Welcome! I am your (g)host, Craig FEARSOME, beckoning you in to this eldritch gathering of... LOOK BEHIND YOU! Yes, there is NOTHING there. The very absence of fear is perhaps the greatest fear of all. No? But I used Caps Lock and italics! WhAt aBOut NOwWow? Fine, you are unafraid of typography. How about a list of the scariBOOest PC games? Hah. I saw you flinch! Now you are atmospherically prepared, ensure there are neither babies nor pets between yourself and the nearest toilet, lest your bowels react unfavourably to this mildly cursed list of possibly evil games, aka The five Scariest PC Games of alllllllll timmmmmme*.
*What? No AvP? No FEAR? No Hidden: Source? Where's Pathologic? Why not Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason instead of Amnesia? All fine questions... that I can answer by pointing out that you might find things scarier than I do. Even though it does make you less of a man than I am, I'm contractually obliged to let you know that it's all okay, and that you're allowed to be a big baby in face of those games that I consider as scary as a kitten's hug. But please do let us know what you do find scary, and what your list would be, because fear is best shared in a big group.
System Shock 2
You awaken on a broken, quiet space ship. You're one of the few people still alive. The walls are covered in bloody graffiti and the ship's crawling with crew possessed by aliens. It's a standard set-up, but the fact that it wrings out scares from a murk of tropes is truly impressive. System Shock 2's genius lies in plain sight. If you want ink black shadows and scary violin screeches, you have come to the wrong game. This not the canned scariness of Dead Space. There are no closets with monsters. There are long sections of space corridors, punctuated by terrifying fights where you always seem on the back foot. Your weapons break. Your mind gets invaded by the ghosts of those that perished. The incongruous details really put it over the edge. Did that man just apologise for attacking me? Yup. Is that the sound of a screeching monkey? Holy fuck it is. All the while you're being guided by the voice of the ship's captain, who leads you on to one of the most guts-wrenching twists in gaming. It's a trick that worked so well that the developers pulled it off again years later, in BioShock.
If there is one thing more terrifying than a game world that barely acknowledges your existence, it's one that's also filled with zombies and humans. The multiplayer post-apocalyptic DayZ welcomes you to its 225sqkm of zombie infested world with disdainful silence. You spawn on a beach miles from anywhere. You need supplies and weaponry. This is where most games would start telling you where you go and what you need to do to, but here all you get is a sneer and a challenge to figure it all out on your own. You are not the star of DayZ; you are meat for the beast. The elements can kill you. The zombies can kill you. But the worst thing is the players. You just don't know if someone's friendly or not. The first friend I made in-game shot me in the back. The second I had to kill because he was acting so strangely I was convinced he was leading me into an ambush. I don't like not trusting people. For weeks afterwards I'd spawn at night, avoid human contact, and pick my way across the pitch black land looking for the glow of light on the horizon, then change direction. People suck, and the guy in the video above, Surviving Solo, understands that.
