Hands On: Company Of Heroes 2

By Adam Smith on August 23rd, 2012 at 9:00 pm.

At Gamescom, Relic gave me an article of clothing that says “I survived the Eastern Front” across the back in striking red letters. Considering I barely survived a stroll down the Brighton sea front a couple of months back because there was a bit of rain, it seems inappropriate for me to wear such a statement. I also lost to the AI during a skirmish game of Company of Heroes 2, my blood become ice, but that’s because I wasn’t really trying to win. Here’s what I was doing instead.

I’m not saying that I would have won or could have won. My Company of Heroes’ skills were rustier than the blasted turret of a long-unmanned T-34, so as well as trying to direct some of my brain cells toward the problem of dealing with the hazardous blizzards swarming across the battlefield, I spent the first ten minutes struggling to remember the basics. It’s not a complex game, just as the original wasn’t, but as with anything that occurs in realtime, there are rhythms and procedures that the mind and hands naturally fall into. Before that synchrony is discovered, nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

During the tutorial mission, before the skirmish, my soviet conscripts learned how to vault over cover, or at least I learned how to tell them to vault over cover. It’s sensible that they’ve been taught how to vault at boot camp, which as I understand it, in this time and place, was an actual place where soldiers were given a boot and then told to go and fight until the cold or the climate killed them. Vaulting means that they can cower in their boot behind cover and can also propel themselves over that cover to relocate quickly if flanked, or to move forward if they are fortunate enough to fell their enemies.

In practice, it is now easier to adapt to the space of a map and this doesn’t just help with tactical positioning, it also plays into the new line of sight system, which already seems like the sequel’s most important feature. The fancy graphics and weather systems (more of which later) are the elements that assault the ocular terrain, but it’s TrueSight that actually cares about your eyes and the eyes of your troops. At first, I barely noticed that anything was different, except for the crunch of snow underfoot and the thermometer icons that appeared next to my troops whenever the wind and ice whipped up like a storm of razors. This really does seem to be more of the same, which is exactly what I thought I wanted, though I must admit there was a slight sense of anticlimax when I realised how little had changed. Aside from the realisation of character and place, I find the steady, thoughtful pace of Company of Heroes to be its most appealing aspect.

Look at a map, exquisitely detailed and evocative as they are, and eventually it becomes lines of cover, soft and hard, directions of attack, pivots on which to place machine guns and mortars, wider tracks down which death may trundle in the shape of a tank. Once units have been moved into position on this abstract overlay, it’s as if the game falls into a strange, almost turn-based and unreal mode of time, where bullets are cutting through the air but a strange serenity steps between them, calculating and countering.

Turns aren’t handed out in this disjointed timespace though, they must be seized. It seems, from the lower segment of the sky where commanders hover, that soldiers can remain in their cover forever, but as soon as the enemy moves, or decides to lob an explosive, time flows once more. The stalemate is broken. A good commander will move fast, or perhaps have his reactions prepared, ready to act as soon as the enemy shows his hand. That’s how Company of Heroes seems to me; movement and death punctuated by pauses that are not pauses. There’s room to think and to plan, which I appreciate.

When moving to new cover or flanking an enemy unit can cause them to be obscured from view, the careful process of move-plan-move can become more fraught than used to be the case. It’s no longer a given that the enemy location will be known once discovered, with buildings, trees and smoke all serving to block line of sight. The brilliant peril of it all first became evident to me when a unit of riflemen were running through some woods, attempting to take up position at the rear of a bedded-in German machinegun. The snowscape around the trees strobed in and out of view, the trunks obscuring whatever was behind them at any one moment. Weird. Unsettling. And then, through one gap, revealed for a second, maybe less, something large and metal. Now that we’d glimpsed it the noise of its engine seemed obvious, stuttering through the white noise of the blizzard.

It had seen us too. The trees shook, trembled and split as the thing toppled them, bursting into view, opening up our view in fact as it destroyed the surroundings. They weren’t soldiers anymore, my men, they were prey.

So, rather than winning, the first thing I did after being blindly stalked by a tank was to run around in the woods marvelling at the way my line of sight fractured and cohered. I threw grenades at everything that looked like it might fall to bits (everything), not just so that I could write down ‘things explode convincingly’ in my notebook, but so I could see how each soldier’s line of sight was altered by the changes to the scenery. It’s impressive and works down to a level that’s probably too intricate and small in scale to make a real difference, but that’s the nature of fully simulating a feature. It often goes deeper than it needs to and unless that causes a massive hit to performance, there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for the weather, I played with that too, although not as I expected to. Fires are essential to survival in the horrendous conditions and engineers can build them anywhere. An infantry unit caught in a blizzard, which sweep through seemingly at random, will slow down and eventually die if they don’t find cover and warmth. Engineers are lifesavers, then, and they’re also obvious targets because taking them out is akin to cutting a major supply line, the supply being heat and life. Two play sessions on two maps didn’t really provide enough time to form an opinion as to whether the cold will make conflict more interesting. I worry that it might be one action too many, requiring the player to check on troops and assist them as if they are sporadically bursting into flame. Having to extinguish them occasionally, maybe constructing a sprinkler system for future use, would have much the same effect, although admittedly the cold isn’t quite so quick to kill as flame would be.

