Company of Heroes 2, the long-awaited sequel to what developer Relic Entertainment is keen to tout as 'The Highest Rated Strategy Game Ever', hit journalists and pre-order customers with a beta last Tuesday, and after hours of flanking Nazis, fleeing panzers and bracing for mortar strikes, here's how we think it's shaping up ahead of a June release on PC.
What immediately strikes you about Company of Heroes 2 is how traditional it is. This is not a rejuvenated reinvention like SimCity, a game likewise sharing hardcore heritage with the PC crowd, but rather a continuation of a hard, fast, and complex WWII real-time strategy. Military tactics apply - seek cover behind walls, destroy buildings to flush out enemies, and watch your flanks - as does raw strategy game skill. Build orders, tech tree research, and fast fingers are all a necessity.
This time, you'll wage war as the Soviet Red Army. From Operation Barbarossa to the Battle of Berlin, CoH2's campaign looks to capture the Eastern Front's brutal fighting - fighting which saw the highest number of fatalities recorded in history.
It's not unfair, but it is unforgiving
The beta may have been skirmish only, but the campaign's brutality was definitely present, as we found out firsthand.
We've played and completed all Company of Heroes games (the first in 2006, and two expansions in 2007 and 2009 respectively), but in the intervening years our skills - like most gamers, we imagine - have dwindled, muscle memory clouded by numerous strategy titles released since. So we lost - yes - brutally. It's not unfair, but it is unforgiving.
Each skirmish begins with an engineer squad. With them, you'll build barracks to spawn riflemen and more engineers, and later when you've captured enough positions and amassed enough resources, increasingly more powerful units like tanks and artillery. However, as in RTSes like Starcraft and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, if you haven't got a build order in place (essentially, the order in which you'll create units) you'll quickly get overwhelmed. It's the equivalent of treading water while your opponent does a butterfly stroke. Our enemy had flamethrower tanks and mortar-men before we knew it, and from there the match was quickly over.
Reworked mechanics present a learning curve. Commander trees, for instance, have been replaced. Now before each fight you'll select three commanders, represented by playing cards in the lower left corner of the menu, each with several tiers of unlockables. As the battle rages and you amass commander points, you'll activate them to trigger their special skills. One commander upgrades your tiger tanks; another deploys advanced riflemen. It's worth learning each commander's tech tree, because in CoH2, you can't just drop into a match and expect to win.
But that's the point. This game - well, from what we've played of skirmish, anyway - is not a drastic overhaul looking to draft in new players, but more a suite of new features built upon an existing battle plan. ColdTech, Relic's name for what amounts to random blizzards, is one such feature. You'll get a 30-second countdown before one hits, and then anyone caught in the open perishes.
It's a good idea, but feels contrived in execution, with random disruptions pausing fights as players huddle round fires to sustain the little blue 'cold meter' that pops up above their heads.
During one battle in a Pripyat river we retreated to a wooden shack which the enemy preceded to burn with flamethrowers
Thankfully, ColdTech offers more than the chance for soldiers to sing camp songs. Frozen rivers crack and give way as mortars rain down, deep snow slows troops and vehicles, recording their movements in white powder, and blinding blizzards limit sightlines.
Once you do find your foe, another dubiously named new feature, TrueSight, governs how you'll get a bead on them. Apparently it more accurately models units' visibility range, incorporating environment and unit type into the equation, but we honestly didn't notice a difference. You hardly need a complex line-of-sight algorithm to work out when you've got someone in your crosshairs. And besides, strategy games have been recreating the fog of war for decades.