Company of Heroes Theater of War

Theater of War

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LOS ANGELES — Company of Heroes 2 captures the full brutal effect of Russian winters and the suicidal charges that Russian commanders ordered during World War II. The tactical-combat video game is able to convey that brutality in part because the team at Relic Entertainment did its research, including feeling the sting of a modern Russian winter themselves.

The result is a real-time strategy game that, when it debuts on June 25 in the U.S. and Europe, will give players an experience that is rooted in historical realism. Sega, which picked up Relic from the ashes of THQ, is showing off the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game conference this week in Los Angeles.

The PC title is looking very good. We recently got to play another full level of the game at a press briefing, and we got to see the environmental effects in action. The Shlisselburg level showed an attack across a frozen river, with troops and vehicles falling into the freezing water when artillery shells crack the river’s ice.

Quinn Duffy, the game’s director at Relic Entertainment, told GamesBeat’s Alejandro Quan-Madrid in an interview that the goal of including the effects of nature and the environment is to convey just how hard it was to survive on the Russian battlefield. Advanced simulation technology helps make battles more believable.

Theater of War interface

“The Essence Engine 3 gives us the horsepower to show the winter, the cold effects, the breaking ice,” Duffy said. “We wanted to show the Russian winter in all of its glory and horror. We talk about authenticity. We want to deliver the feeling of danger and effort. We want to make it fun. We want to tell a story.”

The team visited Russia during the month of February, and it was horribly cold at about minus 20 degrees Farenheit. They shot video and tried to see what it was like to run through snow that was thigh deep.

“It’s like trying to run in the ocean,” he said. “You flounder. You try to get out. You instantly understood the challenge. Seeing it was an important part of the research.”

The animations show the soldiers struggling in the snow. If you set up a machine in front of those soldiers, it’s much easier to take them out.

“This snow has not only texture but depth,” Duffy said. “The vehicles leave tracks. When a blizzard comes in, it wipes out the tracks.”

Theater of War close range

The team spent time in Russia and also visited Berlin. They noticed from the research that the jaded Russians had a dry sense of humor. So they put that into the dialogue of the game to give players a flavor for the personality of the Russian soldiers.

Across the Neva River

The battle we played was set in Shlisselburg, Russia. The Russians stormed the German fortress by crossing the Neva River in 1943. The attack was critical to restoring access to the besieged Lengingrad, which was under siege for more than 900 days. The cinematics introducing the battle to the player were very dramatic and appealed to the Russian sense of patriotism. Many soldiers didn’t appear to mind the suicide attacks, or at least they didn’t flinch when ordered to make them.

In the battle, I launched my set of Russian infantry across the river amid a withering German artillery strike. Some of the troops fell into the water as the ice cracked from the artillery shells. German machine guns pinned down some of my soldiers, but I ordered my troops to outflank the machine guns. Once we made it across, the first task was to take out the line of infantry along the embankment. Then we had to push deeper inland to take out the artillery. Once that was done, we pushed deeper into the buildings along the embankment.

The battle was chaotic, with lots of shouting, cursing, and shooting. The Germans started doing a lot of damage to my soldiers with a flamethrower. But we took it out with grenades and then used it to attack the Germans. Then we had to put our soldiers into a defense perimeter and hold off the German counterattack. The Russians were under a lot of pressure from multiple sides.

It seemed like a suicide mission to cross that river, but my soldiers survived. The tables had turned, and what seemed like a suicide mission for the Russians now became one for the Germans as they ran across a narrow access bridge right into machine gun fire and a flamethrower.

Why it’s looking good

Company of Heroes 2 delivers on the seasonal winter and spring play. The winter effects make the game a lot harder to play. The gameplay is cool, the graphics are beautiful.

Just a few weeks ago, Relic dropped a very pleasant surprise on fans by showing off the new Theater of War mode, which is a cooperative single-player mode that serves as a bridge to multiplayer play. The title will ship with the 1941 pack of Theater of War missions, including nine German and nine Russian missions. That’s a huge amount of additional content considering that the single-player campaign itself has just 14 missions.

While the single-player campaign follows a strict narrative — a story about the war — this new mode offers battles that illustrate other important moments between the Russians and the Germans during the first part of the war. Big battles of 1941 are in the Theater of War missions — engagements that the main game doesn’t cover.

We’ve tracked the progress of this game through multiple previews, and Relic hasn’t let us down yet. Overall, I’d say this game is another big reason to stick with gaming on the PC.

Alejandro Quan-Madrid contributed to this report.