Feature: COMPANY OF HEROES 2 faces a tough task in bettering on the critically acclaimed original, but from our hands-on preview with Relic’s latest World War II real-time strategy title it may just be the game of 2013. We also sat down with game director Quinn Duffy to discuss its innovative ColdTech and True Sight technologies, handling the dark history of the Eastern Front, and the pressure of raising the bar yet again.
Our squad stumbles into the outskirts of a small town as night begins to fall. The wind whips snow around us as we slowly approach a group of burned-out cars creating a convenient barricade across the main road through the seemingly abandoned town. Too convenient.
Suddenly, there is the crack of rifle fire, shouts in German ringing out in the night air. A stick grenade lands at the feet of two of my squad, taking them out immediately. A gun emplacement opens up from a building to the left of us. We’re pinned down, skulking behind the cars. If we go forward we’ll be cut to shreds by German fire. If we go back, the Komissars will put bullets in our heads for cowardice. And if we stay still – well, if we stay still, the cold will kill us anyway.
Quinn Duffy, game director of Company of Heroes 2, laughs when I ask him if he’s feeling the pressure in developing a sequel to the most critically acclaimed real-time strategy game of all time. Duffy has been with Relic Entertainment for over 14 years, working on titles such as Homeworld, Impossible Creatures and Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, but it’s 2006′s Company of Heroes – on which he acted as senior designer – that shines brightest on his CV. Sidelining the base-building and micromanagement of other RTS games, Company of Heroes focused on squad-level control, using its maps to both encourage improvisational tactical thinking and take the player on an epic journey from the beaches of Normandy to the last days of the Reich.
“Well, the expectations are high, and I think internally the pressure is on ourselves to meet the bar the original set,” Duffy admits. “One of the development goals of the first one was a 95% Metacritic – that was the goal we were going for – and now to try and to exceed that is a real challenge.”
Seven years between games is a long time, though Company of Heroes was followed by substantial expansions in the form of Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valor. It was during the planning for those that the sequel’s Russian setting was first mooted: “We looked at an Eastern Front expansion pack back in 2007-8, but I think what we found pretty quickly was that we couldn’t do what we wanted to do in the old engine.
“We had to give it time. I think that until we got engine and tech and team and direction and creative vision all aligned then we weren’t really ready to go on with that.”
It’s been time well spent, as I found out playing the demo level last week. Company of Heroes 2 is shaping up to be every inch a worthy successor, and perhaps even capable of knocking the original off its lofty perch.
The level is set during a series of battles that took place in the vicinity of Moscow between January 1942 to March 1943 which have become collectively known as the “Rzhev meat grinder” – not least because of the extraordinary losses the Russians sustained. But you’d be forgiven if you’d never heard of it. “That was a battle that occurred at the same time as Stalingrad. There were almost a million casualties killed or injured and very few people know about it,” Duffy informs me. “It was a sideshow to Stalingrad.”
He hopes that Company of Heroes 2 may play a small part in educating people about exactly what occurred following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941: “We found that even on our team, a lot of us didn’t quite understand what the Eastern Front was until we started to talk about it. You realise that 13 out of the 15 bloodiest battles of the 20th Century were on the Eastern Front, and most people have only heard of a couple of them.
“And that’s not to belittle the contributions of the West, but there are a lot of stories to tell about the war that aren’t told very often.”
In the demo, I break the impasse on the town outskirts by edging a squad along my left flank, drawing enough fire from the Germans entrenched in the building to allow my LPO-50 light infantry flamethrower to get in close and set the building and its inhabitants ablaze. A few well placed grenades mop up the rest.