Stalker is set in the real post-disaster area of Chernobyl and Pripyat, the perfect setting to unsettle. Layered on top of the harrowing, beautiful open-world of a post-nuclear disaster is an ecosystem of mutant animals and wandering scavengers. Day and night tumbles along as you try to survive out in a world of grim Russian fable, picking at the scabs of the story and searching for artefacts. The AI isn't out to get you, it's just trying to exist in a barren land where everything is in pain and hungry. When you're walking in the dark, in the rain and on your own, there's no telling just what will unpeel from the shadows and decide to take you on. It might be a scruffy hound, which is easy to kill but not worth the bullets, or it might be an invisible, blood-sucking hell beast. It might just be your imagination, fuelled by the pitch of night and a soundtrack that sounds like Aphex Twin making music with rust and orgasms.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
Almost any Thief game could appear on this list. They have a thin, low-tone of terror quietly running through that spikes you're inches from a patrolling guard, close enough to hear a quiet a cough and a mumble, nothing but a quirk of lighting keeping you from being spotted. You are always vulnerable, a fact your bladder keeps reminding you of. But then Thief 3 unleashes the Cradle on you. The Cradle is a place where the history is as important as the present horrors. An ancient orphanage and mental asylum (at the same time), the classic haunted house level that subverts the format of Thief and plunges you into a dark story of its own. As you stalk deeper into the place the history is revealed, coming off in chunks rather than a slow reveal of text, and when you put it together the place takes on a twisted life of its own. This is one that should be experienced first hand. If you have played it, Kieron Gillen's amazing dissection is an essential read that'll give you deeper understanding of the themes and backstory. If you haven't, you can grab the full game cheaply enough on Steam or GOG.com. Or just watch this and be glad you didn't.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
You can see flashes of Amnesia in Penumbra and its sequel: a first-person adventure game where the world is a reactive, physical space to be poked and prodded. Penumbra nearly made it in here, but there's something about Amnesia that raises it above the others. The story is ridiculously hokey, and the setting is closer to a cheesy Hammer horror story than something you'd expect to give you sweaty palms. But in Amnesia you're not a typical game hero: when bad things happen, you don't have the power to confront it, you don't have a buff bar full of counters, and you don't have a gun in your hand. You have a lamp. You have to run and hide and hope whatever it is goes away. Your character's fear is palpable: the screen shakes and warps as the terror builds, and the monsters seem to wait for the perfect moment to strike at you, delivering the sort of scare that has you hyperventilating along with your character. Just keep telling yourself that it isn't real.
I'd be worried if Company of Heroes suddenly became all about actions per minute, but it's nice to be reassured. director of Company of Heroes, Quinn Duffy, tells Joystiq that "It's not an APM (actions-per-minute) game. To play Company of Heroes 2 you need to play smart and be aggressive in your decision making.
"We want smart players to be able to maximize the value of their units. A guy playing smart with his defenses and his cover and his movement, you want him to beat up on a guy with three squads."
This is excellent news. My finger dexterity is comparable to that of a man mashing out Flight of the Bumblebee in a pair of mittens. If I was asked to mastermind a Company of Heroes battle with the speed of a StarCraft 2 match, the results would be tragic. Tanks would rotate forlornly on the spot shooting at the sky. Men would be left in buildings to freeze to death. Luckily for them not all of the battles in CoH 2 will be set in winter.
"We're covering the full breadth of the Eastern Front campaign, and only half the war was fought in winter," says Duffy. "There's spring, fall, and summer... the weather and the environment had a big impact on both sides. That's part of the narrative experience of the Eastern Front."
The sequel is built in a new engine that'll support more detailed soldiers and dynamic snowdrifts. The extra fidelity seems likely to come at the expense of DirectX 9 support. "It's a ton of effort to make work on both versions," Duffy says, "and the install base isn't particularly large for DirectX 9 stuff only."
Company of Heroes 2 is due out next year, sharing the RTS limelight with Rome 2. Find out more in our Company of Heroes 2 preview. It's going to be an awesome year to be a PC gamer.
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. Also: pusher of buttons, fetcher of quest items and avid parkour enthusiast. I’m also a dab skeletal hand when it comes to rolling giant glowing weighted balls into the sockets of improbably elaborate stone machinery.
You’d think all that reaping would keep Death busy on its own, but according to Vigil’s lite-RPG adventure, you don’t know the half of it. Death finds himself in a green and pleasant fantasy land in search of the Tree of Life. There he hopes to find absolution for his brother, War, who apparently prematurely annihilated mankind during the course of the preceding game. But this realm, the Forge Lands, has its own problems – gloopy problems by the name of Corruption, which seeks to wrap its black, slimy tendrils around the very forge of life itself.
So it is that Death finds himself distracted from his primary goal by a series of dungeon crawls to aid the people of the Forge Lands, combining a mixture of platforming challenges with minor puzzling and a healthy dash of hack-’n’-slash. Comparisons to the Legend of Zelda games are warranted – and welcome – given the way the sprawling overworld hub tapers off into dungeony spokes, full of flipswitches and pressure plate puzzles.
