PC Gamer

It's hard to believe that it's been ten years since Company of Heroes landed. It impressed us with its explosive simulation of World War 2 squad tactics, inspired by Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and mid-2000s World War 2 shooters. The game still plays wonderfully today, so it's as good a time as any to talk to Relic's Quinn Duffy, Ian Thomson and Alun Bjorksten about how Company of Heroes came to be, from its early prototyping stage in the Impossible Creatures engine, through to the design of the game's finest missions, and the inclusion of the enigmatic 'Donkeyschreck'.

PC Gamer: Let's start at the beginning, the very first moment you guys decided to do a World War 2 game after coming off I believe it was Impossible Creatures, is that right? Was it an idea that had been hanging around the studio for a long time? How did it start?

Quinn Duffy, game director: We finished Impossible Creatures with Microsoft and we did the Insect Invasion expansion pack and so it was a small team kind of ready to go. THQ was publishing Dawn of War at the time so we had a relationship with them and we were casting around for another project. We knew RTS we had a kind of engine to build games within and some people were ready. World War 2 was popular it was maybe just at its zenith in popularity. We had Band of Brothers, we had Saving Private Ryan before that and so it had a real presence in the marketplace, and it was big in shooters, and I thought that there was an opportunity to do something really spectacular and take a maybe different approach to RTS and to World War 2, to do some of the high production value stuff.

PCG: So you started prototyping in the Impossible Creatures engine?

Ian Thomson, principal programmer: The genesis is back in the Impossible Creatures technology that we built. We spent many years making that game and learning a lot, thinking this is how I d do it better. Some of those things were being done as part of work happening on Dawn of War which was running in parallel.

But also we were sitting down and doing a bit of dreaming in terms of we re looking around at what other games are doing and cherry-picking and stealing, really and we were like oh wow, lighting looks good over here, there s a thing called Normal Maps! and Things use physics now! Let s actually bring some of those things in. And also additionally in terms of animation technology: Well lets have something that allows us to make better decisions about what animations we re using and blending between them. And all those things tying together really create a a more realistic character motion in what they re doing instead of just wiggly legs and arms.

And so Quinn the programmers pretty much said well, have two programmers, work on this prototype using some of our old engine technology and the rest of us are going to go away and make something new and fancy for you. So yeah, we kind of disappeared for about a year, which I think was quite infuriating for Quinn, because he kept wondering when he was going to get actually finally start making this game.

Nothing technical would translate over to Essence. Nothing you tuned, none of the combat, none of the feel. And so when you get the new engine, you re starting from scratch.

QD: Yeah, prototyping in the IC engine was there was at least nine or ten months of doing that, and then very little of what you ve done translates. Nothing technical would translate over to Essence. So nothing you tuned, none of the combat, none of the feel, nothing translates. And so when you get the new engine, you re starting from scratch.

But as you re rebuilding, it s a little bit organic. You start to realise that maybe we don t need that piece any more. The engine gives us the ability to do all of this extra animation so we can take out stupid things like stances. I ve done a few games here where it s IP & engine and they always take extra long, and they re always extra hard because you re trying to generate the world and how you build it at the same time. That s proven to be really tough.

PCG: What kind of things were present in the prototype that made it through and what kind of things got cut? Did the vision for the game change during that transition?

QD: If you played the later version of the Impossible Creatures prototypes you d recognise the intent, if you kind of squinted and had somebody explain it to you. It had cover, but I don t think we had directional cover in IC. We had area cover, which was more like Dawn of War. We had the line of sight stuff in IC, we had Squads in IC, we had some of the combat intent that we wanted in terms of battle lengths and a little bit of the flavour, but not that level of presentation that we ended up with in Essence.

The big thing, for me gameplay wise, one of the biggest decisions in Essence was directional cover and flanking, and that really changed the way the game worked. It made it far more tactical and we couldn t do that in the IC engine. A lot of different economic systems and territory systems we tried in Impossible Creatures were more of an influence-based territory that kind of expanded around your base and the buildings you put down. That territory would envelop resource points in the world and let you get resources that way, so you re sort of building your own supply lines. It was a little bit unclear, and it didn t look nice.

