The developer known as Relic first hit the game development scene in 1998 with Homeworld, a highly innovative space strategy game that put battles in full 3D. Since then, the studio has continued to try to advance real-time strategy games as we know them past the basics of gathering resources, building a base, and buying up a bunch of military units. Most recently, the studio has attempted to shift its games in the direction of "action-oriented gameplay," which involves games that give players immediate and spectacular feedback for pretty much everything they do. We've seen this with Relic's most recent game, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, a brutal and action-packed game that pitted some of the most vicious combatants in that sci-fi universe against one another. And now, Relic and publisher THQ are taking the next step in their plan to take real-time strategy into a whole new space with Company of Heroes.
Company of Heroes will attempt to combine riveting, accessible real-time strategy gameplay with the cinematic sensibilities of blockbuster World War II movies and TV series, like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Yes, Company of Heroes takes place during the second World War, but calling it nothing more than "a World War II real-time strategy game" is selling it short. This is because the game will introduce as much groundbreaking new gameplay as it will dazzling visual effects as part of Relic's overarching plan. The studio isn't just out to make a great real-time strategy game; these guys are out to advance real-time strategy as we know it. From what we've seen, it could be very hard to go back to the real-time strategy games of yore after this.
But why World War II? Isn't "World War II strategy game" a synonym for "slow-paced, overly complicated game where you fight drawn-out battles by crunching numbers and moving tiny chits on an abstract-looking board"? We can tell you right now this isn't the case. (We'll get into this shortly, but go ahead and check our exclusive E3 trailer on the following page if you don't believe us.) Still, isn't World War II a bit overused in modern games (especially first-person shooters)? Producer John Johnson explains that Relic believes the war actually still has a lot to offer in terms of telling a compelling story. "World War II is modern mythology," explains Johnson. And in keeping with Relic's goal of creating action-oriented gameplay, Johnson suggests that Company of Heroes may very well come to resemble recent shooters, like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, for being just as fast-paced and exciting.
It almost seems impossible to start talking about Company of Heroes without first mentioning the all-new technology that powers it. The game is powered by Relic's brand-new "Essence" engine, which the studio has built from scratch to take advantage of all next-generation graphical effects, like high-dynamic-range lighting, normal mapping, dynamic lighting and shadows, and advanced shader effects. As Johnson puts it, the game will have "every advanced graphical effect you'd expect from a game like Half-Life 2, and more." We've seen the game firsthand, and this isn't an exaggeration. Company of Heroes looks incredible.
Among other things, the game models small-scale tactical encounters on the ground between individual soldiers, jeeps, and tanks, as well as aerial runs from bombers overhead. And everything is rendered with remarkable detail. We took a close-up look at an individual American soldier, whose shiny helmet and rumpled uniform got convincingly muddied with use. All infantry units in the game will move using a skeletal animation that is context-sensitive; that is, depending on where your soldiers are, they'll automatically move differently.
We watched the soldier adopt several different stances, including a standard forward march, a dashing forced march, a cautious advance in which he continuously looked from side to side, and, finally, a dive to a prone position, from which the soldier sidled forward on his belly. As supervising graphics programmer Ian Thomson demonstrated, the level of detail shown on each soldier isn't just limited to facial expressions (and even lip synching, a rare feature indeed for real-time strategy games) and mud on uniforms. The game's advanced lighting engine will also allow for "localized lighting," which is environmental light and shadow mapping (such as the shadows of trees and buildings that pass across soldiers as they walk under them, for example). Thomson then showed off the same soldier under, of all things, a disco ball. While this demonstration might have seemed amusing, this actually showed the soldier with more than 40 distinct colored and animated lights shifting along his body. You'll see this in the game as multiple animated lights from incidental sources on soldiers, such as muzzle flashes from a soldier's gun (and from his nearby buddies' guns and from nearby explosions) during night missions.
