The Frosted Cold: Hands-on with Company of Heroes 2

Sitting in this rented out, Company-of-Heroes-2-themed conference room up on the otherwise dark and abandoned seventh floor of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle, I was a little weirded out. Not because everything was tinted red from the gels in the open windows or because one of the developers at that moment was making me tea but rather because it finally dawned on me: we haven’t seen Company of Heroes in six years. Sure there was Tales of Valor and Opposing Fronts along with the MMO-ified Company of Heroes Online, but we haven’t seen a CoH proper since September of 2006, a fact cemented by the opening PowerPoint presentation.

And Relic Entertainment has been busy in the intervening years with the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series and the oft overlooked Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, so why now? Why did it take so long? “To get it right,” said a designer on the title. I’m not sure if CoH2 is quite there yet, but it’s well on its way.

We are first run through the bullet points of the game (which allows me a few moments to drink my tea and find my notepad in this anxiety-hued and decorated room). CoH2 will run on the brand new Essence Engine 3.0, allowing it to ramp up to DX11 and integrate a whole slew of fresh systems.

First off is the destruction. Just about everything is destructible. From windmills to houses to frozen lakes, they’re all destructible and liable to leave you out in the open with no cover. “If you can see it, you can destroy it,” we’re told.

This largely affects two other systems, one of which is restricted to certain maps and/or settings while omnipresent. It is the True Sight system, a new way to determine how far the fog of war goes in an RTS. Traditionally, games determined unit- and overall army-viewable territory with circular plots, radiating outwards from center mass. True Sight is more like it ray traces eye lines from each unit with visibility blocked by trees and buildings and enhanced with higher ground.

The other impacted system is ColdTech. Considering that most winters during World War II in Russia often reached temperatures of -40° (according to Relic, anyways), the team figured it was worthwhile to incorporate it into the game as well. This means that blizzards will not only impact your overall visibility but also hinder your ability to call in air strikes and will force you to take cover in buildings or behind vehicles while your troops warm up. If you don’t keep their temperatures up, you will not only hurt them health-wise but also affect their ability to move quickly and shoot proficiently.

This pretty much turns the cold into another enemy. You’ll constantly have to manage building proximity or have an engineering unit build up a fire. Lakes will freeze over but too much weight will damage them (a health bar will actually come up), causing tanks or whole platoons to fall through as the top layer quickly begins to refreeze. Snow will accumulate and slow down everything that attempts to move through it, a consequence of the season easily mitigated by flamethrower units. It’s a rather nice addition to what might have otherwise been a straightforward sequel.

Armed with that basic knowledge of the game and a sizable display of the controls (totaling up to something around eight keys all told in addition to the mouse), we are offered time to play the beginner map Rzhev Meat Grinder and then the more advanced map Battle of Moscow. Given that I hadn’t played CoH let alone many other RTS games in recent years, I figured I’d start with Rzhev and go from there.

Starting out with three or so units (each unit is comprised of a few individual soldiers), two riflemen and one engineer, I approach a bridge that’s being occupied by some enemy guards. My objective is to assault and take over their position, so I do the absolutely foolhardy thing and charge in. Well, bad idea, as I quickly lose a unit while at most scuffing the shoes of their well-covered fighters. As it turns out, though, being on the beginner demo (map or setting I’m not sure as the two demos were separate desktop shortcuts), I had endless units, so another one quickly materialized.

Regrouping, I decided to employ strategy. A bold decision, I know, but I was willing to take risks. Sending out my engineers around to the left of the bridge and behind a truck, I moved some riflemen right into the frontline, pretty much facing off with the enemy American Revolution-style. This afforded my other riflemen time to move to their right so when the bullet-weary unit retreated out of range, the enemies would turn to face them.

This allowed my engineers to approach now from what was effectively the rear, and being that they had flamethrowers, it was a brutal end to the bridge dwellers. But objective complete, so no remorse!

Past the bridge was a village where the enemy was fairly well entrenched, having taken cover behind some choice buildings and set up a rather bothersome Gatling gun. The theme here, if you haven’t noticed, is flanking, so I once again move my engineers off to the left, behind a building and through some moderate tree coverage. Here is where I have my first encounter with the ColdTech as the high snow off-road drastically slows them down to the point where I fear the enemy will notice my other units moving into position far before the flame-wielding techs are ready.

And it is a fear well validated by the fact that they soon start shooting in my general direction. One unit is fairly well exposed, forcing them to dive down behind some crates. The others continue to move around to the side, but I can’t force these guys to retreat because they are pinned down. I can see and hear their pleas for help but all I can do is move forward with the flank and hope it’ll get them out of hot water soon enough.

