Last week, the acclaimed strategy developer Relic announced they would be returning to beloved franchise; the one with the Earth Nazis rather than the space Nazis, Company of Heroes. Showing off the game not only with a cinematic trailer and not only with a gameplay trailer, but with a whole bloomin’ pre-alpha for fans to download and play around with. Not only that, but Relic appear to have been having a few chats with the fellow Sega pals down the other end of their offices, Creative Assembly, and adopted a few elements from their classic Total War series.
I’ve spent a few hours with the pre-alpha since its released, so here are a few of my thoughts on what they have shown off and what can be expected from the final game when it launches next year.
I think it is perhaps first worth noting that despite the title of this article, the cramming in the mention of Total War into the first paragraph and the numerous articles by countless other people saying “oh look, Relic are copying Creative Assembly”, the turn based strategy portion of the game is not particularly like Total War from this snippet and I expect that we shouldn’t be expecting the final product to feel much like one of those free form campaigns. Let’s begin by looking at the more familiar real time strategy section though.
The main takeaway from the skirmish battles that are shown here is that Relic are not going to be upsetting the cart too much here, besides blowing it to smithereens with a well place tank shell, of course. These battles play out very much how you expect them to, so those worried about them departing too far from the formula need not worry. You have your base of operations where you can construct a few additional buildings, letting you produce your troops. As before, you will also have a few extra abilities to call in support from off the map. For the single player campaign, these will be determined by actions and decisions during the turn-based section, so more on that later. The battles generally continue the trend of battling over control points on the map in order to increase your income to help fuel putting out more units.
These units also have plenty of abilities that can be used during fights, some that might increase the firepower briefly or maybe help move between cover. You might also be able to upgrade your weapons, often to make your troops more specialist for battling tanks or other infantry. These become essential as the battles progresses and you need to make sure that your troops remain relevant in the fight. It is an area that Company of Heroes has always done so well and why it becomes so important for you to be able to keep these troops alive, engaging where at appropriate places and retreating at just the right time. That is no change here and losing a unit can be devastating.
Placement of units also remains important, as you have to ensure that firing arcs of machine gunners are in suitable places for defending areas and that those mortars are going to be able to hit their targets. Maps are dotted with various types of cover for your troops to use and you need to ensure that they are in suitable place to stay protected, as well as avoiding being flanked. This is really were one of the few innovations comes into play, the tactical pause. Freezing time to allow you to survey the situation and start queueing up orders. For example, perhaps you want to chuck a grenade at a dug in group of units. You could just send them all forward in real time, but activating the tactical pause will give you the opportunity to plan out their advance a little more carefully, jumping them from cover to cover, until they reach a suitable place to get that well placed grenade in. Perhaps you want to also get another group of troops to move around the other side to create a distraction while this is happening.
I can see that tactical pause is going to be a real game changer for some people, suddenly making what is normally a fairly hectic game into something that will allow for a little more thought. This can be completely ignored by players that aren’t interested in it and it well obviously not be available for multiplayer battles, so I don’t think any argument suggesting that it is dumbing down the game really stand up to scrutiny.
For me personally though, I found the tactical pause a little unnecessary, at least in the gameplay featured in the pre-alpha. Perhaps it is just my style of play, but I found that grouping all my troops together and pushing forward was a pretty effective strategy. As long as I didn’t charge them straight at an MG turret, there wasn’t really much need to stop and plan my actions. Perhaps also being familiar with the previous games helps here and I was a little more instinctive about moving my units into cover. Still, I think that this is a good addition and I have no doubt that a lot of people will get benefit from it.
This is just half of the game though. As already mentioned, the single player campaign will also feature a large turn-based component. Looking at the screenshots and thinking about the other strategy developer under Sega, I suppose it isn’t surprising that myself and other immediately jump to Total War as a comparison point. Yes, you are controlling groups of units on a large map trying to paint it in your side’s colour. Really though, what surprised me most during my time with this portion of the pre-alpha, was just how much was translated from the real time strategy section.
We are told that this section of the game comes at a later stage of the campaign. We are tasked with getting a foothold in Italy, before moving onto capturing Monti Cassino. The first thing that you need to do is select which “plan” you will adopt: American, British or Mixed. This is basically just a decision on what units you will be starting with and doesn’t particularly have an impact on your general goals and the approach you are likely to take. You also have access to produce any units you want from any of those sides, so you can quickly adapt if you wish.
