Hands-on with Company of Heroes 2: The thinking man’s RTS

Company of Heroes 2

By on November 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm

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.

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

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.

24 comments (Leave your own)

Ugh, I liked CoH but never really do very well at RTS. This again looks like it might be fun, but after playing Expert AI with the TEA boys I think I’ve cried all the CoH-tears I can muster.

Maybe I can blame European Escalation, that game nearly broke me.

Good rundown Alex.

 

I’m very jelly you got to play this already. Been way too long since we’ve had a good RTS to play.

Good to see companies like Relic still showing the PC some love.

 

Most people think of Blizzard when they think of real-time strategy

Cavedog Entertainment.

Total Annihilation.

 

“especially if a squad of infantry wanders around into the barrel of a T-72.”

HUH?

T-72 get transported 30 years into the past and appear at WW2???
you mean BT-7 or something? or T-70???

 

Incidentally…

CoH way of handling armor if you go organic infantry route is not tank hunter + mortar

it’s tank hunter + AT guns…

no CoH veteran will ever get caught without AT guns especially if he’s infantry heavy. If you didn’t have one, you’d lose in CoH as well… and as it appears… so is with CoH2

 

wyld,

Referencing a studio that went bankrupt 12 years ago kind of proves my point though =)

So many good RTS games in the 90s though. KKND, Red Alert 1, Dark Reign, Dune II, the Warcraft series, original Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Homeworld, Battlezone (OK that’s kind of an FPS as well, but still) …

*sigh* such a good period.

 

Company of Heroes was the first RTS where I gave it a real shot rather than just playing a few games here and there and eventually getting frustrated (RTS didn’t come as naturally to me as FPS). I’m glad I did, because while CoH is very different from the usual RTS, I’ve grown to love the whole genre.

This is looking to be a great sequel and Relic generally do very well at whatever their focus is on. Bring it!

 

bronzed,

You’re right, I meant the T-70, my bad. My brother was always much better with war history than I was =.=

 

I don’t enjoy Starcraft 2 that much compared to games such as CoH where its based off reality. I think my dream RTS will be Wargame: Air and land battle which adds even more to my current Dream RTS of Wargame which is a perfect mix of realistic gameplay and realistic unit capabilities. CoH2 being on the Eastern front is in of itself a great refresher for WW2 games especially in a big budget title. I look forward to rushing German positions with my Russian infantry so much my opponent will yell ZERG RUSH at the top of their lungs.

 

If this is the same as CoH1 though

it’s not gonna work too well

because in case you forgot… CoH is also the game where MG and HMG suppress infantries and cut them to pieces. (which then gets carried over to DoW2)

standard practice is to have 1 HMG at least while leap frogging areas that you take over so you can always fall back to it’s range and cover.

Plus most veteran CoH players (ESPECIALLY german players who must know how to use the MG42 team well to stop rangers and paratrooper zerg) are not just adapt at suppressing infantries with HMG, they are also adapt at CRUSHING infantries with tank by running them over.. with tanks that normally doesn’t have much anti infantry effectiveness.

 

Oh alex, curious of something…

did you notice if they improved the pathfinding for the soldiers?

because one of the worst part of CoH was when soldiers and tanks mixes up in close quarter resulting in fubar pathing that causes both the infantry squad AND the tank to get stuck as they both can’t move without conflicting with the other unit’s pathfinding…

That was really my single and only real problem with the old CoH… which was never fixed so we had to learn to avoid using both in close proximity especially in tight spaces.

 
TheOriginalDaniel

wyld: Cavedog Entertainment.

Total Annihilation.

Honestly first thing that comes to mind in the RTS area is Creative Assembly and the Total War series atleast to me, Or C&C Generals: Zero Hour depending on the topic at hand.

 

generation gap… which is to be expected

incidentally…

Total War series are NOT RTS strictly speaking, they are RTT and turn based strategy hybrid…

 

I much prefer the tactical RTS games that Relic make over games that are won by how many clicks per minute you can do and how quickly you can follow the same build order over and over and over. Looking forward to CoH2. I spent many, many hours playing the original CoH and its expansions.

 

theoriginaldaniel,

You must be young because Total Annihilation and Core Contingency were awesome for being released ~1998.

 

Alex Walker:
wyld,

Referencing a studio that went bankrupt 12 years ago kind of proves my point though =)

So many good RTS games in the 90s though. KKND, Red Alert 1, Dark Reign, Dune II, the Warcraft series, original Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Homeworld, Battlezone (OK that’s kind of an FPS as well, but still) …

*sigh* such a good period.

Alex Walker:
wyld,
So many good RTS games in the 90s though. KKND, Red Alert 1, Dark Reign, Dune II, the Warcraft series, original Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Homeworld, Battlezone (OK that’s kind of an FPS as well, but still) …

*sigh* such a good period.

Sure was.

Also don’t forget Sacrifice, Dungeon Keeper, Black and White (2001, I still counts it! :P), Master of Orion 1+2, Alpha Centauri, Settlers 2, Heroes of Might and Magic…

Back in the 90′s though it felt like every man and his dog was releasing a new RTS game. These days it feels like we have only a few developers who specialize in that genre and have to wait years for a decent release.

Oh well, the classics still hold up well! Lets just hope THQ doesn’t fold and loose relic.

 

I usually think Westwood when thinking about RTS. Oh sweet, sweet Dune II. How I loved thee.

 

lordapophis,

Oh don’t worry about HoMM: HoMM 3 with the WoG expansion (Wake of the Gods, although the double entendre is deliberate) is probably my favourite game of all time.

Although along with Master of Orion and Alpha Centauri, it’s not an RTS :p but I’m totally with you on the 90s, great, great GREAT period in gaming, especially 95-2000.

Also, I don’t think Relic would be too affected if THQ folded. I’m sure another major publisher would pick them up, EA perhaps (acquisitions is more their style).

 
Deserteagle1266

looking forward to the new sightline thingo :) hated wanting to set up an ambush behind a wall/house and their tanks wouold shoot as soon as they saw it which always happened to be ou of range.. :(

 

Have to say I agree – mention RTS and I think of Westwood, Cavedog, Gas Powered Games and… maybe eventually Blizzard.

Question about this game – can you actually zoom out? My pet hate in modern RTS games is the inability to zoom in and out. I assume because the designers think you want to see their super awesome art skillz and don’t care whether you can get a good feel for the battlefield.

 
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