Most people think of Blizzard when they think of real-time strategy, and that’s fine — but the truth is that Relic Entertainment has done more to move the genre forward than any other developer in the last decade. Apart from producing the “highest rated strategy game” in Company of Heroes, the Canadian studio also produced the excellent 3D RTS Homeworld back in the late 90s.
Blizzard and Relic are equally talented at what they do, and they have a similar philosophy. They don’t produce shovelware, they have a painstaking attention to detail and refuse to release the game until it meets the appropriate standard — which is probably the best explanation for the game’s delayed release in roughly March next year.
And that’s OK, because when you’re as good as Relic and Blizzard, it basically segregates the market. People who want the hyperactive, professional-gaming focused, attention-seeking strategy are well served by StarCraft. Those who want the complete opposite, where the nuances of resource management are exchanged for a methodical, almost obsessive-compulsive focus on positioning and tactics: Company of Heroes is for you.
Things haven’t changed.
After I’d finished my preview, a fellow pundit remarked that he’d found it difficult to get to re-assert himself with the Company of Heroes “way”, if you like, which is something I completely understand — and the PR representative who arranged the preview inadvertently pointed this out after my first round by showing me the score screen.
The usuals are included, such as a resources tab, damage dealt, units killed/lost and a build order (apparently the ability to save replays will be included in the final build as well). The most telling statistic was how wasteful I’d been: the rough ratio of my units killed/lost was about 1:3.
Part of the disparity was down to my over-emphasis on infantry, using anti-tank squads and mortar teams to combat vehicles later on instead of teching up myself. It’s almost a StarCraft-esque mentality: spam out whatever seems like the most efficient unit you can get at the time and then worry about other stuff later. But that’s the crux of Company of Heroes. You can’t formulate and execute the most effective play later; you need to start enacting it now.
Let’s step back for a minute, though, and look at the basics.
After the entirety of the CoH franchise focused on just four months in 1944, Relic have changed their attention to a much more significant theatre: the battle on the Eastern Front. According to information publicly available, the game takes place over the course of 1941 to 1944 and at the very least includes the Battle of Berlin (presumably at the end of the campaign) and Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the initial Axis invasion of Russia.
Some of the statistics are harrowing: Operation Barbarossa involved 4 million Axis troops, 600,000 vehicles and 750,000 horses. Around 3 million Russians were taken into POW camps, with the majority not surviving thanks to the Nazi’s Hunger Plan — a strategy designed to prioritise provisions to Germans while reducing the population of Eastern Europe.
None of this was available for viewing during my session, but I did get a chance to look at the multiplayer through a 2v2 Victory Point Control match against the AI with a computer ally. Centred around the Pripyat River in the Ukraine, I was given control of the Russian forces, who despite their reported technological inferiority seemed to match up quite well in my brief experience.
The idea is to hold on to the victory points for as long as possible. Each team has a maximum of 500 points, which decreases in connection to how many flags your opponent controls. Holding the majority froze your point total, while holding the centre flag — a small island accessible via two bridges (one directly towards each player) and a side road (which was easier for one side to access) — gave you an obvious tactical advantage.
By the end of my third game I’d worked out the formula: research molotov cocktails immediately, thereby letting my squads win the rush to the centre, and then entrench it with enough barbed wire and sandbags to stock a farm. I followed that up with some more fortifications blocking off the bridge accessing one of the side points, forcing enemy forces to waste their time wading through the river.
Relic’s brand new Essence Engine 3 makes the environment an actual factor now, although the map I played only had a few rivers to cross (which I avoided wherever possible). Slightly more relevant in my playthrough was the dynamic line-of-sight system, called TrueSight, which now blocks your vision where appropriate. Not being able to see behind trees and buildings makes a huge advantage when you want to set up an ambush, especially if a squad of infantry wanders around into the barrel of a T-72.
I tried poking around the in-game menu to see what was available, but there wasn’t much: only a few audio options and the usual gameplay choices, such as scroll speed, sticky select, classic hotkeys, advanced orders and so on. The only in-game graphics option I could adjust was the brightness. I asked if I could see the options from the title screen, but was unfortunately told some of the features were “yet to be finalised”.
As for the battle itself, the Russians are fun but familiar force. Russian commanders get given the usual mix of troops, starting with engineers and combat infantry, followed by mortar teams, heavy machine-gunners, snipers, APCs, light-tanks, anti-tank guns, medium tanks and so on. I didn’t get to play as the Germans, although I did try out the map from both sides.
Once I had barbed wire preventing infantry from advancing until tanks were in play – which were busy getting shelled by the mortar teams I was able to amass thanks to my resources – it was a bit of a walk in the park. I’m not an experienced Company of Heroes player, but it was massively rewarding to have such a large pay-off simply for thinking clearly about attacking, rather than charging a squad of units forward and repeatedly boxing them forth and back until the opponent runs away and/or gives up.
The support AI was content to uselessly jam forces into the largest conflict, buying me enough time to fight as efficiently as possible while using expeditionary forces to maintain the control point majority. I’d build observation posts while teching up, rather than wasting money on them during the first five minutes, and simply snowballed my way into a 430-0 point victory by using the entrenched positions to force horribly uneven engagements across the rest of the map.
After three rounds, I was told that Relic would be running a closed and open beta for the game. There would also be a second stage of previews, although there isn’t any information about either available at this stage.
Nevertheless, it was fun to be reminded that you don’t need to need rely on the hyperactive multi-tasking required in something like StarCraft to make a deep and thoughtful RTS. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Company of Heroes 2; March can’t come soon enough.