Relic is back with 'Company of Heroes 2', but can they balance bigger ambitions with a quest for a wider audience?
The last member of a conscript squad on the Eastern Front stumbles to his knees in a snow drift. He dies in the cold, the final casualty in a column doomed by a tactical misstep in minus-60-degree weather. Because Winter is cruel. And Relic wants players to understand just how cruel with Company of Heroes 2 next year.
Early on in my hotel lobby meeting with game director Quinn Duffy, Relic Studio marketing manager James McDermott, and communications manager Simon Watts, it’s clear that they’re eager to show off some of the big changes that Company of Heroes 2 brings to the series.
While the rebuilt Essence Engine 3’s "cold tech" is a big part of the equation, there are more fundamental foundational changes in place. Pathfinding, the way units determine how they go from one point to another, has been changed completely. Formerly, every map had specific paths for each unit type scripted into the level. Now, each unit is governed by a basic AI that also extends to computer opponents. There are only objectives and strategies, which units use to navigate the world of Company of Heroes 2.
But it's the cold that defines Company of Heroes 2. The Eastern Front was the site of the biggest, bloodiest battles of the Second World War, and the Russian winter played a particular role in that. "There were many cases in the winter of 1941 where the temperatures got to minus-40 Fahrenheit," Duffy tells me. "With the wind and the blowing snow, it's going to feel like minus-60, and exposed flesh will freeze in a matter of minutes under those conditions. So exposure to the weather is a critical component of the cold tech system."
The poor, doomed Russian conscript squad is Duffy and McDermott's introductory course on the capricious nature of what the Russian forces referred to as "General Winter." This goes beyond more limited visibility or a different coat of paint — snow and cold had an effect on just about every tactical consideration in the level I was shown. Deep snow slows infantry down, blizzards cause them to freeze to death more quickly, and shelter has become even more important. Combat engineers are also indispensable given their ability to "stage" the battlefield, setting up life-saving fires, which in turn are a necessity for entrenched infantry units like mortar crews and machine gun teams.
"We want our infantry units to always be viable, to try to make sure all the units in the game have strategies and viabilities as the game progresses," Duffy says. "So there's things like capturing and holding buildings, and you still need infantry for that. But what cold does is that it encourages different unit roles."
"THE GERMANS WERE DEEPLY AFRAID OF THESE THINGS."
Company of Heroes 2 remains an impressive technical showcase, which assists in developing a sense of ambiance and place. The cold isn't just an invisible modifier applied to units behind the scenes — it's an oppressive presence, visible in the fog of every soldier's breath, in the lonely death of the last remaining member of a unit in the cold.
Meanwhile, other aspects of the Company of Heroes design philosophy remain. Fires aren't reinforcement points for squads, and mechanized infantry, like half-tracks, will still be necessary to keep soldiers on foot alive and reinforced.
The new game also represents a chance to better capture the terrifying presence of armor and ordinance on the battlefield. "We're trying to capture the sort of fear and fearsome nature of these weapons. They were psychological killers as well." McDermott demonstrates a returning unit from Company of Heroes, the BM-13 Katyusha. The Katyusha, Duffy explains, was capable of laying down several football fields worth of destruction, a "politically reliable weapon."
"The Germans were deeply afraid of these things," Duffy explains as McDermott's Katyusha barrage demonstrates the ice component of Relic's cold tech, taking out the frozen lake and sending most of the German tanks crossing it to the bottom. Frozen bodies of water present one of the bigger tactical risk-reward scenarios to be added in Company of Heroes 2. Ice thickness and strength is modeled realistically, as is repeated stress to that surface. While on-foot infantry and light mechanized infantry can generally cross ice without a problem, tanks are another matter entirely. The updated engine behind the game allows each tank's treads to cause damage specific to the vehicle's weight.
What does this mean? In a scenario set around 1941, when the Russian KV-1 reigned "as the first true super-tank," as Duffy puts it, enterprising players might use the behemoth to wreak havoc in the enemy's base, and then pull back across the ice in a ploy to trap the inevitable counterattack on less than solid ground — the exact scenario that played out with McDermott's Katyusha gambit. But a good defensive perimeter and smart play could strand that KV-1 on the ice, or destroy the ice right underneath it.
Or anti-tank infantry might flank the KV-1 and score an "abandon critical," which will send the crew inside fleeing for their lives out of the vehicle. Combat engineers can then repair and field the enemy unit, which, as any Company of Heroes veteran will probably tell you, could reverse the entire course of a skirmish. The abandonment system has led Relic to beef up vehicles in Company of Heroes 2, which could change battle strategies over time as players devise new tactics in multiplayer.
VEHICLES AREN'T IMMUNE TO THE EFFECTS OF 'GENERAL WINTER'
But even vehicles aren't immune to the effects of the weather. Blizzard conditions will prevent air vehicles from engaging targets and cause ice to refreeze more quickly, and more damningly for mechanized infantry and armor, their movements will be obvious to any player paying even the smallest amount of attention to their surroundings, courtesy of permanent, dynamically generated tread marks. Infantry leave tracks as well, though inclement weather sounds like it might eventually disguise them.
When I ask Duffy if there's any concern internally that matches might not last long enough for these kinds of visual cues to make much of a difference, he didn't seem especially concerned. "It's actually really apparent early on," he tells me. "When you're just starting and scouting, you'll come across stuff."
But Relic isn't done fine-tuning all the ways weather will affect troop movements and general effectiveness. "We're still working on how (weather might affect visibility)," Duffy clarifies, bringing up the new Truesight mechanic, which masks player visibility according to obstacles. "We had it where a blizzard would reduce the sight radius of the troops, but it wasn't noticeable, because the changing effect was too constant. I'd rather have something more dynamic, so we're still working on it."
