Company of Heroes 2 Multiplayer Hands On

Company of Heroes was a big hit among strategy gamers, but the sequel has been a long six years (and counting) in its coming. The end is in sight, though, as Company of Heroes 2 is set for release in 2013 and the development is far enough along that THQ and Relic let the gaming press spend some hands-on time with the game’s multiplayer mode.

One of the biggest changes you’ll see in Company Heroes 2 is the move from Western Europe to the steppes of Russia and World War II’s Eastern Front, and the change in theater brings with it several major changes to the game. First there’s the obvious introduction of the Russian army. The Russians can quickly build squads of conscripts that don’t match up well to the German army regulars on a one-on-one basis, but that can be used in large numbers to overwhelm the enemy. Russian Guard units are far superior to the conscripts, but are also a lot more expensive and are best used to exploit weaknesses in the enemy lines gained at the expense of the conscript units. The Russian tech tree lets them get to their high level armored units faster than the Germans, but allowing the Germans to max out their tech tree can prove disastrous.

The other big change that comes with the move to the East is that the weather becomes a major factor in the battles. “General Winter” will often have more influence on the outcome of the battle than the boots on the ground. The game models the brutal cold of the Russian winter and its effects on both the battlefield and the combatants. Troops out in the open will freeze to death if you don't take measures to keep them warm, and if a blizzard rolls in they will be in even greater danger. Before we get further into the impact of weather on the game, though, let's take a look at the basics of the game's multiplayer mode.

Company of Heroes 2 screenshot 1

If you've played the first Company of Heroes game, then for the most part Company of Heroes 2 will feel familiar to you. There have been a number of changes and additions, though, so the game isn’t simply Company of Heroes on new maps. The object of the multiplayer game is to capture and hold three special victory locations on the map. When one side holds one of these locations, command points are slowly drained from the other side's total. Hold more than one location, and these points are drained at a faster rate. When one side is out of command points, the other is declared the winner.

The victory locations aren't the only special locations on the map, though. There are also locations that will generate resources for the side that captures and holds them. In addition to sites that generate base resources that are used for purchasing all new units, special sites such as ammo and fuel dumps are required to generate the resources needed for armored and advanced units. Each player has a base area at opposite ends of the map, and units are generated by special structures built at these bases by engineer units.

Engineer units are even more critical on winter maps because they also have the capability to build bonfires to keep other units warm. Moving out from your base at the start of the battle requires building a chain of fires towards the frontlines to prevent your soldiers from dying from the cold before they even reach the battles. These fires don't burn indefinitely, so you'll need to periodically check on them to ensure that you can still move your troops up to the frontlines without killing them. Troops can also avoid the cold by garrisoning buildings and riding in trucks and halftracks, but your anti-tank guns, machine gun emplacements, and other defenses must be left out in the open air and will freeze if there's not a fire nearby.

Things get even more dangerous when a blizzard blows in. The amount of time troops can be exposed to the cold is drastically reduced, as is the warming radius and burn time of fires. With the increased cold and decreased visibility that comes with blizzards, players need to hunker down to ride out the storm, although bold players may be tempted to take the risky move of using the blizzard as cover for advancing forces…

The winter weather also gives the game a chance to show off its dynamic map effects. You can tell that enemy armor has moved through a location by the tracks left in the snow, although if a blizzard comes by you'll never know they were there. You can send an enemy vehicle to a watery grave by blasting the ice around it until it can no longer support the vehicle's weight. Burning tanks on a frozen river are in danger of melting their way through the ice and pulling down nearby troops and vehicles.

Company of Heroes 2 screenshot 6

The game's engine does more than just winter effects. Artillery and mortar bombardment leaves shell craters behind and tanks can reduce buildings to rubble. You can tell that a tank's been disabled and know how it's been damaged just by looking at it. It's all pretty impressive (and doubly so since I was playing a pre-alpha build of the game), and really makes the battles feel like they're taking place on an actual battlefield rather than a game map.

Two maps were available for play during my hands-on time with the game, one a summer map and the other a winter map. The summer map was bisected by a river with three bridges spanning it. The victory points on the top and bottom of the maps were on opposite sides of the river, while the third sat on a small island in the center of the map. The approaches to this last victory point were limited to a couple of bridges, which channeled the opposing forces into a small area and created some of the most fierce battles I saw that day. By the end of the game, it became hard to bring reinforcements into the area past all of the burning wreckage blocking the bridges.

The winter map was also split by a river, but there was only a single bridge crossing it in the middle. However, the river was frozen, so you could bring men or vehicles across it at any point. Most of the buildings were concentrated near the center of the map, though, so most of the fighting took place in that area. Flanking around the edges of the map was a viable strategy, but it had to be executed carefully. Any flanking troops had to be moved carefully while outside of vehicles because the distances that they needed to cover were greater and the availability of shelter from the cold scarce. However, the center of the map couldn't be ignored while doing this because the side that manages to push across the river and control the buildings on the other side is at a distinct advantage.

I enjoyed the gameplay on both maps. The summer map required judicious use of combined arms assaults against the enemy forces massed in the center and smart placement of defenses once the center point was controlled. The winter map was interesting in that it felt more like a battle of attrition against both the enemy and the weather. The goal here was to probe and counter, until a hole in the lines could be punched through and exploited. There was however an annoying aspect to these battles in that the troops required a bit too much babysitting. Engineers wouldn’t relight bonfires that had burned out and troops wouldn’t enter a building on their own during a blizzard. We’ll have to wait and see if this was due to the game’s early state or if it was a deliberate design decision.

I was impressed with Company of Heroes 2. The dynamic battlefields were impressive as were the physics of the battlefield. The game felt more like a thinking person's strategy game than one in which the player that can click the mouse faster and memorize a long sequence of hot key presses will always win. Use of cover, the right mix of arms, and thinking defensively as well as offensively, are all things that are important in the game. I was also intrigued by aspects of the game that weren’t quite ready for a test drive, such as the player ranks and medals earned through multiplayer play. We’ll have more on the game as it gets closer to launch.