To my mind, I feel that this is going to be the shape of much of the game. I think that it is best to remove completely the idea that the final game will particularly resemble a Total War game. It isn’t going to be a large map of Europe (and, supposedly, a bit of Africa) that you need to conquer for the Allies. Instead, the setup presented above is likely to be what each of the missions will be like. Namely, a smaller section of a country with a primary objective to complete. This is going to be a much more focused campaign than the slightly sprawling one we see in the Total War series and one that I expect will offer some freedom in how it is approached, but will ultimately be a more linear narrative. I don’t see that a problem myself, but I do think some people might get the wrong idea and come away disappointed.
As I say, what you really do plays much more like a turn based adaptation of the RTS pieces. You will be producing units, sending them out to capture points to improve your income and you will be setting them up in suitable positions to defend areas and ambush enemies. One of my errors when I had my first go at the game was to think like I was playing a regular turn-based strategy, particularly with my resources. I was quickly swamped by enemy units, as I was just not spending my money enough. As with an RTS game, you should really be keeping that money as close to zero as you possibly can. There isn’t any sort of upkeep present here and you aren’t going to be needing to spend money at the towns and strategic points you capture to improve infrastructure. Instead, that money is purely for building units and using abilities to attack the enemy.
These units are comprised of two different types. First are the run of the mill divisions. These are your grunts that will be swarming around the map. Cheap units that you can and should construct quite a lot of. They come in similar flavours to the RTS units, although not quite as many varieties. You have your engineers, medics, MGs, anti-tanks, etc. each with slightly different abilities that they can use on the map, such as medics being able to heal other units or engineers being able to put up and remove roadblocks. There are also some interesting options for block supplies, so you can cut off resources for the enemy (or, as I accidentally did before understanding what I was doing, yourself). They can also attack other enemy units. Hovering over an enemy will give you a little summary of how the battle will go, so you know exactly well it will be worth doing and whether they are going to be able to counter-attack you.
The other type of unit you have are your companies. These are much more expensive. Stronger than your divisions, these are the unit that will be able instigate the RTS battles either with other companies or when trying to take objectives on the map. They also feature skill trees, which is one of the areas where you will see decisions on the strategy map will influence the tactical layer. These trees are made up of active and passive abilities, as well as a few extra units that you can add for construction during skirmishes. Whereas the divisions are fairly expendable, the companies are the ones you are going to want to keep alive, pulling back when necessary and making sure medics are nearby to keep them healthy.
These systems are all fairly simple to understand whilst playing and there really isn’t too much more to the strategy map than described here. There are a couple of extra bits to think about (such as partisans that can be liberated and will unlock some extra abilities, and side missions that crop up tasking you to collect intel or kill an enemy general), but for the most part you are just edging your troops forward as you move towards the main objective. It does work well though and, even in this early version, you can clearly see that with a good variety of objectives and an interesting enough narrative to push you forward, this could be a much more interesting campaign than your usual RTS. It also isn’t completely out of the blue for Relic to do something like this, as they did something similar with CoH2 and the Ardennes Assault DLC , but where that felt a little too directionless and as if you were just playing a mix of Risk and whack-a-mole, this felt much more focused and tighter (their other RTS series, Dawn of War, also had a Total War-esque expansion, Soulstorm, although that was developed by Iron Lore and not Relic).
There is still a question of just how much freedom it will offer you. I speculate that it will not be as much as some people think, but that is just speculation. It could probably do with a little more than is demonstrated with this section of the game, as playing it through with each different plan did feel quite similar. We also know little about the multiplayer portion of the game, something that the most vocal of the community will likely be wanting to know. This pre-alpha does feature a skirmish option, but I think that is just a random potential skirmish that you might have from the single player game. Hopefully they will steer clear of repeating the same mistake as they did with CoH2 with its DLC commanders. Relic have mentioned that they will also be doing a similar public test with the multiplayer, although no date has been given on that.
If you want to give this game a go yourself, you can do so by signing up over at the CoH-Development site. Do remember that this is very much a pre-alpha and you will likely encounter bugs. I personally could not start the final skirmish at Monti Cassino, as it would crash-to-desktop whenever I tried to start it.