And Relic is still fine-tuning exactly how much of a part weather will play when Company of Heroes 2 ships next year. "We have full control of (weather), and we can make it cyclical, or truly random. We can also key it to events — maybe as technology increases the blizzard comes in."
"WE'RE NOT SO MUCH FOCUSING ON 'MINIMUM' MINIMUM — FOR US MIN-SPEC IS MUCH MORE ABOUT 'YOU CAN PLAY AND ENJOY THE GAME.'"
TECH, MIN-SPEC, & COMPATIBILITY
It's hard to know exactly why any given game fails to meet sales expectations, but some educated guesses include what were, at the time, very steep system requirements forCompany of Heroes. Prior to the release of Crysis, COH was one of the most resource-intensive PC games around, a strategy title with graphics competitive with contemporary action titles and shooters, and one of the most aggressive implementations of physics in an RTS up to that point.
Company of Heroes was so resource-intensive that many players disabled terrain deformation and weather entirely in favor of a smoother overall experience. However, while these were mainly cosmetic additions in the original, Company of Heroes 2's cold and weather systems, as well as the revamped terrain deformation, are major gameplay elements.
Duffy acknowledges the complicated technical situation the original game presented. "We sold a lot of graphics cards," he adds.
Relic has taken the component parts of their engine and streamlined and rebuilt with the capabilities of modern PC hardware in mind. "We've rebuilt our renderer and have really focused on optimization to hopefully mitigate the performance risks and get the game on a wider variety of machines," Duffy said. "But we've built these new features into the system," he admits. "We can't take terrain deformation out, because for us, that creates cover. If you take that out of the min spec, there's a disadvantage or the game isn't going to work properly. And tank tracks and the like are part of that as well."
However, Company of Heroes 2 isn't a complete compromise. The new engine is currently specific to DirectX 10 and 11, and DirectX 9 support isn't assured. The studio is currently working to see how comparable they can make the experience for older cards, given the absolute necessity of some features to a level playing field online.
When asked if Relic is ceding the role of most graphically intense strategy title in order to set a minimum experience for more users, Duffy demurs. "The goal for us is to get the experience on as many machines as we can, which is a big part of rebuilding our renderer. Now we've got a more optimized engine, better multithreading support, and you can move certain things onto the GPU that you couldn't before, like physics, which we can take advantage of, which we couldn't back in 2006.
"We don't have our min-spec set, but we're very confident we want to get this on as many systems as possible. But at the same time, we can't sacrifice too much out of the experience. We love the way the game looks and feels."
THQ Communications Manager Simon Watts adds that Relic's position on min-spec is different than many other PC developers. "This new engine is so much more efficient that you can essentially do twice as much with the same amount of work. That will hopefully allow the min-spec machines to run it at a better level. We're not so much focusing on 'minimum' minimum - for us min-spec are much more about 'you can play and enjoy the game.' And if you have a powerful system, you can dial everything up to '11' and you're going to start getting that crazy level of detail, all the way down to tank tracks."
While Company of Heroes' main audience tends to favor higher-end machines, it doesn't sound like DirectX 11 exclusivity was a consideration for Company of Heroes 2 — though Windows XP support is off the table. "But DirectX 11, the numbers aren't quite high enough to justify that focus," Watts says. "We're not quite at that high end yet. By the time the games comes out, more people will have moved to the higher end spec, which means we do need to do some guesswork."
Having played enough Company of Heroes to dread the update process, I ask Duffy if the move to a fully Steamworks-integrated title will streamline the patch process for Company of Heroes 2 by comparison. "Yeah, there shouldn't be five or six patches sequentially anymore; there should just be one patch," he says. He brings up the Opposing Fronts collection as an example of how convoluted the patching process became with Company of Heroes. "When we released 'Opposing Fronts,' everybody had to download it, which was about a gigabyte for everybody playing the game. That was kinda nuts. We wanted to try to fix that."
I didn't expect to see a sequel to Company of Heroes, even as a fan. It was a game that seemed unable to hit a certain sort of critical mass of sales and mainstream play, regardless of how well it was reviewed. Duffy emphasizes that Relic did manage to move a lot of games, but actually making Company of Heroes 2 hinged on "being able to make the game we wanted to."
"We looked at the Eastern Front five years ago, or whatever it was, and we realized that we couldn't do what we wanted to do, because of the constraints of the engine. We couldn't deliver the experience that we thought we could previously. We always wanted to do Company of Heroes 2, there were always plans in place, but we had to wait to get the right team together to make it happen."
Watts points out that the job isn't easy. "They're kind of big shoes to fill, you know. I believe that Company of Heroes is still the highest-rated strategy game on Metacritic. And the interest seems to be there. When we announced Company of Heroes 2, we broke all of our concurrency records for Company of Heroes online, there were so many people dusting off their copies, so we wanted to make sure that we did everything justice."
Duffy agrees. "It's amazing how much effort it takes to make these improvements, to build a little more authenticity, a little more tactical combat, to kind of take the game and take it to that next level."
The elephant in the room for any big-budget PC title in 2012 and beyond is the hardest question to bring up, but I wonder aloud if there's a sense that the window is closing to release the kind of game that Company of Heroes 2 represents: the retail PC exclusive. I ask if there's a perception at the studio that there won't be many more chances to release a game like this, that took this much money, that required this much investment.
"I don't think so," Watts replies. "When you actually look at the numbers, there are crazy numbers out there for what people are writing off as dead. And the strategy genre has expanded, not contracted. There's an influx of new people."
"Things are changing," Duffy admits. "There will be an emergence of new business models, new delivery methods, new finance models, new development processes. Things are going to be interesting for all us in the next several years as we figure out how to adapt and what we bet on. I think creating quality games will continue to be a viable business. When you make a good game, people will come to play it."