Well, I say puzzles, but for the first ten hours of the game it mostly seems to be the same puzzle, to which the solution is: roll a glowing ball into a glowing socket. Sometimes you have to roll a ball into another socket first, in order to access the second ball. Sometimes you have to find some explosives to blow up an obstacle. Sometimes you have to roll a ball onto a lift, ride it up, then throw it onto another from your newly elevated position. This is not cryptic stuff. I have been more puzzled by food packaging.
Later, you gain access to much more elaborate powers, such as the ability to create lurid green and purple clones of yourself – all the better for pushing buttons with – and the ability to open portals, but the level of challenge rarely soars above ‘gently pondersome’. That said, the pondering is not unpleasant. It’s not about austere brain-searing perplexity so much as spending a little time in environments that feel pleasingly tactile and open to exploration. It’s just the right-sized mouthful before the platforming or combat starts again, and if any one of the game’s several parts is slightly undercooked, at least the quantity of the serving is exactly balanced.
As for what else you get on your plate: along with that dollop of Zelda, there’s a lukewarm ladleful of Prince of Persia. Environments are etched with traversal routes – scuffed walls indicating you can run along them, while distinctive crevices offer handholds. Later a spectral grapple power enables you to swing from hooks embedded in the ceiling. The movement between all these points has a pleasing rhythm to it but is rarely taxing. It’s not until you journey beyond the Forge Lands that issues of timing raise their head.
There you find yourself leaping between platforms which sway beneath a dirigible hauled by a pair of giant serpents. This makes a rare and spectacular change from the familiar sequence of grapple points and wall traversals, but is quickly gone. Mostly, platforming challenges are nakedly prescriptive: Death’s acrobatics don’t give him freeform access to an environment; rather, if you see a ledge, you are meant to go there. It may be that the game sacrifices some of the wonder of its world for legibility, but the opposite is often true as well: chesthigh platforms that seem well within Death’s capability to clamber over will not oblige unless you use the prescribed handholds.
The low challenge of this rhythmic dance between obstacles feels like it is designed to contrast with the sweaty palms of combat. This is much improved from the button-mashing of the previous game, now taking its cues from Japanese-style brawlers like the consoles’ Bayonetta. You must more thoughtfully intertwine combos and dodges, building up meters and then spending them on a series of upgradeable special powers.
It’s gratifyingly tough: enemies attack in groups, and often simultaneously, forcing you to dodge in and out of combos, or lay down floor-clearing area-of-effect attacks before singling out opponents. You might assume Death would be quite the natural at this whole killing thing, but his skillset is initially limited, constraining the player to basic mashing and constant, panicky evasion for the first few hours. But as your moveset increases you can take the offensive in a much more considered way, equipping talismans, armour or weaponry that lets you vampirically absorb health with every blow or knock enemies over.
Attacks fill up two different power meters. The lesser of these is Wrath, which can also be topped up with potions, and grants you access to a number of powers unlocked with skill points as you level up. These are powerful dash moves and roomclearing melee sweeps in which you manifest as a giant winged Grim Reaper. Alternatively you can invest in summoning powers, bringing ghouls and crows to fight at your side. The second meter measures Reaper power, which builds up slowly as you deliver blows and eventually enables you to assume Death’s ‘true form’ for a good number of seconds – worth saving for the most dire circumstances.
Such circumstances might easily be any one of the apocalyptically irritating boss battles. They are tricky customers, partly by design, partly by failure of design. Clipping issues occasionally deflate your efforts. A later boss enemy floats just off-screen above you. This is infuriating because you haven’t learnt any aerial combos with which to dispatch him, and all the more so because it feels like you’re trying to swat a fly inside your own head. Oh, and he can turn invulnerable. Oh, and he can resurrect other foes. Who thought this was a good idea? I ask only because I feel I should apologise to their mother for all the terrible things I said. I’m sure she’s a fine woman.