IT: The AI programmer got to the point where he was like I m just going to tag to the maps to say the best place to put the territory points for the AI instead of trying to infer it. And at that point we had the realisation that maybe we should just have fixed territory regions, which allowed then, I think, players to understand the map better.

QD: That came pretty late. That was like nine months from the end or something.

PCG: On the tactical level, did you always want to do those small skirmish level engagements? Those tactical towns and cities and pin-and-flank stuff, or were you considering something larger at any point?

Alun Bjorksten, principal tech artist: Uh no, I think that was in from the very start. In our very first pre-visualisation we had of gameplay, it was essentially a little rendered movie that the art team put together that showed just one of those exact 'find, fix, flank, finish' type of engagements where a couple of squads and a tank would move down the street, then the tank gets knocked, out and then they engage a building. Some guys pin it down and the other guys move up and throw a molotov inside or something. So this was always something we had in mind. Once we had that down then really all hands on deck to just really execute on that vision.

PCG: It was interesting that there was a tank in there from the very start with this kind of combined arms vision for the game was clearly already part of it.

AB: The combined ops thing was really there from the very start. We didn t want to have this RTS thing where a squad of soldiers with rifles would just be pinging away at a tank and its health would be slowly going down and down and down and then the tank would blow up for no reason, right? We wanted to have this game be based in reality, and more intuitive to people who just knew something about the history. No, you re not going to knock this tank out with those rifles, go and get something else! Go get a bazooka or an anti-tank gun or another tank then come back and figure this out, or go to a path that the tank can t get towards

PCG: were there any units that you tried that didn t make it in or any particular units that turned out super well?

QD: There s probably more about certain unit roles and mixing and matching. The original intent with the Sherman, if I recall, was that there were all of these upgrades you could do; you could do a bulldozer, or you could do a mine flail or you could get a flamethrower. That became a bit of a player nightmare and a logistical nightmare on our side. There were those kinds of things where, in an attempt to be more realistic about stuff, or give players more options it probably confused the pool.

I think there was a US officer we had that we never really found a function for in the game and so I don t know if he eventually made an appearance in the expansion or some other kind of content he probably ended up in CoHO [Company of Heroes Online].

AB: I can only think of for some sort of sensitivity to showing like the SS and some things around there people kept asking and we kept saying Not sure we re gonna do that.

QD: Yeah, so it would be that for sure, that sort of cultural and political sensitivity to the war, absolutely. We have kind of analogues, I guess, but those things don t always appeal to the real strong history buffs; they want like the uniform with the badge but we re not at that level.

PCG: Were any units particularly difficult to realise? Paratroopers spring to mind units that can float down into battle through a bunch of buildings.

QD: Yeah, we started off being super punitive in terms of paratrooper failure. They hit anything, they just died. A whole squad of paratroopers would just land on a roof and just all die. So there were things that, for gameplay reasons, we dialled back a certain level of acceptable casualties in paratrooper regiments wasn t good game design.

I think probably one of the hardest things to get right were the airplanes strafing. They were hard to tune, they were hard to get to look right. The sound too it s hard to go out and record a P47. There was a lot of back and forth on those, they were either super over-powered or just a waste of time, and we struggled with those a lot. And the gliders. Those were kind of fun because you put them in and then you realise that people are just going to use them to land on other people, and then it s like well, OK we need a whole bunch of tech and systems to not do that or to avoid the buildings or align the UI on streets or other things so that it would function properly instead of just smashing into a building. So you end up doing a lot to make those things work.

PCG: Unit resilience always struck me as a vital aspect of Company of Heroes' pacing, the time it takes for units to whittle one another down.

QD: Yeah, we wanted a combat system where range became a factor in your effectiveness, so battle lengths at short range were quite a bit shorter than they were at long range, and that allowed for certain ambushes and surprises and the use of flanking. When we started the targets, for combat between two rifle squads, we allotted 90 second battles at long range and 10-15 second at short range, and we reduced the rate of fire to make it seem more like they were aiming and shooting as opposed to just unleashing on somebody up close, and that allowed us to create unit roles like sub machine guns really bad at long range, because that s kind of what you d expect, and really good at short range. There was that element of realism in combat. When guys start shooting they don't go down and they die at the same timescale regardless of where they are on the map. We wanted to avoid that.

