A damn cold
by Nicholas Laborde
©2013 Nicholas Laborde
Back in 2007, Relic under THQ released a World War Two RTS called Company of Heroes.
It took a very different approach to real-time strategy.
Instead of focusing on building as many units as quickly as possible and then rushing, Company of Heroes‘ approach incorporated RPG elements and placed emphasis on strategic placement of units.
Now under the banner of Sega, Company of Heroes 2 is nearly here, and we’ve had extensive hands-on time with the closed beta.
After experiencing nearly eight hours of gameplay, I have come to a single conclusion: it’s a damn cold strategy game.
A company’s hero
Company of Heroes 2 takes place on the Eastern Front during World War Two, focusing on the struggle between the Soviets and the Nazis.
As previously mentioned, Company of Heroes diversified itself within the RTS genre by incorporating a simple idea: it’s not what you build that matters, but where you put it.
For those who have yet to try the series, I’ll expound upon that idea. In RTS titles, there are two main concepts: macro and micro. Macro is the managing of your resources, while micro is the managing of your army. Being able to manage both at the same time in any strategy title takes much skill and practice.
In StarCraft, arguably the biggest competition that Company of Heroes has been pit against and one of the most well-known strategy games ever created, there is an even balance of macro and micro.
You figure out what units your enemy is creating, build the best counter to those units, and then rush to eliminate them as quickly as possible.
Units are expendable, and are quickly and easily replaced upon loss. To purchase units, you must acquire resources (in the form of minerals and gas) through dedicated worker units and expand your base to maximize your resources and create an army larger and more powerful than your opponent’s.
Typically, the player who is better with their macro wins the game.
I imagine that Relic sat down with a look of utter disgust at this concept when designing the first Company of Heroes.
You see, Company of Heroes‘ mindset is very different; most of the focus is on micro. Worker units are focused on constructing buildings and defenses, but can also hold their own in a firefight.
Resources are split in to three different categories: manpower, munitions, and fuel. Players begin battles with a set amount of these resources, but to increase their supply, they must go out and capture points throughout the map in order to gain control of more resources.
Standard points increase your manpower, which is geared toward simpler units (such as rifleman and snipers). Munitions points increase your munitions, which is focused on heavier units like anti-tank emplacements, and machine gun and mortar teams. Fuel points increase your fuel, which is the resource used to purchase vehicles.
Finally, strategic points are the most important of the four types of points. Strategic points are represented by a giant star on the map, and the goal is to have more than your enemy does, as that will allow both their team points to deplete (which allows you to win the game) and will grant additional resources to the player if they own the surrounding territories.
Players are rewarded for keeping their units alive through a “veteran” system, which allows units that have survived several battles to become more efficient, and are therefore better for your army.
If a particular squad of rifleman has seen several battles, they’ll fare much better at their future fights than fresh units you’ve just created. Additionally, retreating is a major focus of the game.
Company of Heroes wants you to retain your units for maximum efficiency, rather than zerg rushing straight for your enemy and continually churning out more units. It’s better to realize you’re losing a fight, ordering your units to retreat, and then sending them back in to the action later rather than flat-out losing them.
StarCraft, on the other hand, has a minimal emphasis on unit placement. For the most part, you can essentially just select your entire arsenal, point it at an area, and just wait for your success or failure.
Obviously, this is nowhere near any type of advanced strategy as failing to manage your army will almost always result in failure, but it can work, and players tend to be rewarded for it when it does.
A perfect example would be from one of my many matches. My partner and I had pushed and successfully taken all three strategic points, essentially deciding that victory would be in our favor. However, our opponents wanted to ensure the opposite.
At our least protected point (which of course I was guarding), the enemies rolled in a small armored car, a machine gun-wielding troop transport, and a Tiger tank to try and uproot my presence in an effort to turn the tide.
The sole guardians of this last bastion of glorious communism? A small group of Russian close-range shock troopers, hidden behind the ruins of a vehicle.
While the three vehicles assembled around me in a crossfire that seemingly doomed my troops, they were placed in just a way that allowed me to distract their vehicles and keep them from taking the point and stalling our progress.
Four shock troopers held off against an armored car, a halftrack with a .50 caliber machine gun, and a Tiger tank. This, my friends, is why Company of Heroes is such a quality franchise, and why Company of Heroes 2 is quite simply the greatest strategy game that I’ve ever played.
In addition to what I’ve described above about the game’s mechanics, the game’s RPG elements come in the form of command points. In the original games, you had three different skill trees that you could pursue (infantry, armor, or anti-armor) which granted abilities.
Eliminating troops, capturing points and overall being successful as the game session progressed earned you command points, which you would spend in a chosen skill tree. Company of Heroes 2 brings this system back, but in a more organized manner.
