Company of Heroes 2 is like a history lesson for the other side of World War II.
Game Director Quinn Duffy isn't worried about American gamers connecting with the Russian stars of Company of Heroes 2.
"There's something innately human about fighting war," says Duffy. "It's not owned by any particular side."
His team's real-time strategy game focuses on the Eastern front of World War II, tracking the Russian forces from 1941 to their march on Berlin in 1945. It is expansive, pitting Russian soldiers in a variety of environments from yawning fields to tight city streets. And all of this space, Duffy points out, is filled with mystery.
Many American gamers don't know the history of the Eastern Front like they know Normandy or even the Battle of Britain. Gamers, Duffy hopes, will be learning real world history by experiencing a hyper-realistic recreation.
In the demo shown behind closed doors at E3, we see a small but deadly scrimmage in what was called the Rzhev Meat Grinder, a battle waged in the winter of 1942 in which over a million Russian soldiers perished. The terrain is blanketed by dense snow that impedes the troops. The animations of soldiers lifting their boots above the snow is lifelike, especially when they struggle futilely to evade enemy fire.
Traveling by road is faster, but can leave you open to attack and vulnerable to strategically placed mines. One takes out an unfortunate soldier.
The remaining squad of Russians make their way to a fort and detonate an explosive against the fence to enter from the side. Two Russians armed with flamethrowers make quick work of the log cabin at the center of the compound, creating an image Duffy calls iconic of the period.
Creating these familiar historical moments is a priority for the team. Later in the demo, we see retreating Russian troops mowed down by their own comrades, a literal deployment of the nation's Order 227, which penalized retreat with death.
Duffy won't speak to the other atrocities of World War 2. He won't say whether or not prison or death camps play a role. What he will say is the team intends to convey "ruthless truth of war," a phrase he came to while researching for the game. He thinks the game needs to be unflinching, but sensitive in regards to what happened.
After the Russians successfully push back the German forces, the elated men are bombarded by a dozen rounds of heavy artillery. The artillery demolishes the landscape and sends fresh corpses into the air, volleying them 20 or so feet above the earth. It would be laughable in most other games, but in the context of the demo it's just grim and a bit depressing. You don't know these soldiers' personal stories, but they feel human. Partly because they look so realistic, struggling to get from point a to point B, and partly because the game's violence seems real. And cold.
They show a few other neat additions, like how the fog of war — what can be seen on the game's map — is revealed by the line of sight of the Russian soldiers. Their vision cones are what you see. If a tree or a cloud of smoke gets in their way, it impacts visibility. This is all happening in real-time. The soldiers also have the ability to vault cover, allowing for rapid transition from one safe point to the next. And then there are the vehicles, which can be knocked out, then recaptured by either team.
But what sticks with us after the demo is the oomph of the battle. The team spent a lot of time and money recording the sounds of the real weapons being fired. They visited battle sites outside St. Petersburg and visited Berlin and Russia. They took a field trip to the Canadian Military Education Center to see the vehicles used during the war.
"This research is really impactful," says Duffy. He thinks the veracity will keep players playing not just for months but for years.