Company of Heroes 2 Beta Preview: Da, Tovarisch!

 

The simplest thing I can say about Company of Heroes 2 is that I can’t stop playing it. Even when I’m supposed to be doing something else like, say, writing a beta preview. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it’s addictive.

Things haven’t changed significantly since the hands-on preview I attended in December, despite SEGA taking over publishing duties after the closure of THQ. There’s the same emphasis on immersion and authenticity, which starts right when you load in — the title screen music is some of the best I’ve heard, in any video game. Even during competitive matches, the developers have figured out a way to make the music swell during all the right times, when the combat is getting particularly intense. The game’s audio has been improved across the board; Relic’s audio engineers captured live recordings of the various small arms that feature in the game. The crack of a Soviet sniper rifle or the chatter of a Wehrmacht MG42 cut through with added urgency and menace.

Normandy locations in the original Company of Heroes titles often felt strangely bucolic or quaint, in stark contrast to the bombed-out hellscapes in COH2. Relic’s map designers have done well to capture the freezing desolation of the Eastern Front, which is visually immersive but also tactically important. Units will slog through heavy snow. Tanks will sink when crossing bombarded ice. The new weather system summons blizzards that freeze soldiers to death and reduce visibility to dangerous lows, thanks to a new, realistic line-of-sight system — you never know when a squad of vulnerable infantry will blunder into a waiting tank, concealed by the white-out.

The attention to detail is still meticulous. Unit barks, a traditional series strength, ring true as ever, combining morbid humor with believable panic. Graphical advancements improve the fidelity of the fire, the destruction of the scenery, and the shower of dirt, limbs, and blood when a mortar round connects with its target. Game designer Quinn Duffy and his team at Relic clearly believe in one of the game’s foundational pieces of PR: “every battle tells a story.”

That said, COH2 will live or die depending on its success as a multiplayer title. The original game still has a modest but dedicated community keeping a 2006 release alive as an e-sport. Though the new title includes some excellent innovations with an eye to multiplayer, other aspects leave a little to be desired.

First, the good: a global unit control in the upper right-hand corner makes it easy to select units and give orders without losing sight of the combat. The fact that new units now arrive from off the map takes the frustration out of base-building. Capture points are now surrounded by a circular capture area, enabling units to take cover or build defenses while they’re capturing points, instead of just crouching helplessly near the point itself. The unit veterancy system is now easier to track; before, it was important but too subtle.

Some changes to the interface are unwelcome. The use of space is simply inefficient, dedicating a huge area to unit portraits that look nice but provide no useful function. Crucial resource-management information — manpower, munitions, and fuel — is moved from its rightful place (next to the minimap) to a thin bar at the top of the HUD, making it harder monitor. Abilities icons unlocked by the game’s new commander system are also marred by bad visual design.

These commanders replace the original game’s doctrine system, which provided things like artillery barrages, units, and abilities as players spent “command points,” rewarded for gaining in-match experience. In COH2, players still use command points, but instead of selecting a doctrine and working through the two branches of its tech tree, they will simply select a commander and the abilities will unlock automatically as command points are accrued.

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