Boss battles and other combat difficulty spikes aside, Darksiders II offers a rewardingly deep system of combos that must be exploited with intelligence and precision. It’s this that makes the lack of challenge in platforming or puzzling an amiable respite rather than a bore. In fact, the sum of the game’s parts makes for a pleasingly Zen experience, as you tool back and forth across the world, summoning your ghostly horse with a tap of a button, swiping creatures off their feet as you gallop past.
Aesthetically, it’s a little conservative – nailing the sort of themes that teenage boys enjoy before they’ve lived long enough to encounter the notion of cliché. But if the broad brushstrokes are banal, the detail is extremely accomplished, drawing its caricatures with enough idiosyncratic flare to be memorable, and breathing drama into what might otherwise have been check-box landscapes.
The voicework is a pleasant surprise too: as Death, Michael Wincott’s deep sardonic rasp channels the sound of a thousand whiskey hangovers, in a script that is enthusiastically hammy but not cringingly corny or crass. Jesper Kyd’s score is a winsomely eclectic mix, sweeping between far-flung musical and mystical traditions, matching wispy Celtic vocals with strident pentatonic chimes, murky synths and shades of Mongolian throat-singing, and somehow delivering pulsing, moreish hooks without their repetition ever grating.
From a technical perspective, Darksiders II doesn’t step up its efforts to match the capabilities of the PC. The art style ensures it’s a relatively handsome game in spite of its occasional bleary textures and lacklustre graphics options, but this is a hasty port, only just maintaining a cruising altitude of ‘mostly operable’. Changing resolution causes major spasms, leaving some menus in the wrong shape, while standards such as hotswapping between keyboard and gamepad are still absent. And though given its DNA this is clearly designed with a gamepad in mind, even those controls seem to be a little unreliable, as context sensitive commands sometimes fail to register.
Should a patch or two put these teething troubles behind it, then Darksiders II will provide a pleasant amble. Its platforming and puzzling may be undemanding, but in balance to its respectably rich combat challenge, they make for as relaxing a journey as you might expect in the company of Death.
Gorgeous Greenlight projects. A planned Left 4 Dead 2 map on meta-horror. Dildo bats, crazy cats, and space hats. What does it all mean? It probably all makes sense on a metaphysical level, but we're pretty sure they're just more news we're rounding up and sending your way like a caring grandmother. A caring zombie grandmother.
The Light brands itself as "an interactive philosophical story." Sweet, sweet urban decay. Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard almost worked with Valve on a potential Left 4 Dead 2 map pack tie-in. The Secret World gets a new director, former lead content designer Joel Bylos, and reveals the name of its next Issue update as "The Cat God." Let's hope Bylos didn't have to endure through an elaborate initiation ceremony involving complicated hand gestures. The entirety of Saints Row: The Third's DLC is included in the upcoming Full Package version releasing on November 9 for $50. Super-long Assassin's Creed 3 gameplay video reveals Connor actually talking. Oh, and chopping people's faces in.
This week's best deals ► Borderlands 2, Saints Row: The Third, and more Amazon has 10% off Borderlands 2 - it's not a lot, but it did just release - and a more substantial 40% off The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, Saints Row: The Third is 66% off on Steam and free to play this weekend, the Tribes: Ascend Starter Pack is only $7.49 at GameStop, and Green Man Gaming continues to give out 25% off vouchers (it matches Amazon's Borderlands 2 deal, too).
10% off Borderlands 2 at Amazon - $53.99 40% off The Walking Dead at Amazon - $14.99 75% off Tribes: Ascend Starter Pack at GameStop - $7.49 66% off Killing Floor Bundle on Steam - $10.19 66% off Saints Row: The Third on Steam - $13.59 75% off Bastion at GameFly - $3.75 25% off a PC download at Green Man Gaming with voucher code: GMG20-27J4Z-8NXHO
Steam ► Saints Row: The Third, Red Orchestra 2, Killing Floor Saints Row: The Third is 66% off and free to play this weekend. Killing Floor and Red Orchestra 2 also get the double-six treatment, and Sniper Elite V2 is 50% off.
