Barbarossa Nova: Hands-on with Company of Heroes 2
Like the Wehrmacht soldiers on the real Eastern Front, I learned to fear the Katyusha. At once primitive and terrifyingly modern, the Soviet self-propelled rocket trucks are capable of calling down a merciless barrage in Company of Heroes 2. At a recent San Francisco press preview, they made quick work of my carefully sited defensive emplacements, turning a tight 2v2 match into a one-sided rout.
I first experienced the screaming sound of Katyusha fire during the preview’s provided singleplayer mission. The scenario: a winter showdown with a dug-in German enemy on the opposite side of a frozen river. Along with an AI ally, I was expected to secure the near bank, and assault the Nazi position.
Since I have some experience with the original Company of Heroes, differences were immediately apparent. Controls felt more responsive and more streamlined. Infantry could commandeer enemy vehicles and capture control points without debouching from their half-tracks. A new “Truesight” system ensured that fog of war obscured anything friendly units couldn’t actually see.
Most obvious, however, was the emphasis on the weather. Developers Relic Entertainment have upgraded their Essence Engine to version 3.0, bringing detailed units and crisper textures but also “Coldtech,” so key to recreating the experience of the Eastern Front. The series’ four watchwords — “authenticity,” “tone,” “intensity,” and “immersion” — all depend on the game’s approach to “General Winter,” which claimed so many lives on both sides of the conflict.
This mechanic manifests itself in two major ways. In the first place, troops must be kept warm, either inside vehicles or structures, or by using engineer units to build fires. Cold troops will perform badly in combat and eventually start to freeze to death. As if this weren’t bad enough, in the second place, periodic blizzards sweep across winter maps, sending temperatures plummeting and creating heavy snowdrifts, which slow unit movement. The storms appear at certain intervals during both single- and multiplayer gameplay, preceded by a warning and a countdown timer. They can result either in a temporary truce, or an immense benefit to the commander who is willing to seize the initiative by risking exposure.
Other wintry touches include persistent vehicle tracks and treacherous ice, which can be shattered to sink tanks and other vehicles, which appear in great abundance in Company of Heroes 2. In his presentation to the assembled journalists, Lead Designer Quin Duffy gave a quick summary of the available units: the Soviets have bigger, more mobile squads with lots of infantry, but a rigid tech tree. The Germans are more defensive and flexible, thriving on control.