The original Company of Heroes is the most critically acclaimed real-time strategy game of all time. Why, then, would Relic Entertainment wait six years to develop a proper sequel? At E3, they had the answer to that question: they were waiting for technology to catch up to what they wanted to do with the game. Attention to detail allowed by the tools at hand, the team now aims to create a more realistic representation of war – specifically the Eastern Campaign of World War II – in a real-time strategy arena than anyone has done in the past.
Perhaps they will succeed.
Relic’s presentation at E3 drove home the importance of the battlefield. We began by looking closely at individual infantry soldiers, rendered in great detail that, to my eye, rivaled the models of modern action titles. Running these troops through deep snow revealed that each one’s animation would change, high-stepping through what was no longer a flat surface, painted white, but a physical encumbrance, itself occupying space in this miniature world. Lucky for players, it also melts under the heat of a flamethrower.
Unit actions and the effects of deformed terrain, smoke, trees, and other obstructions were demonstrated, as well. Troops vaulted over cover to move forward, and automatically moved into cover and defended themselves when idle. Craters caused by mortar fire served as moderate cover for a few soldiers, and line of sight was restricted by obstacles on the battlefield, appearing as an amoeba-like island of clarity within the fog of war. Fighting among trees caused dark patches in the soldiers’ field of view, and at one point, a heavily smoking, half- destroyed tank acted as a deadly screen that hid a German machine gun nest and a genuinely surprising ambush.
Enemy troops, we learned, will operate on more than just scripted actions in Company of Heroes 2; every tactic available to players will also be used by the enemy, which means that any given battle will theoretically play out differently each time. And with the addition of vehicle abandonment to Company of Heroes 2, we watched a tank that lost its crew to enemy fire become an important dynamic objective with the potential to seriously turn the tide of battle, as either side of the conflict had the opportunity to reclaim it.
Finally, we saw suppression and the ruthless Order Number 227 instituted by Stalin in 1942. Coverless troops came under heavy machine-gun fire and automatically went into a prone position to avoid slaughter. When the retreat command was given, Company of Heroes 2 treated us to a cutscene in which the commanding officer declared the squad to be traitors, ordering his own men to mow down the fleeing Soviets. The developers at Relic have done their best to illustrate why the Eastern Front is considered one of the bloodiest war campaigns in human history.
What we saw of Company of Heroes 2 running on Directx 9 at E3 2012 was certainly impressive, and launch day 2013 will see the game operating under the full power of DX11. With plenty of time between now and then, one can be sure that Relic will have more to reveal in the months ahead. We look forward to getting our hands on the game’s final build and finding out if the talented team can top its previous RTS performance.