66% off Saints Row: The Third - $13.59 66% off Killing Floor Bundle - $10.19 66% off Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad - GOTY - $6.79 50% off Sniper Elite V2 - $24.99 75% off Kung Fu Strike - The Warrior's Rise - $2.49 More Steam deals
Amazon ► Borderlands 2, The Walking Dead Amazon was a little disappointing last week, but this week it has 10% off the just-released Borderlands 2 and 40% off The Walking Dead. The other sales have carried over from previous weeks, and some have been around for ages. Someone at Amazon really wants you to play Mount & Blade.
10% off Borderlands 2 - $53.99 40% off The Walking Dead - $14.99 50% off Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X 2 - $9.99 50% off Deus Ex: Human Revolution - $14.99 60% off Mount & Blade - $6.03 More Amazon PC game downloads
Green Man Gaming ► 25% off voucher, Borderlands 2
Use the voucher code GMG20-27J4Z-8NXHO to receive 25% off a digital download by Tuesday September 25th at 4 a.m. PDT. By the way, Arma II: Combined Ops was recently added to GMG's catalog, so there's an idea. Plus, there's all the deals below:
10% off Borderlands 2 - $53.99 60% off Duke Nukem Forever - $7.99 60% off Mafia - $5.98 75% off Mafia II - $7.49 75% off Sid Meier's Civilization V - $7.49 60% off Borderlands - $7.99 60% off BioShock - $7.99 75% off BioShock 2 - $4.99 More GMG deals
Get Games ► Guild Wars 2, Sleeping Dogs You can still get Sleeping Dogs for 25% off and Borderlands for 50% off. Guild Wars 2, however, is down from 25% to 15% off, and still only for European customers. Sad face.
15% off Guild Wars 2 - $46.75 (Europe only) 15% off Guild Wars 2: Digital Deluxe Edition - $63.75 (Europe only) 25% off Sleeping Dogs - $37.49 50% off Borderlands - $9.99 More deals from Get Games
GameStop ► Tribes: Ascend, Arma II GameStop has 75% off the Tribes: Ascend Starter Pack. That's a pretty good deal - it includes all classes, permanent VIP status (50% XP bonus), 800 Gold, a 30 day XP booster, and some gear and perks. Compare that to $10 for 800 Gold (and nothing else) from Hi-Rez's store.
75% off Tribes: Ascend Starter Pack - $7.49 20% off ARMA II - $15.99 50% off Resident Evil 5 - $9.99 14% off War of the Roses - House of York Deluxe Edition - $29.99 20% off Sleeping Dogs - $39.99 (Cheaper above) More GameStop deals
GOG ► Atari All-Stars GOG is selling a selection of Atari games at 60% off this weekend. I would list them all here, but it turns out Atari published a lot of games.
GamersGate ► Same deals, different day
Some of last week's deals, like BioShock at 50% off, are gone, but those that remain look to be the same as always - mostly tons of Paradox games. Let me know if I missed anything crazy big.
GameFly ► Bastion 'n Batman Bastion is a damn neat game, and it's currently only $3.75 at GameFly.
75% off Bastion - $3.75 75% off F.E.A.R. 3 - $4.99 20% off Batman: Arkham City GOTY - $23.99 75% off Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY - $4.99 50% off Resident Evil 5 - $9.99 More GameFly deals
Let us know in the comments if you find any more great deals!
Disclaimer: We offer no guarantees regarding the validity of these sales, their restrictions, or the quality of service provided by these distributors. We cannot vet every deal: we only list what we see advertised at the time of writing. Buy at your own risk!
It looks as though we'll all get to play Saints Row: The Third for free this weekend. If you like the idea of blasting through an open city in a VTOL jet that shoots lasers, or calling in a gang of pink ninjas to start a turf war with an army of luchadores then you should certainly check it out, especially if you have a friend to jump in with. Saints Row: The Third is quite excellent in co-op.