But, no, freezing men didn’t entertain me for long. Frozen water did and this is why I lost. In the centre of the skirmish map there was a river, now an ice rink, and occasionally tanks would attempt to cross that river. I’d watch them as they skidded, the physics genuinely impressive and entertaining, so much so that I can’t help but assume they are massively exaggerated. It’s quite hypnotic, like seeing a professional wrestler trying to figure skate. And then blowing up the ice and watching them drown. I must have sent so many tanks to the riverbed that they should really have started piling on top of one another and protruding like a horrific amphibious sculpture. I failed because I was more interested in playing with the ice and the line of sight rather than seizing objectives, and that was a satisfying way to spend an hour.

Company of Heroes 2, then, is Company of Heroes but with modernised visuals, weather and tanks falling through holes in ice. But most importantly, it’s an RTS that still favours the thinker over the clicker and that has, in TrueSight, a technical addition that is neither bell nor whistle. It also has sound design that makes me want to buy a new set of speakers. The drone of a plane and the punch of explosions has never sounded quite so much like strange, industrial music.

__________________

« | »

, , , , , , .

37 Comments »

  1. Metalfish says:

    I don’t know what this says about me but this preview makes me think one thing:

    Hooray!

    I bloody love Company of Heroes.

  2. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    it’s an RTS that still favours the thinker over the clicker

    Can somebody explain this part to me? I generally can’t stand RTSes, but I bought the original Company of Heroes after hearing all the buzz (here and elsewhere) about how it was a “thinking man’s RTS” that would appeal to strategy gamers who weren’t into traditional Zerg-spamming RTSes. And at first it did feel refreshingly like a strategy game that happened to be in real time instead of a real-time game that happened to be build around little army men. But it wasn’t long before that sheen wore off, and I was doing much more clicking than thinking; and when that happened it got dull really fast.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s a bad RTS. I’m sure it’s a very good one, if you like that sort of thing. I just never understood from my experience with it where the “thinking man’s RTS” reputation came from.

    (Note: I know that COH is beloved by all, so let’s take it as read that my failure to “get it” reflects a huge moral failing on my part and/or a gaping hole where my soul used to be instead of wasting time establishing that.)

    • Mctittles says:

      I think you are right in that fast clicking matters here just as much as other RTS games (especially in multiplayer).

      The main difference in strategy focus for me is the much lower total amount of units you can pump out (or maintain) in a certain period of time. For me this means once I build to my limit I can focus on position and strategy while working small groups across the map. Much more up close and personal than say Supreme Commander where it’s as much down to how fast I can click create units as it is to how I throw my swarms at the enemy.

      I do not see it as a “slow” RTS though. Closest for that might be Sins of a Solar Empire (on the epic setting). That gives you time to think, although it is still mainly a unit spam game.

      AI War is definitely a “thinking mans” strategy game, although it’s co-op only and pretty different from how RTS is usually played.

      Rome Total War in multiplayer I guess would have to be the hands down “pure” strategy experience for me. It’s a bit different though as you don’t create units, you play a match with what you have. It can make for much shorter games, but all of it is managing your army and nothing with resources, micromanagement, etc.

      Thinking this through in comparison I believe it’s hard to make a strategy focused RTS without breaking too far away from the genre. Which brings back full circle to COH being pretty close while also being a more standard RTS.

    • TychoCelchuuu says:

      It’s a “thinking man’s RTS” because to be extremely good at it requires a fairly low level of physical “click the mouse and punch the hotkeys” skill. To get any good at Starcraft II, for instance, you need to be almost superhuman about hitting hotkeys and stuff. In Company of Heroes, except when pulling off complex flanking maneuvers from 3 directions, you barely even need to move the fingers on your left hand. Obviously you can’t just sit there for an hour and tinker away like you can in Sins of a Solar Empire or something: you still need to micro your units. But because you have a very small number of units (often 5 or 6 at most) and because knowing WHEN and WHERE to use an ability is much more important than being able to use it RIGHT NOW or being able to click the correct pixel, the skill in CoH is much more focused on the cerebral stuff (when do I attack, where do I attack, what units do I buy).

      That’s why it’s a thinking man’s RTS. Because a thinking man can win without being an action man. It’s NOT a thinking man’s RTS in that there are lot of very complex numbers or anything like that.

