Company of Heroes 2 multiplayer preview: winter of discontent

Company of Heroes 2‘s tagline is “Winter if Coming.” With the Soviets serving as the primary protagonists this time around, such a (faux) tagline makes sense. It is, after all, very cold in Mother Russia. But how will that affect the multiplayer?

For a rather large contingent of fans, this is not a trivial question. The original Company of Heroes remains one of the most popular traditional real-time strategy games this side of StarCraft, and it retains a devoted multiplayer following. Much of that appeal is derived from sheer novelty. Where StarCraft, Command & Conquer, and every other RTS are high-speed clickfests, Company of Heroes is slow and realistic. It prides itself on simulating a real battlefield.

So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t a new weather type add an interesting new wrinkle to the tried and true Company of Heroes formula? Well, yes. But as in the normal campaign, there are a couple potential downsides to consider as well.

Among them, it’s possible that people just won’t want to play in the snow. Competitive players are notoriously fickle about random elements; they frown upon anything that might throw off their mojo. “Final Destination, no items”–a reference to the hyper-serious Smash Bros. community’s love of flat levels in the normally kinetic party game–became a meme for a reason. Serious players just don’t want anything else on their mind while trying to destroy their enemies.

But winter, if not random, is certainly an element that demands attention. Its chief feature is that blizzards deal damage over time to soldiers and kill them. Entire armies can fall through glare ice and perish, losing the game for one side in an instant. Snow reduces mobility. Fires have to be built to compensate for the cold; or, if possible, vehicles. Lots of vehicles.

On a new map based on Rzhev, a real life battlefield where more than one million Soviets ended up dead or injured, opted for the latter. Rather than risk an early confrontation in the freezing cold, the prevailing strategy was to rush up the tech tree to vehicles that can ferry soldiers around without them getting hypothermia. After that, it was all tanks, all the time (and rockets too).

This all makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. In the past, snow has just been another tileset; a nice aesthetic change, but nothing more. In the realistic world of Company of Heroes, it’s only natural that your soldiers should be freezing to death in the midst of a driving blizzard. Some players may even embrace that brutal reality. More likely though, players will go out of their way to avoid it; because quite frankly, playing in the winter time takes some getting used to.

Over here on the press side, even seasoned Company of Heroes veterans are getting chewed up and spat out by the winter tilesets. The number of x-factors involved with the snow raises the degree of difficulty considerably; and with summer maps also available, it’s easy to say “Screw that” and go with a somewhat more traditional approach. Competitive players, so sensitive about those random elements, will undoubtedly do just that.

Luckily though, even without one of Company of Heroes 2′s signature features, the multiplayer still feels fresh and exciting after all these years. Apart from the snow maps, Relic is bringing a raft of features to the table, including personal profiles with ribbons and medals that can be earned through multiplayer achievements. Relic has also retooled the command ability trees, and the result is both easy-to-understand and strategically significant.

Essentially, either the Germans or Russians can bring three commanders and their unique set of abilities with them to any given battle. One commander can power up infantry, for example, and bring powerful artillery barrages to bear while a Stuka JU-87 patrols overhead. Another commander is much more defensive in nature, allowing players to dig in and play defense with the help of special emplacements and the ability to call in relief infantry.

You can choose from one of these commanders at any point in the battle once they’ve charged up; but once you’ve committed to one commander, you’re stuck with them. For that reason, it’s usually good to see how the battle is going before calling in a commander. If you’re losing, one well-placed super tank might turn the tide of battle. If you’re winning, then defense is called for. Calling in the right commander at the right time can be one of those most critical decisions of a game.

Beyond that, Company of Heroes 2 is mostly notable for the Soviets, who stand in stark contrast to the more technologically capable Germans. The Soviets, true to form, are able to get to light tanks and other weapons much faster than their Nazi counterparts, and their soldiers are much easier to train, though they lack raw power in a stand-up fight. Being able to get to vehicles faster also makes the Russians more capable in the snow early on, which will doubtlessly make them the faction of choice for those who are keen to dispense with building fires and just want to roll over the opposition.

Of course, that’s assuming that people don’t go out of their way to avoid winter maps (don’t put it past people to simply quit if they see a hint of snow). Knowing the gaming population at large, many are apt to do just that. In the end, dealing with snow isn’t really that hard once you’ve adapted to it; but a lot of people are unlikely to see it that way after watching their infantry freeze to death. Summer maps will be Company of Heroes 2′s equivalent of “Final Destination.”

It’s kind of a shame, really, because of all seasons, winter is the one most apt to have a major effect on people’s strategies. As in real life, they will have to think twice before charging out into the snow; and though it slows the pace of the already reserved Company of Heroes even further, it fits in rather well with the game’s “war is hell” approach to defensive combat. If any game can do winter right, it’s Company of Heroes 2. It’s just too bad that few people are apt to notice.

Company of Heroes 2 multiplayer preview: winter of discontent

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