As Gamespy note, the free trial is currently only visible in your Steam purchase history. A proper pre-load icon will surely hit Steam libraries later this week.
Company of Heroes 2's wintry setting isn't just there to look pretty. If you're not careful it'll freeze your soldiers to death. Relic's new Essence Engine introduces ColdTech, which simulates the effects of -40 degree environments on your soldiers, turning grim reality into a game mechanic, as Relic explain: "On winter maps, Infantry units exposed to the bitter cold will gradually freeze to death unless the player keeps them warm by building fires and garrisoning them in buildings. Dynamic blizzards will increase the effects of extreme cold making it even more hazardous to leave infantry in the open."
As well as snowstorms, your troops will have to content with stretches of ice that can crack and swallow units and entire tanks whole. Rivers and lakes will gradually refreeze as time passes, giving you the option to send your heavy armour ice skating again. See these effects in action in the latest Company of Heroes 2 screenshots, which show soldiers frozen solid, tanks falling into rivers, and rocket launchers holding an icy hill.
This article first appeared in issue 242 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Matt Lees.
No one expects Russian mutants to be gorgeous all the time, but it’s nice to see them make an effort now and then. Ukrainian developers 4A Games seem well aware of Metro 2033’s shortcomings, and first on the list is getting things dolled up. Skulking through the underground tunnels shows off the improvements to a degree, but it’s the outside world that impresses the most.
As the smoggy black ash clouds begin to clear from the city, the next stages of nuclear fallout kick in. Thick-cut lightning appears intent on cutting the sky in two as rain starts to fall, obscuring the main character Artyom’s visor.
As Artyom pushes through crunched-concrete streets, his travelling companion tells him to keep his head down. Around fifty mutated rat-like creatures bound across the crumbled vista ahead, appearing equally shaken-up by the storms. Metro: Last Light’s flair for cinematic moments scoffs at the efforts of the slightly wonky Metro 2033, but this upgrade comes with a shift in tone that won’t please everyone.
The regular presence of a follow-me-buddy and an emphasis on building drama through scripted moments reminds me an awful lot of games like Call of Duty. If you were holding out for something more like Stalker, switch your eyebrows into frownmode now.
One of the first scripted moments I spot makes me jump: a giant, horrible rat-like thing leaps out of the shadows, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth that hint towards sour intentions. Pinned to the ground and away from his buddy, Artyom forces the barrel of his shotgun beneath what appears to be the beast’s chin, relocating key parts of its brain into a brand new drippy red spot on the ceiling. I’m happy to invite more moments like this, but other scripted sections don’t nail the tone.
A supernatural sequence on a wrecked airplane had great intentions, but fell a bit flat. Flashing images of the plane’s passengers just before the crash felt like home-brand horror, and a longer sequence showing the reactions of the pilots as they flew towards a freshly-grown mushroom cloud somehow misspells shock as schlock. It reminded me of the iconic nuke scene from Call of Duty 4, but the comparison wasn’t wholly kind.
The depictions of pre-disaster civilians in the game feel wooden when compared with excellently silly antics with neo-Nazis and monsters. Hopefully these sequences won’t take the limelight.
I’ll need to withhold judgement until I get a chance to play the game for myself, but THQ’s Huw Beynon insists that the mainstream-facing stuff won’t detract from what made the last game fantastic: “Dumbing down is when you strip all of that stuff out and say ‘let’s keep it simple’,” explains Beynon. “What we want to do instead is to introduce these mechanics better, and weave them into the narrative more… let players get comfortable with ideas one at a time, and they’ll gradually realise a wealth of new options.”
If linear jollies aren’t a total turn-off, this one still looks set to be a treat. Most of Metro 2033’s esoteric features will also play a part in Last Light, which means winding up an electric torch, frantically hunting down fresh oxygen canisters and manually wiping your mask’s visor clean. An excess build-up of water, blood, or indeterminate mutant-juice can severely damage your ability to shoot things.
