isnt fixing what isnt broken, they are building upon it taking it to another level.

      And that folks is why i throw my money at Relic.

      • Brun says:

        Well, I think Blizzard intentionally took a conservative approach with SC2 because they wanted it to replace Starcraft on the E-sports scene, which necessarily meant taking a cautious approach that kept it very close to the original Starcraft in terms of gameplay.

        • subedii says:

          Gameplay yes. Even the visuals I can thoroughly understand why Blizzard went the route it did.

          When it comes to audio / voicework though, I really do think Blizzard missed a trick compared to Relic. The sheer amount of contextual voicework in Relic’s games is phenominal, and aside from providing tremendously to the atmosphere, it serves a real gameplay purpose as well because it keeps you notified of so much happening within context. When I played Starcraft 2 I was kind of dissapointed that Blizzard didn’t take a leaf out of Relic’s book there, considering all the resources they had to throw at the game.

          That Relic manages to do that and still keep the quality of the voicework so high always amazes me. I mean DoW 2 has 5 voiced races (I’m excluding Tyranids here, they’ve just got the Hivemind voice technically), each with a race’s worth of units. They will talk and comment on almost anything and every unit.

          I mean the average SC2 unit will have something like 2 minutes of dialogue. In DoW 2 it’s usually more like 15-20 minutes.

          Now consider five fully voice acted sides, maybe 12-15 units a side. And 3 commanders, who have additional contextual voiced dialogue. And the thing is, each time they added a race, they retroactively added respective lines to all the other existing races. The amount of voicework that Relic put together is crazy.

  7. presheaf says:

    This sounds fantastic!
    I think there’s huge scope for extreme weather effects painting a really foreign atmosphere, and here they seem to be keen on capturing those kinds of extreme situations. In particular: “they’re cowering, not from the fight, but from the cold”. It really says something.

    I hope we get to see more use of strong weather effects that really impact the experience. Seems to me that there are so many possibilities with such systems that haven’t been explored all that much. I think for instance of Metroid Prime, which managed to show some very strong atmospheres (frozen worlds, hellish worlds, etc) that should’ve been supported with atmospherical weather effects which really impede the player.

  8. Pheasant Plucker says:

    Umm, I’m not snow sure about this cold weather malarkey.

    If it’s so cold that people are dying of exposure halfway into a battle, then I guess it would be cold enough to freeze the oil, fuel, optics, and sundry other parts of tanks and machine-guns etc.

    When it got that cold on the Eastern Front, say the famous 1941 temperature of -40 that is quoted above, then mechanised warfare pretty much stopped altogether. The badly equipped Germans had enough of a struggle to just exist.

    It might be an immersion breaker for me to see Panzers whizzing around and machine guns blazing under a cold reckoned to be so extreme that it can kill a man in minutes.

  9. theleif says:

    Very much looking forward to this. Especially the “true sight” mechanism, and the tactical implications it has.

  10. pigsdofly says:

    I guess you could say that the game is looking rather… cool?

    (sorry)

  11. Bobtree says:

    Tanks falling through the ice was one of the great surprises of Faces of War, and the first time it happens in multiplayer is a transcendent moment.

  12. Shooop says:

    I do hope this goes well. I’m shit at Starcraft and Command & Conquer, but this definitely isn’t Starcraft and Command & Conquer. It’s no race to build a proper tank rush.

  13. Real Horrorshow says:

    I’m amazed no one has negatively compared Company of Heroes to Men of War yet. I thought it was an ingrained RPS reader ritual at this point.

  14. Nim says:

    12+ years of WW2 games and not a single one about the Winter War or the Continuation War from foreign developers. A conflict that spanned almost the entire length of the second World War and which guaranteed the future of a country from becoming invaded by the soviets. And here is a wonderful, nay excellent opportunity but it’s the same old fucking Allies, Soviets and Nazis. It’s like we, our war-veterans and our history doesn’t exist. Maybe we’re just a footnote in the history books or something. We’re not even the only ones ignored, there are tons of other fronts of the second world war equally unexplored.

    I’m not venting at Relic only. Every single developer who has ever made World War 2 games are guilty of this negligence and ignorance.

  15. WinTurkey says:

    Can’t wait to see CoH2 get praised for doing things that Men of War had years ago.

  16. f1x says:

    Lets discuss about the quality of the snow