And then from the design side, that was allowing people time to react and to see what was happening. The pinning system isn t intended to be punitive. Actually when your squads were pinned, you weren t taking any damage, so it gave you time to make a plan I can fall back or I can try and counter my attacker somehow and you use smoke or get another unit to flank. It was all about understanding those tactical options and then having the time to act on them. That was part of the design pretty early.

PCG: The retreat move seems like a softening move also in that context. OK, you ve made a mistake but everything's not lost if you re paying attention.

QD: Yeah, yeah totally, and that informed the feedback system for the player. Take the speech system. The guys get more panicked and they re calling from off screen to let you know they re under fire, but if you re an inexperienced player or someone who doesn t panic, then they re going to be fine for just a bit. But you can t leave them forever, because at some point, somebody s going to run up with a grenade or a sub machine gun and do something and wipe that squad out. It was definitely an attempt to allow the player to have time to spread their focus around and not get instantly murdered, although I think that can happen.

AB: We wanted a sense for the player that they can save these guys from death, and there s a bit of an emotional attachment there to those little soldiers who are doing their bidding. We wanted to try and get the player to start giving a damn about them, and pull them back if they re in a hopeless situation and then maybe put them somewhere else where there s maybe more chance of success.

QD: Yeah, all the preservation stuff around that too, I mean you keep a squad around, you preserve their veterancy; reinforcements are cheaper than buying new. There s all these mechanics in there that are about keeping your guys alive the retreat, you know? Keep these guys alive and get them back in the fight. That allows a competent player, a player that is managing their armies effectively, to build an advantage over time if they keep their squads alive.

PCG: The speech system is another memorable aspect of Company of Heroes. You probably have the chattiest units in RTS games. Was that something that emerged as a player feedback mechanic or did that come from that vision of trying to create these characters you can invest in?

QD: A little bit of both yeah. There s 56 thousand lines, or something like that, of speech in the game or something. In the speech banks for the main game and the expansion, something like that. A big part of the vision of bringing this world to life was with the amount of contextual speech the I m being attacked by heavy armour and I don t have a bazooka . And I m going to say a line like I m being attacked by heavy armour and I do have a bazooka or I m being attacked by heavy armour and half my squad is dead and I have a bazooka! or I m being attacked by heavy armour, and half my squad is dead AND there s German infantry inbound. It builds this picture of the battlefield and the audio and the speech is so important to that.

I mean I think we ve got in CoH and CoH2 the best audio in strategy games, just from an experiential perspective, and that s always been a big part. Our original audio programmers came from DICE both a couple of twin towers of Swedish audio power! DICE, their audio is absolutely stunning, so they brought a lot of that experience with them as well and built this amazing audio tableaux.

IT: I can remember looking through the localisation database and just doing some searches on cuss-words just to see how many that were in there, and I was like Oh, there s that many F-bombs dropped.

AB: Some of them were named after ourselves on the development team, so we had the opportunity to have these little conversations between two soldiers and the different guys are actually on the development team.

PCG: When it came to designing the campaign, what did you decide to leave out of the Second World War, and why did you focus on the conflicts that you did?

QD: There was actually an intent to go much further. We had Battle of the Bulge concept art, and what I think happened was Oh crap, that s gonna take a long time! And so then it was Oh okay let s do Normandy! because it was self contained and had a beginning and an end. It was a sort of three month battle, and you could end it on a high note with the breakout of Normandy, so that became quite encapsulated. Especially in the West when you think of World War 2 that s the kind of experience that comes to mind I think.

PCG: There are still some ambitious scenarios from that context.

IT: I can remember from a programmer standpoint, you see Carentan and we have to deal with you playing on the same map as the counter defence and we have to maintain all the damage you did from the previous playthrough in a second map. I think it gave a good experience, but we put a lot into making that one work!

PCG: The Carentan missions are my favourites actually. They have a good enclosed story arc. You start off with just a couple of units and then an hour later you re in this incredibly noisy, huge war-front at the edge of town.

QD: I know those missions had a tremendous amount of effort put in. They were sort of a set piece, they were an example of what we were shooting for. I think just the balance to get the kind of desperate sense of defence in the second part of the mission and get that feeling just right of being rescued at just the right moment. Getting that with so many different kinds of players playing, is really hard. But it was such a cool inspiration from Band of Brothers, and doing our take on Carentan and having that as reference and seeing the little bits emerging from the inspiration was really neat. To my recollection it was one of the missions that probably had the most time put into it.