And trust me, you’re going to want to shoot things. Using bullets to kill things in the last game felt a bit like to trying to knock someone out with half a Battenberg. It’s a criticism the developers have taken note of, and the gunplay this time around seems more substantial. One fight sees Artyom squaring up against a giant bat-bastard, which insists on grabbing him with both claws before dropping him again from an unhealthy height.
A few high-calibre rifle rounds make light work of the beast, putting an end to the encounter. The raucous exchange attracts even more attention, though, forcing Artyom and pals to make a dash for the subway.
Making a last stand at the bottom of the escalator, both rangers run out of Molotov cocktails as giant rat-creatures continue to arrive. A chunky sub-machinegun chews through the mutants, but looks set to be useless once the ammo runs out. An incendiary-flavoured rescue arrives just as things are looking truly desperate, and two flamethrower-wielding rangers open the doors to give the vile creatures a blast.
Last Light’s blasted, wrecked world looks surprisingly beautiful, and I’m fascinated to see just how well it handles. I’m also faintly worried that 4A Games might have fluffed up the balance between freedom and scripting, but Beynon is making reassuring noises that it’ll be something more than a corridor shooter with added radiation. “People like complexity, and gamers aren’t stupid,” he says.
Last Light could shape up to be the sexiest apocalypse in 2013.
This preview originally appeared in issue 240 of PCG UK.
When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he caught Stalin’s armies unprepared. To avoid being trapped behind enemy lines, Soviet soldiers, civilians and entire industries retreated, falling back further east. Fearing the Nazi’s swift and relentless progress towards Moscow, Stalin issued Order 227. “Not one step back,” it said. Now any retreating Soviet soldier would be shot by his own side.
During my time with Relic, the team stopped just short of threatening themselves with guns, but they’re similarly resolute that Company of Heroes won’t take any backward steps. If you’ve forgotten exactly why that might be a challenge, consider that Company of Heroes’ 94% review in PC Gamer remains the highest score we’ve ever given an RTS.
Unlike Stalin, Relic are anything but unprepared for the challenge. They’ve spent the six years since that first game’s Saving Private Ryan-inspired tour of Western Europe planning how to better it. Now they think they know how. Company of Heroes is heading to the Eastern Front, to put players in control of the Soviet army during the largest and bloodiest battles of World War II. This raises the question: how do you build a sequel to the best-rated real-time strategy game of all time?
Step one: make it fresh. When the first game came out in 2006, gamers were already fatigued from the onslaught of WWII-set titles. Since then, first-person shooters have moved on, but people are no less wary of a return to the fields of France.
That’s where the Eastern Front comes in. While games have ventured towards Moscow before – notably the Men of War series – Relic feel there’s still room for their own interpretation. For one thing, they’re keen to emphasise the scale of these battles.
The famed Normandy beach landing that kicked off Saving Private Ryan, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and the first Company of Heroes? “That was the 23rd bloodiest battle of World War II,” says Quinn Duffy, Company of Heroes 2’s lead designer. In comparison, “13 of the 15 bloodiest battles happened on the Eastern Front,” he says.
Company of Heroes 2 will begin in 1941, with the Soviets on the back foot after 600,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 cannons and 3,000 airplanes have poured into the Soviet Union. Within months, almost half of the Soviet Union’s 190 million population is behind enemy lines.
Relic are cagey on exact narrative details, but the story of the war will be told through the eyes of a war correspondent as he travels through the Eastern Front, reporting on battles and “the failures of communist ideology,” says Quinn. The player’s role will be to lead the Russians to fight back, from the defence of Stalingrad towards ultimate victory in Berlin.
The first Company of Heroes followed the Allied forces from the Normandy beach landing through to the capture of Berlin. What made it remarkable, then and now, was its ability to render those battles with the same cinematic flair as firstperson shooters like Medal of Honor, but with greater tactical depth than any other RTS.
Success in CoH is about more than left-click command, right-click conquer. Without traditional base building and resource gathering, beating the Nazis required genuine squad tactics: taking cover in hedgerows, flanking enemy positions, and cannily deploying grenades, artillery and equipment to outsmart smart enemies.
