Company of Heroes 2 Preview

Sing Katyusha, Sing.

Take it from some one who loves themmost real-time strategy games don't deserve the name. Not even the good or great ones. “Strategy” has to be one of the least understood concepts in our hobby, a catch-all phrase used to describe anything involving applied thought. Sun Tzu famously wrote that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” We often use those two words interchangeably when we talk about games, but they couldn't be more different.

Most RTS are actually RTT, a constant dance of actions per minute where the winner is decided by who can execute a better marine split, or whose build order was executed more exactingly. How's my blink micro? My psi-storm placement? These are all Starcraft 2 terms if you're lost. Each is a question of mechanics, hand speed, and proper technique.

Strategy is about having an overarching plan, a grand vision of the ebb and flow of battle. It's something that's barely present in most games in the genre, and also something that Relic has always shown a unique aptitude for, with Company of Heroes being their most eloquent expression of that aptitude.

After spending hours playing the latest build of their long awaited sequel, Company of Heroes 2, it's hard not to be excited. While the list of changes and brand new elements is almost alarming, everything that made the first game so special is still here. Emphasis on decision-making and slower, positional combat with a heavy premium on map control make it a game of inches and posturing rather than clicking and spamming. But what really impresses me is how all the new elements work on both strategic and tactical levels, making one's understanding of the art of war more crucial than ever to achieve victory.

Much has been made of the new “cold tech” present in CoH 2, and as much as I hate marketing jingo, at this point, it looks like it will be as much of a game changer as has been claimed. It really transforms battles on both the micro and macro levels. A lot has been written on this system already, but let me just say that it fundamentally alters the decision-making process. Infantry on foot will absolutely require an engineer detachment to escort them and build fire pits for warmth. Either that, or you need to prioritize gaining access to troop transports of some kind. Without one or the other, infantry operations are simply a no-go. You'll need to garrison buildings, take cover behind effective wind breaks, and even then you're bound to lose soldiers.

This might sound more frustrating than fun, and at first, it is. Returning CoH vets will find themselves at a loss when they can't send infantry in every direction to capture tons of territory right at the start. The first time you lose an elite squad with upgrades and veterancy bonuses to a blizzard, you'll probably scream. And if you don't, you will when your T-34 falls right through the iced-over top layer of a river and sinks to the bottom. But eventually, you realize that it's just as much an issue for your opponent, and at that moment, it becomes another element of strategy. Who makes the better cold weather decisions? How can I use the elements against them? And suddenly all the possibilities open up.

I'll focus on gas early so I can tech up to a motor pool and produce troop transports. Then I can move my engineers up to take a control point and build a fortifying structure before freezing. I don't bother building a fire pit at all. Now if enemy infantry comes through, they'll be stuck in the cold while trying to whittle away my defensive structures. If their commander is dumb, he'll let them fire away until they freeze and die. If he's smart, he won't even bother trying to take it from me. Either way, I keep it. It's just one of many ways you can use the cold to your favor.

No one would blame you if you were under the impression that the cold weather is a central part of the game. After all, it's been featured in every preview. Cold weather maps only represent about half of the experience, though, with the other half being more in line with what you're probably used to, so if you don't like the wrinkles that cold tech adds, you don't need to mess with it. Even without it, plenty has been altered and expanded to make CoH2 deeper and more satisfying than before.

The biggest change that you've probably heard the least about is the new resource system. Rather than designate specific capture points as sources for fuel and munitions, you can use engineers to construct a munitions or fuel point to secure the territory and designate what resource you wish to focus on. All territories will now generate a little of both in addition to manpower, and there will still be a few zones that give you an abundance of one or the other, but overall, this allows you to prioritize one resource over another, as well as allowing you to supply your war machine without having to spread yourself all over the map. This makes expanding a choice instead of a necessity, which allows you more strategic freedom in every map.

And this is to say nothing of the new abandoned vehicle mechanic, true line of sight simulation, and  commanding officer choices… all of which I could write separate pieces on. When you really examine it all, it's a dizzying level of depth, but minute to minute, it always feels so manageable, even when you hear the horrific roar of a Katyusha rocket barrage launching against you. “Stalin's Organ” sounds every bit as intimidating as the historical accounts described, reminding you that behind all of the great gameplay and visuals is a genuine awe for what was the bloodiest theater in the most important war ever fought.  

Company of Heroes 2 hits in early 2013.