AB: It was part of the E3 demo that we showed in 2005 I think and it included the attack into Carentan.

IT: That was the inspiration for the Dawn of War 2 concept too as well. I think I recall Johnny and our team speaking highly about the sitting up in your seat , with very few squads to control with more 'in it' approach, and I think that was the genesis of that.

PCG: We've also seen some early concept art for an Italy expansion that never came to pass, what's the story there?

QD: That came down to a decision to do another campaign or Company of Heroes Online. So that was that point.

Ian: Yeah so we had two initiatives at the team level. We needed to pick a lane at that point and there was so much momentum building around the buzz of free-to-play in the East and it moving West and trying to be the first AAA title to make the successful conversion, so we parked Italy for the interim and focused on China and eventually Korea, and finally we came back to North America but yeah, that s the story behind Italy.

But we did get, in the closing months, we did get the Donkeyschreck?

QD: Yeah. Somebody did the Donkeyschreck!

IT: Yeah, someone found on the internet thanks internet! a donkey with this wooden structure on its back with two Panzerschrecks attached to it?

QD: I mean it was a pack animal. It was misinterpreted. They thought it was a weapon but it was a donkey pack animal so we put that in as kind of an Easter Egg. We had a donkey that had I think a Panzerschreck and a Panzerfaust and it would poop mines!

IT: And it had a sprint!

Editor's note here is the mighty Donkeyschreck Easter Egg, named the Eselschreck in the game after the German for "Donkey".

PCG: Finally, how you go about designing the axis and allies in a multiplayer context?

QD: We looked at true history inspiration as much as possible. We were sort of abstracting in tuning the feel and character of these armies. The German army had a very distinct character and a distinct tactical approach and reliance on certain weapons and we wanted to try and capture those.

One of the early things we develop is army essence their character, their qualities, and the things that the history books would point out as important elements to their success. Then we try to build their armies and their tech trees to tie that essence in as much as possible. Then it s a matter of getting our armies pitted against each other again and again and tweaking and tuning, but only in so far as it doesn t break the game. I mean we know ultimately the US won, but they didn t win every battle, right? They won in many ways through logistics and speed and mechanisation. At a tactical level and a solider-versus-soldier, some would argue that the Germans were better. But those are hard things to put into a game; you can t be getting your ass whipped every time you run into a German squad. And so you just try and deliver the feel more than anything within the balance.

PC Gamer

The Humble Company of Heroes Anniversary Bundle doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it's a really good deal for fans of Second World War-based RTSes. For $1, you get Company of Heroes, the Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valor expansions, and Company of Heroes 2 The Western Front Armies: Oberkommando West, which offers standalone access to Company of Heroes 2 multiplayer. But this is a Humble Bundle, and that means the real deals lie ahead.

Spend more than the average, which is currently just a little under $7, and you'll also snag Company of Heroes 2, COH2 The Western Front Armies: US Forces, the Case Blue, Southern Fronts, and Victory at Stalingrad mission packs, and the COH2 soundtrack. And for $10, which is really where you want to be on this package, you'll add The British Forces, Ardennes Assault, Ardennes Assault: Fox Company Rangers, a Humble-exclusive skins pack, and the COH digital art book.

(Jack it up to $30 and they'll mail you a COH bundle t-shirt, but that's maybe a bit much if you just want to work on your battlefield prowess.)

Company of Heroes is getting a little long in the tooth but it was good stuff back in the day, and you can't go too wrong when you're getting the whole package for a tenner. The Humble Company of Heroes Anniversary Bundle is live now and runs for two weeks, meaning that the curtain will fall on October 18.

PC Gamer

The recently-renamed THQ Nordic is continuing its efforts to breathe new life into old brands with the release of Titan Quest Anniversary Edition. The heavily-updated version of the sorely-underrated Iron Lore action-RPG includes both the original game and the Immoral Throne expansion, and if you happen to own one of the previous releases of the game on Steam, you get it for free.

