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Eurogamer Expo: Company of Heroes 2 Preview

With the Eurogamer Expo completed, our fingers are now blistered, our eyes strained, and our minds mush. But it was worth the pain. And no game more so that then first demo of Company of Heroes 2. We loved the strategy and cover systems as we fought off the Germans through occupied Normandy in the original game, so our expectations were high.

First we bloodied hands with a demo of a mission called Rzhev Meatgrinder. Even from the off the changes were noticeable. The graphics are a huge step up from the original: zooming down into a squad of Russian troops revealed their faces, their warm breath steaming in the cold as snow gently settled in the countryside where then knelt. And Relic have gone all out with the snow, or as the development team call it, a small piece of ‘General Winter.’ The snow around the troops is thick and dense  in parts, and as the troops moved forward to retake Rzhev the knee deep snow slowed them, forcing them to lift they knees higher as they trudged through it. Just as images of snowmen and a white Christmas began to take shape, the troops jumped for cover as they approached a Nazi occupied cottage. The AI has clearly been improved, as without micromanaging, my forces sought nearby cover and began taking fire.

Now let’s talk about fire. With the Germans under cover a group of engineers moved up and set the picturesque dwelling ablaze with their flamethrowers. In the original Company of Heroes engineers felt weak and ill equipped for fighting serious battles, with most of their work reserved for laying mines and base building. This time around they are flamethrower-wielding brutes, able to toast buildings and enemies alike from a serious distance. With the cottage dealt with we proceeded to a church, where yet again the engineers showed their malice for anything wooden.

Soon Rzhev was retaken. The next task for our comrades was to defend a counter attack. Again the AI proved surprisingly adept, as the enemy used flanking manoeuvres to attempt to flush out the Russians from our defensive position. Several Germans used the new vaulting ability to jump over fences and attack from the side. Just as the defence was about to break, we called in an air strike. As opposed to a single run from a fighter plane however, in Company of Heroes 2 your air support stays around much longer, making several runs, and in the process saving our skin.

With the Germans on the run we followed, over a frozen lake. With little cover on offer, the men hid behind debris and logs frozen into the ice. Soon we made it to the other side, where we found an abandoned tank, surrounded by Germans. Having learned our lessons, we out flanked and out gunned the opposition, and then implemented another new feature: the re-crew ability, as we ordered a squad to re-man the tank. It’s a nice addition that adds a feeling of improvisation to the fighting. We were told that as vehicles get damaged, their squads panics and will leave their positions and retreat, meaning you or the enemy are then able to send in new troops.

A fresh attack began, as a Panzer advanced on our new tank, leaving deep tracks in the snow. The tanks on show are beefier and more menacing that last time around. They have an imposing presence on the battlefield, and watching them trade blow for blow was like a scene from Band of Brothers. As the Panzer went up in flames and the demo faded I was left waiting for the credits to role, until remembering this wasn’t an episode of a new Spielberg mini-series, but a fantastic showing of Company of Heroes 2.

That wasn’t all that was in store for us, as Relic’s Quinn Duffy gave a presentation on more new features during a play-through of The Battle of Moscow. Rather than the crisp settled snow at Rzhev, Moscow was in the grips of a blizzard, as snow blew in around our troops, who stood huddled on the outskirts of the city. Here ‘General Winter’ exhibited just how deadly he can be, as conscription troops were sent forward to scout the area. From Napoléon to Hitler, every military campaign that has invaded Russian soil has had to fight not just the natives, but the elements too, particularly winter.

As troops become affected by the cold, a thermometer appears above, indicating that they are feeling the chill. Their movement slows, their accuracy and fighting efficiency suffers, and when left in the cold too enough, they collapse and die. The brutality is made starker, as the victim’s comrades turned to look at their dying friend, helping to contextualise the events around the men. This makes them feel less like chess pieces, and more like people. To prevent these freezing deaths soldiers now build fires. We watched as several fires were built as the troops made their way through the blizzard toward Moscow. With reduced visibility, we will now be able to lay deadly ambushes in the snowstorms, but unfortunately so will the enemy.

Thankfully no ambushes lay in store today, as the infantry joined forces with several tanks, ready to begin the attack. With the only bridge into Moscow destroyed, the Russians ventured across a frozen river. As was the case during WW2, during winter even tanks were able to cross frozen water, which was often several meters thick, and that’s the case in Company of Heroes 2. As the tanks drove over the ice they slipped as they lost traction, with cracks appearing in the ice they passed over. A tactical element to ice is that it can be destroyed: A German mortar team spotted the tanks and bombarded the ice, destroying it and sending the tanks to the river bed. As ice is destroyed that route on the map will be blocked, until it refreezes, meaning that the shape of the map and the way you use it will constantly develop throughout a battle.

After regrouping, a second attack was in order, this time with the Russian’s secret weapon, the Rocket Trucks. They blasted dozens of rockets across the river, destroying, burning and maiming any and all caught in the blast. The sound effects were breath-taking, and with the surround sound at the Expo, it was a match for the best cinematic WW2 scenes to date. The force of the rockets was even able to destroy the thick snow, and crater the earth. The first dent in the German’s defence had been made, but there is certainly a great deal more to come.

As developer Quinn Duffy said as the presentation rounded up, the Russian front is, ‘the biggest story untold,’ and one which Relic is bringing to life in all its frozen bloody gore. With promises of an order 227 mechanic explored (an order following Stalin’s famous ‘Not a step back,’ speech, meaning that retreats were seen as cowardice and punished with a bullet), the historic Battle of Kursk undoubtedly in the pipeline, and a developed base building system to be detailed, we’ve only touched the icy surface of Company of Heroes 2. But from what we’ve seen at the Eurogamer Expo, we are in for something truly special.

For more on Company of Heroes 2 check out this trailer. For more at the Eurogamer Expo, why not check out our coverage of Far Cry 3, Halo 4 and Hitman: Absolution.

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