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At the recent Gamescom show in Germany, I had a chance to play another preview of Company of Heroes 3, where my mission was to take over a German-controlled airfield in the Italian campaign of World War II. Then I was able to interview Steve Mele, executive producer at Relic Entertainment, about the latest details of the ongoing development.
The real-time strategy game will be published by Sega and Relic on PC via Steam on November 17, and it’s looking pretty polished. My job in the demo was to take over an airfield, and I barely got into it before I had to move on to my interview. I also played another demo where I got wiped out pretty good. If I showed that one to you on video, it would be as laughable as my 2017 performance on Cuphead. With just a half hour or so at Gamescom, I was just scratching the surface in this game.
I guess I’ll have to get used to getting my head handed to me in this game, especially when I play multiplayer against some expert strategists. But this is the kind of game you learn little by little. Compared to my previous demo, I felt like I had a better understanding of how to navigate through the strategic map. I ran a couple of recon aircraft missions over the airfield and uncovered the tough defenses. I bombed them with aircraft and executed a fire mission against them from my battleship. That softened them up pretty good while it didn’t run me dry on resources for other campaign targets.
But when I went into battle, it was unpredictable. It’s quite easy to run into German armor and infantry that will just rip your squads to shreds. And that’s what I like about this version of Company of Heroes, which I’ve been playing since the series first debuted in 2006. It has been more than eight years since Company of Heroes 2 debuted in 2013 with a Russian Front setting.
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I can tell I’ll be happy to devote a lot of hours to this game when it comes out. I talked with Mele about the fine touches that Relic has put on the game since the previous demos.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Have you been on the project the whole time?
Steve Mele: Nearly the whole time. I’ve been with Relic for four years, and the entire time was on Company of Heroes.
GamesBeat: How is it coming together? What do you have left before you ship in the summer?
Mele: It’s all coming together as we’re approaching our launch date later this year. We’re in the final stages, so now it’s about stability and the critical bugs we want to fix before we launch. All the pieces are there. The experience is all there. We’re very proud. It’s the biggest Company of Heroes yet and we’re having a lot of fun, both making it and playing it.
The high-level thing we want to share, we want to make sure we’re capturing the core essence of Company of Heroes, the RTS gameplay. When you look at this, it feels like what we’re trying to do is Company of Heroes. It’s not something completely new. But we’re providing players with new ways to play, with the strategic map. Tactical pause is new as well. Within missions you can pause the action with the space bar and give orders. That’s new, and it allows players to come in and get familiar with the RTS, to slow it down. And then the last big thing is that we’ve updated everything. We have the new Mediterranean theater, which provides us all this variety. The engine, the graphics, the destruction are all modernized. We’re proud of what we’ve got here.
GamesBeat: The North Africa setting, was that a surprise to people?
Mele: We knew that we wanted–out that outset we met with our community council. We formed a small group of community people together. We call them our co-development group. We started talking about what theaters people wanted to see, where we wanted to go next with Company of Heroes. There were all these different ideas. The Mediterranean, the soft underbelly of Europe, everyone was excited about that. That’s what we picked, Italy and North Africa. People are excited about the variety you get in both places.
The way we approached North Africa was also part of the push to be able to play the way you want to play. In Italy, we wanted to give people that strategy map layer, letting them play more strategically, but in the North African operation it was more about the traditional linear narrative experience that players are used to in our previous games. When you get into the gameplay in North Africa, it’s going to be more wide open in the deserts, more tank battles, bigger maps to go through. It’s a different style of gameplay. Italy provides you with more mountainous regions, hills, and urban areas within the cities.
GamesBeat: How tough is it to relate the strategic map to the tactical gameplay?
Mele: We talk about that a lot. We want the strategic map, the campaign map, to impact the RTS missions. As you move your companies along, you have different types of companies on the map. You have different influences coming in there. I saw that you went and bombarded one of the emplacements there. That will help you access the mission, help you get to a new spot. You can also bombard the actual mission area that you’re going to as well. That will weaken some of the units within that mission. It’ll also damage some buildings there, so you’ll see slightly damaged versions of the terrain.