The full anniversary edition changelog is available here, but it's stupidly huge (ten years of updates will do that), so here are the high points:

  • Restored and improved multiplayer functionality, including new features like a built-in voice chat and NAT resolving for best multiplayer connectivity
  • Support for more resolutions, larger camera distance and scaleable UI size
  • Improved performance and general stability
  • Support for modders through new modding options and a fully integrated Steam Workshop
  • Complete balance rework with improvements to all Masteries, damage types, unique items and sets
  • Countless bug fixes and other improvements, including ten years’ worth of community fixes
  • Increased challenges and rewards for larger parties and on higher difficulty levels
  • Dozens of new heroes and bosses to encounter Improved enemy and pet AI
  • Quality of life features like higher stack limits, quick item pickup, a larger stash and a speed setting
  • Reduced cheating with curbed exploits, removal of test items and mod comparison in multiplayer
  • Steam Friend Invites
  • Steam Achievements
  • Steam Trading Cards

Titan Quest was a really good action-RPG that, despite largely positive reviews, suffered a rough launch and never really caught on. Iron Lore went under shortly after the release of the Immortal Throne expansion, and that was the end of it although on the bright(ish) side, that failure ultimately led to the creation of Grim Dawn, another top-notch ARPG.

For those of you who don't have Titan Quest in your Steam library, the Anniversary Edition is still awfully cheap: It's on sale for 75 percent off on Steam and GOG, dropping it to $5/ 4.50, until September 7.

PC Gamer

Homefront: The Revolution sounds exciting. Ostensibly a sequel to Kaos Studios' bland 2011 FPS, it's elevated by a new plot, new development team, and new focus on emergent open world design. Before I get to play it, Deep Silver Dambuster describes a shooter that attempts to capture life as a guerilla fighter.

It, they say, is a world where you are outgunned; where you're nipping at the heels of a more powerful force. It, they say, is a shooter where you'll need to know when to withdraw. Soon after, I get to play a section of its open world. Once, during a scripted sequence, my panicked squadmates tell me to retreat from a fight. I do, but only because there's an objective marker. Outside of this mission, the sense of being the underdog dissipates completely. I can wipe out patrols without fear of retribution, and capture Strike Points with relative ease.

Getting a bit cocky, I decide to throw myself at a heavily defended outpost, and, fair enough, I am swiftly killed. But the rest of the time, I seem to be a one-man army able to kill every KPA oppressor foolish enough to have a go. Based on what I played, Homefront: The Revolution doesn't feel like a game about resistance fighters in a desperate struggle for freedom. It feels like an urban Far Cry, or a military Watch Dogs. Its main inspiration is not guerilla fighters, it's the Ubisoft school of open world design.

Homefront: The Revolution takes place in a Philadelphia now under the control of the Korean People's Army. It features a map, and on that map are Strike Points. Complete a Strike Point, and the camera swishes around the area to show nearby activities and rewards. As you complete events, the map gradually shifts colour to show your increasing influence.

"The basis of it is similar to what you may have seen in other games," says senior level designer Fasahat Salim. "When you take a Strike Point and you unlock that space you get the content revealed to you, but we're not killing off the enemy. There's always an enemy presence in that space. The only thing that's changing is you now have more of a resistance influence in that space as well. What you see is more resistance fighters on the ground, more resistance fighters taking vantage points."

Weapons are scrappy, makeshift affairs that offer plenty of customisation options.

I like the sound of this approach. One of my major problems with Far Cry 3 was the way that, by completing its outposts, I was creating safe spaces where the enemy couldn't move. It felt as if I was slowly eroding away all the fun I could have in that world. Homefront: The Revolution differs in that it won't restrict the KPA's movement—emergent patrols and events will still trigger in areas with a resistance presence. The threat will always remain.

Even within Homefront: The Revolution's familiar template, there are still things that stand out. The weapons are scrappy, makeshift affairs that offer plenty of customisation options. New scopes, barrels and attachments can be crafted and installed on the fly. There's toys, too. Explosives, remote hacking devices and noisemakers can each be unleashed via a number of different delivery mechanisms. You can attach a hacking tool to an RC car, drive it under a drone, detonate it, and watch as the drone seeks out an enemy sniper nest and self-destructs inside. It's a gimmick, but it's a good one.