Apparently, though, a few of my clicks were rather haphazard and my engineers wander straight into the western entrenchment. The machine gun turns and begins to fire, quickly mowing down one and critically damaging the others. Out of blind loyalty, I Braveheart’d their rescue by selecting all units and throwing them right into the ring. It actually worked out well as soon I was destroying buildings and flushing out the cowardly with fire and lead. I lost a lot (a lot) of men, but the endless supply of dudes was pretty luxurious.

Next I had to defend against a minor onslaught on our recently acquired village. The enemy attacked us in spurts, employing a guerrilla style of warfare, and despite having destroyed most of the prime cover in our hostile takeover, managing the attack was pretty easy. Minimal casualties and minimal clicking beyond selecting everyone and pointing all of their bullets in a certain direction.

Then we had to cross a frozen lake. It was a bit tense as we had just prior been shown a sizzle reel involving tanks and soldiers crashing through icy surfaces into the watery death below, but we made it across only to find ourselves face-to-face with a tank.

Not wanting any particular part of that action until I had sussed out what needed to be done, I took cover behind the house on the left. A few tank shells later, there wasn’t much of a house to hide behind, so I decided to have one unit distract while the others escaped. As it turns out, though, that bit of military genius was unnecessary; somehow when I came up on the tank, it was abandoned even though enemies were still milling around the outside. So I hopped it, blew them up, and then waited for the reinforcements to arrive. This included another tank, but it was easily handled by employing two key tactics: 1) never stop moving, and 2) never stop shooting.

That ended that beginner demo, so I moved on to the expert Battle of Moscow. This would require base, resource, and outpost management along with a constant monitoring of the freezing conditions on behalf of the soldiers I controlled. This arena actually appeared to be a 2v2 map as I later would find some yellow companions. Humans or AI, I’m not sure, but I do know I almost tried to kill them. Sorry, guys!

My mentality of the entire game also shifted somewhere along the way. At first, I was cautious in this capture mode, pumping out a few ammo and sandbag outposts with my engineers and some fire pits and barracks for cold management. It was like I was actually playing a Blizzard RTS, albeit this was just an RTS that happened to be in a blizzard. However, as I began to capture my first enemy base, constantly alternating flanking units and reheating units in buildings (that little dropping thermometer around them is very disconcerting) until I finally took my first point.

I began to flesh out this second base of mine, but a counterattack was quickly mounted. I could see them occupying the flag and the bar filling in their favor, but I had superior numbers and simply ambushed them from around the multitude of buildings (the True Sight truly an advantage here). This was fun but soon made me realize I had very little time to dawdle with resources and structures, so I charged headlong into the unknown winter.

I encounter a yellow team and after my attempts to attack failed, I realized they were on my side. Correction: a very minimal amount of them were on my side as most of them died in attempting to take the point north of us, a point heavily fortified with a tank and many troops. As I begin to set out with my newfound allies, my/our second base was under attack, forcing us to run back through the inhibiting snow and harsh haze of winter. A few times, I’m forced to send engineers (the class that also builds most other things in the game thus far) out just ahead to build fires as we approached. Managing cold was an anxious affair but also made the simple rote action of walking across the map nerve-wracking.

Turns out, however, whether on purpose or by happenstance, what started out as a vanilla base takeover soon escalated into an ambush, an ambush I was on the wrong side of.

So every one of my green dudes died, a few yellow lingered on, and the red was now dominating most of the map. I decided to pack it up and leave, already having spent close to 90 minutes playing this game.

Aside from looking pretty good (especially the fire and snow effects), CoH2 also plays well and in some very interesting ways. Having a constant enemy in the cold—one that both sides must battle and yet can turn vicious or helpful at the drop of a hat—makes for a totally up-in-the-air encounter every time. The random dice rolls of CoH also remain. Or at least I think so given how situationally aware and mildly random damage seemed to occur (compared to the cold, hard math of say a StarCraft).

In fact, I’m fairly sure the reason why that tank was empty was because one of my grenades actually managed to kill the driver, something of a rarity when you’re just attacking a tank otherwise. From what I can remember, this is very CoH. The additions seem to be well in line with what I remember even after six years of RTS-related game brain atrophy but the changes so far seem good and, more than that, appropriate.

Given, it’s hard to get that in-depth into any strategy game even after 90 minutes, but so far I feel good about what I saw, especially knowing that it was announced just earlier this year in May. Look for it early next year on PC.

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