The companies that you’re working with, whatever you apply to them, the traits, that will influence what you can have there. The other thing is, as you bring your companies forward–this company here, and this other company here, they both can come in if you choose to do so. This one will bring, say, a medical effect that will help you heal better within the mission. And of course the results of the mission then impact the campaign map as well.
GamesBeat: Are you always better off bringing that kind of attached force with you? Does that automatically take effect?
Mele: What happens is, you get this preview window. It automatically applies them, but then if there’s another influence you’d rather choose, you’re able to go in and say, “No, I don’t want that one, I want this one instead.” You can bring in a couple of things to influence your company as you go in.
GamesBeat: Does it matter whether you have any movement left for the units involved?
Mele: No, that doesn’t matter. You just need to have that one action you can use to start and engage in the battle. As long as you have that, and you have the other ones placed in position, then it will work that way.
GamesBeat: If you’re fighting over the same towns a lot – if you take it, the enemy retakes it, and you take it back – what variations might you see?
Mele: Oh, yes, there are actually–in a lot of these mission areas what we have is a defensive version of the same mission. You go in and you take the area, and then there will be a defensive mission for you to play if the enemy counterattacks. That works out very well. What you’ll see is that you have mission maps, major mission maps, that are scripted. Then you have dynamic skirmish ones that happen around these spaces. Depending on where you are on the map, some of them will be dynamic, and then as you go into the big towns you’ll get a major mission there, something scripted.
GamesBeat: When I was playing earlier versions, I spent a lot of time on the strategic map. I’d skip some battles and just keep going.
Mele: Obviously there’s a lot of great content on there. This is what we’ve been saying about playing your way. If you want to focus on the strategic map, move things across, focus on that and be really strategic about what you’re doing, you can do that. Also, if you really want to push through and get into the RTS gameplay–you even did it, where Andy was helping you. If you just drop the paratroops in there, you can get into it right away.
GamesBeat: Was it hard to figure out balancing just how much you could do on the strategy map? Was there the potential to make it too easy to get through?
Mele: When we announced last year, we shared the campaign map, the Italian experience–we shared that with players really early. We showed an introductory experience. We listened to our players and learned from that, getting feedback. We listened to the community and what they were saying. A lot of it was about how quickly we would get to content, how quickly you could move across the map. Movement ranges, how we approached the detachments and emplacements. From that we learned and addressed that in the next iterations.
GamesBeat: I remember that you really didn’t want to spend your aircraft early on.
Mele: Exactly. We give you that option. Where do you spend your resources? In the earlier versions we separated–the way those detachments work is that we separated them, and they were more of a unit on the board. Now they’re more of an ability within the company.
GamesBeat: I did find that–when I went online, I just got wiped out, of course. Are there any tips you’d have for someone more like me?
Mele: I should get our gameplay team here! It’s funny, because even in the office there are different levels. We’ve hired some people from our community. One of the highest-ranked players in the world in Company of Heroes 2, we hired them onto the team. He’s now a designer, helping us balance and tune the game. He’s excellent. But the thing is, you can watch him play, you can watch people who are really good, and then you can watch people like me who are in the middle. There’s this huge range of levels of skill that our game offers.
Going online–obviously starting against the AI is what I do. You build that skill set up. The gameplay team, they keep talking about strategies and units and using them effectively. It’s a skill like any game. You just have to put time into it. Recon is very important, because it’s about counter-play. If you look at their forces, if they’re teching up in a certain way, you need to have an answer to that specific tech.
That’s one thing the gameplay team has taught me, understanding what the other side is coming with. When you’re starting off on the RTS side, you can choose which path your force is going to take. If you go infantry-heavy, that’s fine. That’s an approach. You’ll build up that aspect faster. But the problem is that you’ll have to have a way to respond if they’re going with vehicles. How are you going to handle that?
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