I hope my reservations will be answered by the other zones. The demo I play takes place in a 'Red Zone'. These derelict, bombed out streets are found along the outskirts of the city. Civilians aren't supposed to be there, so KPA patrols and snipers will shoot on site. It is, to be fair, exactly the sort of setup that lends itself to the Ubisoft-style theme park. The Yellow Zones sound more interesting, although Dambusters isn't showing them yet. "It's a completely different kettle of fish," says Salim. "It's a ghetto; it's where the population has been focused. There is a lot more population present. Security cameras are everywhere, and it's heavily policed and heavily patrolled." These areas are all about stealth, and building up support among the populace to trigger riots against the KPA.

In missions, players will also explore the Green Zone. "This is the central part of Philadelphia where all of the high-rises are," says Salim. "The opulence; where you see iconic things like city hall. We wanted to create very contrasting experiences in each of the zones." The existence of these distinct areas and experiences makes me hope that this is more than just a sandbox reskin. It won't be revolution, I don't think, but, combined with some accomplished combat and fun gimmicks, Homefront: The Revolution could still be an entertaining shooter.

PC Gamer

Show us your rig

Each week on Show Us Your Rig, we feature PC gaming's best and brightest as they show us the systems they use to work and play.

Braden Chan is an Associate Game Designer at Relic Entertainment working on Company of Heroes—specifically Company of Heroes 2: The British Forces, which comes out this Thursday. While his graphics card may be old, the piano, sound mixer, and giant speakers give me the feeling Braden is more focused on an a high quality audio experience than a cutting edge visual one. He was kind enough to show us how he works and plays, and tell us about why he loves Warcraft 3 more than any other game. 

What's in your PC?

  • CPU: Intel(R) Core(TM)2 Extreme CPU X9650 @ 3.00GHz (4 CPUs), ~3.0GHz
  • Motherboard: Maximus II Formula
  • Memory: 8192MB RAM
  • Drives: 3 x 500GB HDD
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 275
  • Case: Antec Twelve Hundred V3 Black Steel ATX Full Tower
  • Mouse: Logitech MX518
  • Keyboard: Logitech Deluxe 250
  • Mixer: Pioneer DJM 800
  • Speakers: KRK Rokit 8

What's the most interesting/unique part of your setup?

Instead of using an audio box to run my inputs through my studio monitor, I am actually using a DJ mixer which provides the same effect. It also gives me the flexibility to hook up my laptop into the mixer and run audio through my monitors that way as well. It's great as I can still control the levels of each device I have plugged in. The Pioneer DJM-800 mixer also has the flexibility to host multiple inputs like RCA, XLR, etc.

What are you playing right now?

I'm currently engaged in a lot of Counter-Strike Global Offensive, Company of Heroes 2, and I occasionally play Starcraft 2.

Inside Braden's rig

Click the arrows to enlarge.

Whats always within arm's reach on your desk?

My phone or a glass of water.

What's your favorite game and why?

Warcraft III will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite game. It was one of the first of its kind as an RTS/RPG hybrid. Many of the mechanics that were created laid the path for other games such as DOTA, League of Legends, and World of Warcraft. I took that game really seriously and I qualified for WCG Canada in 2007. I just really enjoyed the emphasis on combat and micro that it had. As a player, you really had to create a strategy based on the heroes you were going to use. On top of that, you would build an army that would support your hero. Unlike Starcraft, you didn't really have to focus too much on your economy and macro. I think that is what I enjoyed the most about it; focusing on my units rather than my workers collecting gold.

PC Gamer

If you've been reluctant to splash cash on Ark: Survival Evolved, then good news: it's free on Steam this weekend. The dinosaur age survival sandbox is ludicrously popular, and it's easy to see why. When Chris Livingston played he "chopped some wood, punched some birds, [and] pooped out several large, round turds," which sounds pretty great.

Other games are free too: Company of Heroes and its sequel, Company of Heroes 2, are both free for the weekend, and come with a 75% discount if you want to purchase. Mount & Blade: Warband is the fourth game to go free, with 66% taken off the usual price if you like what you play.

In case it's not obvious, these games are free for the weekend only: come Monday you'll need to pay up if you wish to continue playing.

PC Gamer

The grim beauty of Company of Heroes is that it gives aspirant World War II strategists a bird s eye view of battlefield and takes them down into the brutal detail of the foxhole. It s a war sim experienced from above and below, where the general sees all his decisions—good and bad—played out in realtime.