Embark Upon the Great Crusade
And units look just as good in motion as they do standing still. The game will actually stream animations to its units using what Thomson describes as an "animation brain," which is an in-game library of about 700 different animations (compared to Dawn of War's 150). This isn't just for show, either; it plays into the game's "battlefield awareness system," which causes soldiers to automatically adopt appropriate behaviors in the right situation. We watched an in-game demo that showed soldiers in the field advancing up a country road alongside a convoy. As soon as they crossed enemy lines, the soldiers adopted a cautious stance. And as soon as enemies began to open fire with a spectacular rain of bullets and earthshaking dive-bombing runs, each soldier immediately and intelligently leaped for cover--behind the convoy, behind an environmental object (like a nearby fence), or into a prone position--automatically, and without any instruction.
We could probably spend all day just discussing the game's graphical panache and how the powerful Essence engine models both huge set pieces and really distinctive details. But we'll focus on the most impressive features, such as the engine's use of subtle lighting, like soft shadows of swaying trees that show up on soldiers that pass below and nuances of both direct and indirect lighting. For instance, at high noon, when the sun beats down on a town square, you'll definitely see the shimmering specular mapping you may have come to expect in recent PC games. But you'll also see ambient occlusion that realistically shows shadows on everything in an environment, from the side of a tank facing away from the sun to the smallest wrinkle on a footman's uniform. The game will also have a powerful particle effect system that will be capable of rendering multiple thunderous explosions at once, while also providing realistic smoke that will actually act as concealment cover for infantry.
That your troops will take such actions independently will free you up to focus on actual strategy (in a real-time strategy game? what a concept!). According to Relic designer Josh Mosquiera, this level of squad behavior not only makes for a much more realistic experience, but "it will also let players act as commanders rather than babysitters." You won't be clicking on each individual unit in your army and making sure every last soldier is standing where he needs to be, because he'll already know, and he'll take the best position. They've trained their whole lives for this. In the meantime, you'll focus on actual strategic concerns, like using the environment to your advantage. Company of Heroes will build on the concept of defensive bonuses from firing from cover, which Relic used in Dawn of War. But thanks to a more ambitious design and impressive technological leaps, this sort of strategy will be taken to a whole other level. Relic's Jay Wilson explains that the new game's environments will be "dynamic battlefields, as opposed to pretty-looking choke points."
The game's powerful engine will feature physics powered by the Havok 3.0 physics engine, which realistically models pretty much every object in the world, from discarded oil drums to sandbagged embankments to rampaging tanks to quaint villas in the French countryside. Environmental objects will provide varying levels of cover, just like you'd expect them to in real life (a spot behind the broadside of a tank will provide much better cover than a spot just behind a wooden fence, for instance). However, in Company of Heroes, much like in the real war, not many environmental objects will be able to withstand powerful explosions from demolition squads, fighter/bombers, or artillery. So thanks to the game's physics engine, wooden houses will catch on fire, and stone streets will blacken with heat. And once the bombs start dropping, you can expect to see boxes, barrels, and derelict cars smashed to bit and scattered to the winds, as well as bodies flying (and if they're near houses, you may see the bodies getting hurled on top of the houses and then sliding down the roofs).
But bombing runs and artillery fire won't just be for show. Because the game's physics engine models just about everything, you'll be able to not only use the environment to take cover from incoming fire, but you'll be able to also manipulate it. Got a squad pinned down by entrenched enemy gunners hiding behind thick cover? Bring in an M4 Sherman tank to blast away the cover and plow right through the enemy lines, crushing any slowpokes under the treads. And if the enemy is hiding within a walled city, forget the front gate; just use the tank to smash right through the wall. "You would expect a tank to be able to ignore small-arms fire and smash through walls," explains Mosquiera, "and in Company of Heroes, that's what will happen." And even though a bombing run will leave nearly any landscape permanently devastated by smashing objects to bits (thus scattering the bits) and leaving huge craters in the landscape, this won't be the end of the battle. Craters left by bombing runs can actually be used as makeshift trenches to provide cover for infantry units. We saw this in action in a demonstration between two infantry squads in the field. The larger squad overwhelmed the smaller one out in the open; but after a bombing run that left several craters in the field, the smaller squad immediately gravitated toward the area (leaping into the craters for cover) and put up a much better fight.