No longer do you have to spend these points; the points are replaced with levels and the abilities are automatically unlocked when the required levels have been achieved through the aforementioned acquisition methods.
In my time with the closed beta, I found myself more fond of the Russians, due to their bigger focus on infantry and the ease of acquiring mid-to-long range artillery (which I’ve always been a huge fan of).
After level four has been achieved, which is typically around ten or so minutes into the session if you have a general idea of what you’re doing, I would assemble a small army of medium-range missile touting trucks towards the middle of my territorial line, and then in synchronization with my base’s long-range artillery guns, would then proceed to shell the living daylights out of the poor Nazis that awaited me at the nearest strategic point.
Post-raining of hellfire, I would then charge my few groups of riflemen across the line and begin my advance toward imminent victory or inevitable defeat. Upon my first major infantry engagement within the enemy lines, I would use a fire/napalm strike (which I aptly nicknamed the “Fist of Stalin”) to help eliminate any amassed groups of infantry.
By this point, the tide had either turned in my favor, or my artillery had been completely misplaced and I was actually walking into a far worse scenario, in which case I usually retreated.
This is the reason that Company of Heroes 2 shines. The sheer diversity of units and abilities combined with the number of ways that you can secure map control on top of how battles can be waged all combine to form one of the most polished RTS experiences ever created.
In terms of metaphors, one of the most interesting abilities is on the side of the Germans. A late-game ability, it allows you to capture a wounded enemy soldier and interrogate him, which then reveals the locations of every single enemy base on the map.
Additionally, the atmosphere of the game can be described as innately ferocious. Hearing over fifty Nazis screaming from being set on fire by five Soviet anti-infantry flame tanks was one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen or heard in a video game.
The atmosphere is brilliantly pieced together by a plethora of little things in the world, such as a soldier screaming “I am getting f—ing tired of this s–t!” as mortars rained down upon the area around him.
Now, when we speak of the literal application of the phrase, it is of course related to the fact that the game takes place in Russia, and while regular snow-free war zones do make appearances, the crowning achievement and biggest innovation that Company of Heroes 2 brings to the table lay in the weather system.
On winter maps, a blizzard will periodically approach, and you will be warned sixty seconds beforehand. When this happens, you must move your infantry units towards nearby fires, which can be constructed by engineer units but also appear next to held bases, so that they do not freeze.
Once the blizzard kicks in, heavy snow blows across the battlefield causing reduced visibility and slower movement speeds across the board, while also freezing any water sources.
Vehicles can move during this time period without risk of freezing, but as previously mentioned, visibility is greatly reduced and they do move slower. I came to use this time to build up my units and also shell where I suspected the enemy may be in order to soften them up for a post-inclement weather advance.
The single most terrifying moment in any strategy game is when you’re calmly waiting out a blizzard, thinking that your enemy is doing the same, only to have hellfire rain down upon you by five different mortar guns amidst an anti-infantry tank charge straight into your base.
No two games will play out the same, and this again is the beauty of Company of Heroes 2: the incredible variety of tools and tactics allow it to assert itself as one of the most polished strategy experiences ever crafted.
Finally, what I think is the single most brilliant thing to ever be included in a strategy game is embodied in a simple form: ice.
If you’re particularly demented, you can choose to shell the icy lake your enemy is moving their units across, giving them a nice dose of hypothermia.
Performance and balance
Blizzards leave troops and tanks with snow on them. Units bear their battle scars if they survive more than one encounter. As blizzards progress, the snow gets deeper and units move slower. The screams of dying troops are arguably some of the most realistic ever put in an RTS.
I ran the game on max with a Sapphire Radeon HD 6970, and never experienced any lag or stuttering.
The performance enhancements over previous versions (as in the Alpha last December) are in leaps and bounds, and this is a great thing.
You’re going to want to crank up your settings to max and soak up the incredibly detailed experience that Relic has brilliantly formulated, but it does seem to be very well-optimized for lower end rigs.
I didn’t feel that any one unit or strategy was imbalanced or cheap; rather, Relic specifically listened to feedback from the original title and its expansions, and directly applied that here.
In the previous titles, machine gun and mortar teams were good to have, but failed to be any serious asset to your army; not in Company of Heroes 2. One of the first and most advantageous improvements in the game is to the aforementioned units.
Machine gun teams are now an essential part of every offensive or defensive tactic, and can hold their own against squads many times their size.
Every single unit in Company of Heroes 2 feels useful and every time that I play, I find a new way to counter an enemy unit, or another feature of an existing unit. It’s an incredibly uplifting learning curve.
From its variety of units to its unrelenting ferocity to its incredible weather system, Company of Heroes 2 successfully outdoes its predecessor in that it has yet again moved the RTS genre forward.
Company of Heroes 2 releases on PC on June 25th.
Pre-order now on Steam to get some awesome perks, including beta access!
In the meantime, check out our image gallery below.