Relic's game director, Quinn Duffy, opened the demo with the words I wanted to hear: "We didn't want to do different; we wanted to do more." As a longtime Company of Heroes fan, it's always seemed strange to me that one of the greatest strategy games on the PC has gone six years without a sequel. Sure, the Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valor expansions were fun, and there have even been a few great mods over the years, but we haven't had a real sequel until now. THQ gave me my first look at the upcoming Company of Heroes 2 last week and it was worth the wait.
For starters, the action finally moves to the bloody battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Normandy and Bastogne are fine, but the huge, sweeping epic that played out between Moscow and Russia is a perfect choice for the sequel. From the Germans initial attacks in Operation Barbarossa to the final German defeat at the Battle of Berlin, players will have a chance to take part in many of the War's most storied battles.
The demo we saw put players at the tip of the spear in the battles around the town of Rzhev on the Volga River in late 1942. Known as the "Meat Grinder" for the one- to one-and-a-half-million or more men killed during the fighting, the battles around Rzhev saw the Soviet Army desperately trying to hold back German forces moving to relieve the beleaguered 6th Army at Stalingrad.
Watching the demo, it's clear that the developers at Relic aren't trying to reinvent the series. Instead, they're focusing on adding new features that fit the model established by the original game. It adds new mobility options to help solidify infantry as the queen on the chessboard of battle. Being able to vault over cover, rather than having to run around every low wall, shrub, or fence they find, makes infantry the most versatile and mobile unit on the battlefield now, which should help make rushes and retreats more manageable.
The new Essence 3 engine uses true line-of-sight, making forest ambushes and house to house fighting remarkably unpredictable affairs. Your vision range may extend to the other side of those trees or that farmhouse, but until you get around behind them, you'll have no idea whether any enemy AT gun is waiting to turn your T-34s into smoldering coffins. The biggest compromise here seems to be that line of sight is universal. In other words, anything that one unit sees, they all see. Fortunately, your blind spots are covered with a simple overlay, which allows you to see at a glance where trouble may be waiting.
Where many strategy games handle snow levels by painting the regular terrain white, the snow in Company of Heroes also has real depth, meaning that your soldiers will move slower in deeper drifts. Watching them trudge through a field of fresh snow really helps reinforce the realism of the game. What's even cooler, footprints and tank tracks persist, so you can actually read the terrain to see if troops have moved through an area.
If you feel like warming up, the game also offers up a flamethrower you can use to set those quaint little Russian farmhouses on fire. German troops holed up in a barn by the crossroads? No problem. Just burn it to the ground. Soviet soldiers crouched in the nearby woods daring you to come get them? Not any more they're not.
I'm a huge Company of Heroes fan and, given the lack of suitable successors in the RTS market, I'm excited to hear that Relic is more interested in adding to the original experience than in coming up with a radical alternative design. The game will be shown, and hopefully playable, at E3 this year, so look for more updates then.