    • Jools says:

      I feel like I need to say this every time real-time strategy games come up: real-time strategy games have been and always will be about thinking quickly, not clicking quickly. The reason APM matters so much in games like Starcraft is because when two players are on a level strategic playing field, the determining factor is going to be which one can actually implement his strategies faster and react to the other guy in time. You need to click a lot because the computer can’t read your mind and clicking is how you make your plans actually manifest in the game.

      You’re saying that you did more clicking than thinking, but that just doesn’t make sense. You have to think to click. You have to think where to move your guys, which cover area you want them to glue themselves to, how to deal with whatever the other guy is doing, which objective to capture, whether you can afford to leave your other objectives undefended, and so on. Not everyone is into that kind of thing and it’s certainly not a personal failing or whatever, but it bugs the hell out of me when people throw up this weird RTS-as-a-clickfest strawman.

      • Arathain says:

        In any RTS with multiple units that moves at a reasonable pace there’s always going to be a lot one can potentially do. It is hardly surprising that one of the advantages a player can have is the physical and mental dexterity to do more of those things in a shorter period of time.

        Movement speed and lethality of combat can somewhat put a brake on this, and one can approach a point that, for a given combat, more commands won’t achieve better results. However, there’s always something one can/should be doing in terms of activity back at base, scouting, capturing nodes or victory points, or similar. In a game like CoH these tend to be what are taking up the extra clicks.

        There is no doubt that early on CoH can be confusing- you’ll feel hard pressed to keep track of different parts of the map simultaneously, and getting your units all in good position at the start of the battle while timing retreats while microing a vehicle can feel very taxing. There does come a point where your brain will expand to be able to accommodate more of this stuff, however, even for a weak micro player like me. When you get there you’ll find that, rather than amazing micro, what really matters is picking the right units, moving and capping smartly, and positioning your units correctly ahead of an anticipated battle- in short, actions that require more thought than micro to achieve.

        This sets it apart from Starcraft in that SC has a much higher micro ceiling but less complex, position dependent combat.

      • MD says:

        Well said.

        I can only assume there’s an element of ego-protection going on, in many cases: ‘this game is difficult for me, but it’s difficult for stupid reasons!’.

        (Note: I am rubbish at StarCraft. Probably as bad as or worse than the people I may just have insulted.)

    • Zwebbie says:

      @Jason: you can win a competitive match of CoH with under 100 actions per minutes, and you’d never ever use as much as 300. In Starcraft, 100 APM is too low, and 300 is possible. It’s still a bit more in CoH than most players (including myself) are really comfortable with, but it’s a different league entirely from the Korean Starcraft pros.

      Grenade dodging, of course, still required sharp reflexes and a good attention span, so it’s not all thinking over clicking that Company of Heroes offered. But at some point you’re also going to have to wonder if there’s a point in making something real time if fancy micro would play no role and the way some players could steer their tanks around the backs of StuGs and Tigers, shells and rockets whizzing by, through enemy lines and back to safety had a ballet-like grace to it to has a charm of its own.

      • Grape says:

        But at some point you’re also going to have to wonder if there’s a point in making something real time if fancy micro would play no role…

        Er… what?

        Are you fucking serious?

    • Hug_dealer says:

      Also part of the thinking mans RTS is the fact that its not a rock paper scissors game.

      There are so many variables to take into account that the outcomes of battles can vary so greatly, its nearly impossible to comprehend it all. While in a game like starcraft, if you take a certain match up, you can be pretty certain how things are going to end with a reasonable level of accuracy.

      If you took 2 infantry squads and put them against each other, from 2 different sides. Who would win depends on cover, distance, moving, not moving. etc For each side. You could never be to certain who was going to have the upper hand, and thinking proved more useful than being fast at clicking.

      Also the fact that it wasnt about spamming a unit to win, you need a good mix of units. Bullets dont hurt vehicles, unlike a game of SC2. A single tank can ruin any infantry advance not capable of attacking that tank, and then you still needed to flank that tank to get a decent chance of penetrating shots.

      comparing coh to sc2 is like comparing armed assault to quake. Sure same genre, but the entire gameplay is different.

      Both are legitimate and fun, but totally different. After playing COH though, i lost all interest in SC2, it just didnt have the same thinking man depth i liked about COH, and the fact that coh graphics and sound are unbelieveable.

  3. Discopanda says:

    COH is my favorite RTS! And uh, the only RTS I like. Second is Rise of Nations!

    • RoAE says:

      AoE and Civ had a baby called RoN and it was the fucking messiah of historical RTSs and died too young…. Bastards! Why did RTS gaming have to die out except for SC and MOBAs?!

      • Wololo says:

        Precisely. Those, CoH and Homeworld, I’m in love with eternally. I’m really, really looking forward to playing CoH2.