Relic s original 2006 RTS game was a hit partly because of the delicate way it walked a line that felt satisfying and authentic. With the WWII experience already so well-executed in other genres—shooters and grand strategy sims—COH found a middle ground where it could show the conflict from a new angle. From its squad-based point of view, the tide of battle in COH could be turned by the presence of a single soldier or unit. This perspective also nodded to the intensely personal stories in films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, both of which had appeared in the previous decade and enjoyed near-universal acclaim.

In this edition of If you like, I ve picked media that takes a similar, soldier s-eye-view approach to WWII. They aren t stories of far-removed commanders or politicians, but rather the men who had to carry out their orders in the various theaters of the 20th century s most brutal war. Given the scope of WWII, any list of recommendations could be almost endless. So with that in mind, be sure to include your own favorites in the comment section below.

Stalingrad, directed by Joseph Vilsmaier

With Company of Heroes 2, the series took its successful squad-based approach to the Eastern Front of the war. And in a way that reflected the much bloodier reality of the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union in the east, the game adopted a darker tone as well. In the 1993 German film Stalingrad, we witness the full arc of the famous battle played out through the eyes of a group of tight-knit German soldiers.

Stalingrad traces the story of an elite German unit as it takes part in what would turn out to be one of the turning points of the entire war. The Battle of Stalingrad played out in the city s bombed out streets, sewer tunnels, and eventually its frozen countryside as the German army became surrounded. The film is ultimately a story of failure, but also one of friendship as resistance to the horrors of war.

COH 2 s turn to the east can also be seen as part of an increased focus in recent years on the cost borne by Eastern Europe during and after WWII. For a historical account of these developments, I d recommend taking a look at author Timothy Snyder s recent contribution to our understanding of the Eastern Front—Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

War Stories, written by Garth Ennis with various artists

War Stories

In War Stories, comics writer Garth Ennis turns his pen towards a variety of true-to-life experiences during WWII. Noted for his work on comics like Preacher and Punisher, in War Stories Ennis attempts to ground the larger conflict in discrete tales of individuals caught up in unpredictable circumstances.

The eight-issue series, now collected in two volumes, has a scope that takes in battles all over the European theater, from North Africa to the Battle of Britain to the final days on the Eastern Front before Germany s surrender. In reviewing Ennis s work, Colin Smith notes that his writing isn t a tale of events which feel as if they re nothing but ancient history, long since settled and entirely predictable in hindsight. In taking us away from the commonplace and focusing on the lives of his small cast of touchingly-depicted individuals, Ennis constantly compels us to remember how chaotic and unpredictable his character s lives are.

If you see COH as I do, as somehow tipping its hat to warfare as carefully-managed chaos, it s worth checking out Ennis s War Stories.

Kelly s Heroes, directed by Brian G. Hutton

If the dirty, impressionistic violence of Saving Private Ryan changed how a new generation of filmgoers saw WWII, then Kelly s Heroes serves as a reminder of an earlier approach to depicting the war. In the 1970 film starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland, war is hell, but it s also a hell of an adventure. If you were to reverse engineer Saving Private Ryan as a kind of twisted, 1960s WWII Western, it might look something like Kelly s Heroes.

The basic story deals with a group of disillusioned American soldiers who go AWOL in order to rip off a bank behind enemy lines. Sick of feeling like pawns in the ambitious games of crazy generals, the soldiers set out to win a piece of the war that they can take home with them—gold. It s pure Hollywood but also hugely entertaining. The combat set pieces in the film range over the French countryside and could be ripped right out of the COH campaign. And as with so many older films that deploy practical effects well, the tank battles and infantry skirmishes have aged quite nicely.

Kelly s Heroes doesn t shy away from showing the costs of warfare, but rather confronts it with a kind of sarcastic humor and fantasy that s also become an important artifact in dealing with the legacy of WWII.

The Young Lions, by Irwin Shaw

The Young lions

Of all the American combat novels to appear after the conclusion of World War II, three proved to be definitive: James Jones s The Thin Red Line, Norman Mailer s The Naked and the Dead, and Irwin Shaw s The Young Lions. And of those, only Shaw s 1948 work deals with the war in Europe rather than the Pacific.

