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Company of Heroes 2 adds a living, terrifying fog of war to strategy gaming

Company of Heroes 2 adds a living, terrifying fog of war to strategy gaming

The Eastern Front of World War II featured some of the most brutal fighting in the history of warfare, with over 30 million people killed. Atrocities were common on both sides of the conflict; the Eastern Front was one of those unfortunate times in human history when life became very cheap. This is the setting for the PC game Company of Heroes 2, and the fighting in the game is appropriately dire. We watched a company of soldiers who tried to flee, only to be cut down by their own countrymen. The game features a new fog of war system called “True Sight” that gives a much more realistic idea of what each unit would have been able to see on the battlefield. Units walk into ambushes or are taken out by mortar strikes. It was almost hard to watch. “The Eastern Front is quite a bit different [than the rest of the war], we read a lot of research material prior to starting the game,” Quinn Duffy, the game’s director, told the Penny Arcade Report. “There was a particular quote that stuck out for me: We wanted to show the player the ruthless truth of war. We needed to be sympathetic and sensitive but also unflinching. Part of capturing the horror of that experience is to relay that to the players. To give them the sense, even a little bit, of what that war would have been like.”

The technology of fear

Most real-time strategy games simply illuminate a circle of the battlefield around each unit, to show what that soldier or vehicle would be able to see from the ground. Company of Heroes 2 presents a fog of war that looks like a living, reactive force. If you move a company of soldiers through a group of trees, the trees will obscure what you can see in front of you. What would block the soldiers’ sight from the ground blocks your sight as you watch them from above. During one battle a tank explodes, and the smoke that billows into the sky blocks out the entire road behind it, allowing both sides to hide from the other. It's hard to describe, but the shifting, malleable effect of the fog of war is impressive in action. Company of Heroes 2 shows you just how much you see in most other real-time strategy games, and both sides are able to use this new fog of war system to to their advantage. In many situations it’s simply impossible to see what’s in front of you, and the terrain, smoke, and buildings become an important part of how and when you move. “That was one of the fundamental things we wanted to deliver right from the start was a more realistic line of sight,” Duffy explained. “We knew it would have this multiplicative effect on all the game tactics. It’s a huge layer that sits in there and drives the game play.” It’s important for the game to run on even mid-level systems, so the new engine that drives True Sight had to do everything asked of it very efficiently. “It is a challenge. It can be a relatively intensive system, taking the objects in the world and drawing around them and making sure the fog of war works,” Duffy said. “It adds a level of tension that you don’t experience in other RTS games. Your level of awareness becomes super heightened.” There are other aspects of the game that have been added or tightened up for the sequel. The game keeps track of the depth of snow on each battlefield, and your movement will leave tracks that could give away your position, and moving through deep snow causing your units to slow down. You can damage enemy tanks to the point where the enemy abandons the units, but they’re not completely disabled, allowing you to use them to your advantage… or vice versa. The trick is to balance historical accuracy with a game that’s still fun, if somewhat disturbing, to play, but Duffy said that’s a problem they were ready to tackle. “I’m a huge World War II fan, so I’ve been reading about the armies and the fronts for years and years and I have really strong ideas of how I want to portray it,” he said. “We look at context. When we are balancing historical authenticity with game play, we want to make sure the player understands the context for our decisions. We don’t want to over rule fun, but we do want to present a tight, accurate experience.” Making sure the feel of the combat is right was more important than modeling every rivet on a tank, and from what I’ve seen and played the game does a brilliant job of making you feel the desperation and brutality of fighting on the Eastern Front. To put it bluntly, it's good at making you feel bad. The sound of the small arms fire was recorded live using the actual weapons, and this gives the sound design the punch you’re used to from a first-person shooter; it’s much more immediate than most RTS games. They used as many as 20 microphones to record the firing of each weapon, and the results were worth the trouble. This is a game that explores a piece of military history that American audiences aren’t used to seeing, and offers a number of technological achievements to highlight why the Eastern Front was such a horrific period in World War II. “When we discussed what our creative vision is, we looked back at the original Company of Heroes and we were really inspired by the gritty realism of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers,” Duffy said. “We’re inspired by the heroism, but not so much the glory.”