  4. Shakermaker says:

    Oh man, oh man, this all sounds awesome. Can’t bloody wait.

  5. emorium says:

    “I survived the Eastern Front” on a T-shirt. That feels wrong to see on a gamer. Like seeing “I am an Auschwitz survivor” on a teenager.

  6. Navagon says:

    CoH and Opposing Fronts were just stunning. This sounds like it will manage to top that. Possibly. The mechanics might be better, but it has one hell of a campaign to beat.

  7. Arglebargle says:

    On the “I survived the Eastern Front” theme: As a teenager, I met a Russian army officer who had been a tank platoon commander at Kursk. Fortunately, I was knowledgeable enough then to be impressed.

    Also fortunate enough to have played a number of Cold War 80′s-90′s war in europe scenarios with the US Army tank training team from Ft Hood. (They used a form of free Kreigsspiel btw). What impressed me the most in those was that the single greatest determining factor in success was unit communication. Usually from the recon; but one scenario was won by a single player, an acting forward fire operator trapped with only his radio on a hill overlooking a Soviet line of attack.

    Not a big fan of clicky RTSs, CoH was my favorite of the genre though, so this sounds good.

  8. Subjective Effect says:

    Can’t wait for this.

    I still play CoH MP all the time, almost every day. The more I play, the better I get. Not because I’m faster (though there is a basic level of knowledge you need to get units out in a timely manner) but because I know how things work a little better.

    I don’t play any other RTSs simply because I don’t want to have to learn about plama rifle damage to chitinous armour, or laser damage to type 2A6 Blorgon Jimjim-kazoozoo Armour Farts.

    Machine guns don’t hurt tanks, but do hurt infantry and motorbikes. Walls provide cover but can be blown up. It’s logical.

    Simples.

  9. Werthead says:

    Appropriate timing, as yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad beginning and the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk ending.

  10. TouchMyBox says:

    I pretty much want a fancier version of CoH with feature and infrastructure parity of Dota 2.

  11. Lobosolitario says:

    What I’m interested in knowing is whether the AI plays by the same rules as you (or at least cheats in a convincing fashion) – did you feel that the new line of sight system was having an effect on the AI, and that you could hide from AI units, or were their units omniscient, and able to track yours down every time? Also interesting if the AI is using the heat mechanism, as that sounds quite tricky for it to do effectively when human players are likely to have sniper teams out hunting for enemy engineers ASAP.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I’m interested in knowing that too – Relic reckon the AI in campaign is the same as in skirmish mode. It doesn’t follow scripts or ‘cheat’ with its line of sight, apparently. I’d be lying if I said an hour with the game, in a controlled environment, was enough time to figure out how well it works though and what it seems to be doing.

      It was definitely possible to flank effectively, using buildings as visual cover, and it seemed possible to have an enemy unit completely lose track of where I’d relocated to, but I’m not entirely sure if that wasn’t my own confusion.

      We should be seeing more soon though and I’ll concentrate more on that stuff next time!

      • Lobosolitario says:

        Great, will keep an eye out, many thanks for the reply!

      • Wololo says:

        They compensated the lack of the AI’s tactics and strategy by giving the Hard and the Expert AI extra manpower income, I think it was around x1.5 and x2 or something, I’d dig up the numbers from GR’s archive but I guess I’m too lazy.

        But, that’s for vCoH. It’s quite possible that CoH2 will be/is entirely different.

  12. coldvvvave says:

    That slogan on the tank doesn’t make sense. If they wanted to say “Forward!” then the second word shouldn’t be there, if they wanted to say “Forward to [Berlin?]” they forgot to add another word. Unless it’s on the other side of the turret. But, seriously, it doesn’t make sense. Imagine if Soviet tank had a word “Berlin” or “Germany”, perhaps “Hitler” on one side of the turret.

  13. tigershuffle says:

    still prefer Men of War……. but i never really gt on with resource games.
    I love the gameplay once you start some strategy but the production stuff just ….meh

  14. The Pink Ninja says:

    I hope for more defensive missions, those were my faves.

    Particularly the one where you hold that hill against a panzer force while you only have infantry.

    On offensive I tended to just build a bunch of tanks and steamroller the opposition.

  15. Elethio says:

    I like CoH but I loved CoHO thats CAPITAL L.O.V.E. it was seriously my favorite game of all time.

    And I can’t understand why they ditched it.

    So what am I looking for with CoH 2 – multiplayer is what I want, I want a smooth system with good ranking, a maximum of 5 minutes wait for a game, small (non game breaking) tweaks that can use to bolster your own playing style, all the good things that CoHO brought to CoH please

    The new game mechanics sound enchanting, but I’m not going to part with £40 just for nice graphics, please tell me multiplayer is good?

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>