Epic in its ambition, Shaw weaves together the story of three soldiers fighting on different sides of the war. Direct and suitably unadorned, his style is excellent at bringing the reader into the moment-by-moment experience of combat: The firing stopped and it was quiet again, except for shouts from the wounded out in the field. When a man raised his head carefully to look over the embankment to see what could be done, the guns started again, and the grass on the edge of the embankment snapped and slashed through the air as the bullets cut through it. The remnants of the Company lay exhausted, then, along the ditch.

What The Young Lions captures so vividly is the psychological dimension of combat and the way it changes the people caught up in it. The novel also highlights the almost absurd disconnect that exists between the fighting men on the ground and the commanders giving orders from eighty miles away. Just as COH closes this distance with its realtime approach, Shaw s writing excels at telling stories of the war as it was fought in the ditch rather than the war room. 

For more installments of If you like... , check out Patrick s recommendations for Dead SpaceThe Witcher, Dishonored, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Deus Ex fans. 

PC Gamer

While this week's main Humble Bundle is chumming about with region locked Nintendo games, the Weekly Bundle is well worth your attention. It is an awful lot of video game war for not a lot of money. Specifically, it is Relic video game war.

Here's what paying what you want will get you:

  • Company of Heroes: Complete Edition
  • Dawn of War: Game of the Year Edition
  • Dawn of War 2
  • Company of Heroes 2 - The Western Front Armies: Oberkommando West

Yes, it's a bit odd to include Company of Heroes 2's standalone multiplayer expansion without the game it's based on. But if you pay above the average, you'll also get:

  • Company of Heroes 2
  • Company of Heroes 2 - The Western Front Armies: US Forces
  • Dawn of War 2: Retribution
  • Warhammer 40K: Space Marine

Should you extend your payment to $15 you'll also get Company of Heroes 2's most recent expandalone, Ardennes Assault.

There are some RTS classics nestled in there. It's worth dipping in just for Dawn of War: Retribution's excellent Last Stand multiplayer mode.

The bundle will run until Thursday, June 4.

PC Gamer

GOG has added some Saints Row, some Darksiders, and a Metro game to its lineup, all of them completely without the hassles and headaches we know (and really don't love) as digital rights management. And to mark the moment, it's got them all on sale, too.

First up is Saints Row 2, now on for $4 instead of the regular $10 price, and Saints Row: The Third—The Full Package, which includes the main game and a pile of DLC, for $5 instead of $15. Then there's Darksiders, currently going for $8, and Darksiders II, which is $12. The Darksiders II Complete DLC pack is also up for grabs for $8.

Finally, there's Metro: Last Light Redux, and this one strikes me as a bit odd, because Metro 2033 Redux is nowhere to be seen. Licensing issues are sometimes a problem with GOG releases, but Deep Silver hold the rights to the entire franchise, so if it can do one it should be able to do both. Technical issues, maybe?

Whatever the case, Metro: Last Light Redux is on for $12.50, which I'd say is a really good price for a really good shooter. All five of the new-to-GOG games are available now, and will remain on sale until May 18.

Update: The mystery of the missing Metro hasn't exactly been solved, but it has been acknowledged, and there's a chance the game will turn up at some point in the future. "We cannot say exactly why it s been released this way, since this is related to discussions that are under NDA," a GOG rep explained. "But we sure hope that we will be able to bring Metro 2033 Redux to GOG in the future."

PC Gamer

Want to play some free games this weekend? Steam's latest Free Weekend promotion has a couple to choose from, and they couldn't be more different. One lets you colonise an alien world, another lets you spray liquid faeces at buildings and people.

I'll let you decide which sounds more appealing. No judgements.

In one corner we have Firaxis's latest, Civilization: Beyond Earth. In the other corner, Volition's absurdist open-world comedy Saints Row. It's the full series that's playable, including Saints Row 2Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV.

I particularly enjoyed the latter two Saints Rows, which are enjoyably silly and perfect for a mindless weekend of laughs and carnage. If you are in the mood for something more considered, Beyond Earth is a perfectly good alternative. I'm not it's greatest fan—much preferring last year's Endless Legend—but our reviewer liked it a lot.

To download any of the games, head to their Steam page and click the "Play Game" button. You've got until Sunday to get your free time in, and each game is discounted until Monday if you like what you play.


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