|Dev: Relic Entertainment|
|Release: “Early” 2013|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Shelby Reiches
Preview events can be a little nerve-wracking. Although I gather the intent of them is to impress me, the journalist, my natural inclination when I’m on someone else’s turf is to be on my absolute best behavior, lest I be judged and found lacking. What are they going to think of me if I don’t like their game or, even worse, if I’m bad at it? What if I stumble through round after round of awkward multiplayer curb-stomps, through which my self-respect and self-esteem are slowly eroded? This was especially concerning when I sat down with Company of Heroes 2 a couple of weeks ago.
I know a fair amount about World War II—nowhere near as much as the devs of this game, clearly, but I went to Hebrew school, where the Holocaust was a perennial topic—and I enjoy strategy games on a conceptual level, but on a functional level they tend to elude me. There’s so much going on and it requires such a deep and intensive knowledge of a given game’s particular idiosyncrasies that I end up flummoxed before I even get a foothold, tumbling into an overwhelming abyss of disastrous decisions and fatal non-decisions.
I should have played the first Company of Heroes, not because it would have given me context in playing the second, but because it would have assuaged my fears. As with its predecessor, which I’ve since dipped my feet into courtesy of the Humble THQ Bundle, this is a beautifully intuitive game. The focus isn’t on build order or optimizing your resource gathering and base layout. It’s almost entirely on the combat, on taking decisive action and utilizing smart tactics to counter even brute force.
It’s good that they kept that, because it made my experience—once I’d gotten over the initial learning curve of what units did what and how the interface was configured—almost blissfully devious. I was doing things I generally neglect in most RTS titles, capturing supply points and building them up for a stronger resource stream so I could call in armor, then surrounding them with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines so that, when the enemy inevitably rolled in, they wouldn’t take the point back so easily.
The pleasure I took in outmaneuvering my enemies was enhanced, sometimes even facilitated, by the new technology on display. Company of Heroes 2 takes place on the Eastern front of World War II, kicking off in 1941, which means there is plenty of brutal Russian winter through which to fight. This was the primary venue for my matches, all of which were one-versus-one skirmishes in which the goal was to capture Victory Point locations to wear down the enemy’s point total.
The tone is set by the Essence 3.0 engine, which integrates what Relic is calling “ColdTech” to simulate the wintery weather on display. From snow, which both falls from the sky and coats the ground, deforms naturally as objects move through it, and even serves to slow down infantry that attempt to brave it, to the ice-coated lakes that pepper such maps, ColdTech’s imprint is felt on this game. It affects the soldiers who stray from supply points and the beaten path, cursing them with hypothermia that kills them off fairly quickly unless they take cover or build fires. It further manifests by way of blizzards that kick up every so often and reduce visibility to almost nil.
Visibility is further affected by elements of the environment and even other units. This is the “TrueSight” mechanic at work, allowing the player to only see, in detail, what his units are capable of seeing at any given time from where they’re standing. It’s a malleable and realistic version of the typical fog of war, and particularly conducive to the sort of strategic action that defines the series. In my first multiplayer match, a squad of enemy engineers attacked one of my entrenched bunkers early on. I sent a squad of riflemen to chase them away, only for a second squad of enemy soldiers to materialize from within a copse of trees off to the side, flanking me and pinning my squad down in the open where they were summarily picked off.
My favorite innovation in the game, though, goes back to ColdTech and remedies something that irked me in the original E3 demo of the game. Iced over lakes may now be shattered with sufficient force, plunging whatever is atop them into the sub-zero water below, never to be seen again. I found that, in lieu of meeting force with force and combating enemy armor head-on with my own, I would take advantage of the lakes surrounding some of the major control points and hide a mortar squad nearby. Mortars are intended for breaking up dense squads of infantry, but when a Panzer rolls onto the lake, ice cracking in its wake, all it tends to take is a single, directed barrage of mortars to send it into the drink. I abused this feature relentlessly and loved every minute of it. Even if I lost, sinking an opponent’s vehicle felt like an accomplishment.