Lead Me, Follow Me, or Get Out of My Way
Better still, Company of Heroes will also carefully model the physical structures of buildings (up to and including the way they get destroyed). Consider this example: You may walk into a town to find enemy soldiers camped out at specific locations on the first or second floors of buildings while manning mounted machine guns. Should you be able to capture and clear a house with your squads, you'll be able to commandeer the building for your own purposes. And because the game will attempt to accurately model weapon ballistics, you'll find tanks, demolition teams, and artillery strikes can really do a number on any nearby buildings. A first salvo from a heavy tank will smash through walls and turn a cottage into a smoldering heap; and additional fire will reduce it to ashes. As a result, less subtle commanders may prefer to clear out a nest of enemy soldiers with a shell rather than on foot. The game's powerful physics engine actually models randomized destruction for each building; so no two buildings will blow up in exactly the same manner.
We watched an example of an infantry squad with no tank or artillery support attempting to take over an enemy house. By using a demolitions expert to plant charges on the side of the house, we were able to blast out a huge hole in the wall, providing a new entry point to the building that let our soldiers go swarming in. According to Wilson, Relic hopes to make Company of Heroes' environments less like regular old levels and more like "a chessboard that becomes part of the game." This was very apparent in a dramatic battle we watched in which a defending force, armed with a few antitank weapons, desperately tried to fend off an attack in a graveyard. Soldiers wove and ducked from tombstone to tombstone before an enemy tank rolled in and began demolishing chunks of the graveyard--burial plots, tombstones, soldiers, and all.
While other gameplay details remain under wraps, we did get some answers on other aspects of gameplay, such as its resource management and overall pace. Company of Heroes will most likely build on the "strategic point" concept used in Dawn of War, which lets aggressive players snap up all the funds and resources by exploring their surroundings and capturing key points on the map. The resource system will be tied to the game's pacing, which will start off in reconnaissance fashion, followed by skirmishes, and then all-out war. Wilson explains that like many of the battles in World War II, engagements will start with good scouting, and they may even end with it if a savvy player can quickly identify an enemy's key weaknesses and launch a surgical strike. However, many of the game's battles will escalate over time from small infantry skirmishes to vehicle engagements to combined-arms assaults with bombing runs, artillery fire, and heavy tanks making appearances as players commission reinforcements over time.
We also had a look at the game's "moviemaker tool." As part of Relic's goal to make Company of Heroes much more cinematic, the game will be punctuated by extremely brief in-game cutscenes. We watched one that showed a US soldier cautiously making his way from house to house in a small country villa, only to find himself face-to-face with an enemy tank. The soldier was able to run like hell and dive to a prone positon behind the wall of the next building, barely surviving a blast from the tank's main cannon. The sequence started and ended in a matter of seconds and didn't seem like it would be terribly disruptive in the middle of gameplay. Relic actually has a full team of seven developers working only on cinematics to make sure these scenes look great but don't disrupt the actual game. We were shown the inner workings of the moviemaker tool, which lets you both freeze-frame an animation at any point and manipulate multiple cameras, which you can attach to stationary objects and moving units. The moviemaker tool seems extremely powerful and easy to use, and since it will ship with the game, Relic hopes the fan community tries it out and considers making some "machinima," animated movies created by using the game engine.
The future looks extremely bright for Company of Heroes, an ambitious game that's barely in a pre-alpha state and already looks amazing. From what we've seen, we have little reason to doubt that Company of Heroes will truly be a next-generation strategy game with a powerful combination of dramatic, cinematic quality and highly realistic action. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on the game leading up to its release next year.