Surviving the Frozen Heart of Mother Russia

Our first look at Company of Heroes 2 takes us to a new locale and a dark time in World War II history. Get all the early details here.

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Company of Heroes 2, the sequel to 2006's real-time World War II strategy game Company of Heroes, is taking you deep into the icy heart of Mother Russia. This sequel's campaign will span from the Germans' initial invasion of the Motherland in 1941 to the Soviets' attack on Berlin in 1945. Those four long years will claim the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians as the Soviet army repels the German invasion through sheer manpower and brute force. As game director and history buff Quinn Duffy puts it: "The Russian army is a million hammers, all smashing their way towards Berlin."

We had the chance to see those hammers in motion during a recent hands-off demonstration of Company of Heroes 2. Relic Entertainment's senior designer, Jasen Torres, and creative manager, Simon Watts, took us through a quick scenario highlighting some of the changes and additions coming in this sequel.

To those hoping for a simulated moral system, a la Dawn of War, you're out of luck.
To those hoping for a simulated moral system, a la Dawn of War, you're out of luck.

As in any good land war set on the eastern front, snow is a constant companion. Our first exposure to the game was of Russian soldiers trudging knee-deep across a snowy battlefield. As the developers explained, snow has depth, and it will impact movement. Snow slows you down, and your units will leave tracks for others to discover. These tracks are persistent, and astute players will learn to spot the differences between various tank treads and footprints to gain insight into what their opponent is fielding--even if they can't see the units themselves.

Snow can also be used in more devious ways. In one scene, a group of soldiers were tasked with assaulting a house. They could either trudge their way through the heavy snow, leaving them slowed and exposed, or take the snow-free road up to the house's gate. They chose the road--just as the enemy assumed they would--and were met with a surprise attack in the form of several well-placed land mines.

While the snow is a hindrance, there is a new ability for quickly navigating the battlefield. Infantry units can now vault over certain pieces of cover. No longer are you forced to run your troops through a narrow gate, or wait for a vehicle to come smashing through, because your men couldn't surmount a waist-high wall.

In certain scenarios, you will desperately need that forward momentum lest you be labeled a deserter and cut down by your own men. An early cinematic established this with the execution of Order 227. Infamous for the line "Not a step back!" this desperate decree was intended to keep the Soviets pushing forward--no matter the cost. This dark tone is something Relic is tapping into with the campaign for Company of Heroes 2. Does this mean every time you wish to move your units back a few paces they're going to be shot? Not likely. The gameplay ramifications are still being tweaked, but building an enjoyable game takes precedence.

A healthy does of fire can quickly deny your enemies cover within buildings.
A healthy does of fire can quickly deny your enemies cover within buildings.

One feature the developers were very excited to show was the new line-of-sight technology, TrueSight. This system aims to better emulate troop visibility in combat. Instead of having the fog of war peel back at an even, circular pace, it ebbs and flows like inky water as your troops move across the battlefield. As some foot soldiers pass through a dense forest, they can see only thin slivers of what lies ahead because of all the trees. Enemies are restricted by TrueSight as well, and once you have an understanding of how the system works, you can start using it against them.

In one scene, an SU-76 tank was slowly creeping through a deserted village. The road was narrow and the buildings tightly packed, which meant the tank's line of sight was basically shot. It came as little surprise when an antitank round disabled it in one shot. However, it wasn't a total loss. The tank's crew was ordered to abandon the vehicle, and thus became a new, separate unit. Abandoned vehicles can be recaptured and repaired, by either side. When asked whether a player could hijack a moving vehicle or not, the developers smiled and stated that to capture a vehicle, you must get rid of the crew first--how you do that remains to be seen.

There are plenty more improvements coming in Company of Heroes 2. One area the developers felt needed improvement was AI scripting during campaign missions. In this case, less is more, since they would like the skirmishes to be a bit more random when replayed multiple times. Sound design is another area they're examining closely. As the developers noted, they're now taking their own recordings of live weapon fire from multiple distances to better simulate the action in their game.

See that little stone wall in front of the house? You can jump over that.
See that little stone wall in front of the house? You can jump over that.

For those with DirectX 11-compatible machines, Company of Heroes 2 will take advantage of that technology for some added visual improvements. However, our demo was still using DX9, and you will have the option to choose between the two in the final game. If purchased through Steam, Company of Heroes 2 will also utilize Valve's Steamworks technology with matchmaking and Steam achievements. The game will be released on PC--the only version the developers would confirm at this time--sometime in early 2013.

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