If you’re controlling a tank in Company of Heroes and there’s a building between you and your enemy, you can smash your way through that building. If a grenade explodes among your soldiers, those men will come apart, pinwheeling through the air. Company of Heroes found a spot on the scale between intelligence and bombast.
Company of Heroes II is loading. With Matthew Berger, one of the game’s other designers, at the controls, Quinn is going to talk me through a mission called ‘Rzhev Meatgrinder’. It was fought in the winter of 1942, and it’s one of WWII’s lesser known battles. It led to the deaths of a staggering 1 million Soviet soldiers.
When the mission loads, the camera is zoomed in on a small squad of five dapper Soviets. Their coats are flapping in the wind, and their feet are buried in snow. For shivering conscripts, they look great: just a little shy of the detail you might expect from a third-person action game, and way beyond the visual fidelity most real-time strategy games offer.
Matthew pulls the camera back, showing more of the area. He has a couple of other squads under his control. As he selects them, mortar shells strike. One of his soldiers is sent flying by the blast. When the smoke clears, some of the thick snow has been blown away.
This is one of CoH2’s technical marvels. You can’t make a game about the Eastern Front and not have snow, but this isn’t just a flat, white texture. This snow has depth, will spread procedurally, and will compact when rolled over by tanks. It changes the way you think about the battlefield: tanks can get bogged down in deep snowdrifts, infantry can use it to flank. It provides a blanket of cover for the land’s actual terrain. It does everything short of lemon-flavoured snowcones.
Matthew orders his men onto the road, where the snow is thinner and they can move faster. It’s a good plan, until a soldier steps on a landmine. Matthew orders them off again. Up ahead, German soldiers take positions behind a farm wall and start firing at the Soviets, who are now trying to sprint in deep snow.
There’s nothing to take cover behind here. Matthew sacrifices a few men to engage the Germans, and sends the rest of his squads to flank the enemy from the east. When they reach the wall, Matthew opens a hole in it using explosives, then orders a flamethrower soldier to start incinerating Nazis.
The flame effects get even better when Matthew directs them towards the farmhouse itself. The building catches fire, the snow on its roof begins to melt, and its walls collapse as the Germans inside flee. Matthew has taken control of the position.
Avoiding deep snow, flanking around cover, using equipment to blow holes in walls, destroying buildings... this small skirmish contains much of what made the original CoH so compelling when it forced players to improvise their tactics based on the environment.
Matthew orders his Soviet soldiers to a wall at the back of the farmhouse. Like everything else this wall can be destroyed, but before the Germans have the chance, Matthew orders his men to vault over it. That’s new.
In the next field, our comrades run up against a German machinegun position. They’re pinned down with no cover. The game switches to an in-engine cutscene, where a soldier gives the order to retreat, and the men turn to flee. Another machinegun is waiting for them. This one is operated by fellow Soviet soldiers. They glumly open fire, carrying out Order 227 and killing their own.
When the cutscene is over, Matthew is given control of two new squads of Soviets. This time, he makes his own cover by dropping a smoke grenade. As he does so, a fog of war effect greys out the area on the other side.
Relic call this ‘True Sight’, and it’s another of CoH2’s new additions. You can only see what your soldiers can see. That means that you never know what might be on the other side of the next building, beyond the treeline, or even beyond the smoke of your own smoke grenades.
While the smoke provides cover, Matthew again orders his men to flank across the deep snow. The machinegun is still in position, ready to rain hot death down on any squishy Soviets out in the open, but luckily, Matthew now has a plan. His plan is a tank.
It’s a small tank, but still able to flatten the snow beneath its tracks, power across the field and destroy the machinegun position. Sitting in a giant, obvious-looking tin can carries its own risks, however, and the new fog of war system means that enemy ambushes are a real problem. The tank is burst by sneaky Nazis hidden behind one of the village houses.
Part of the fun of Company of Heroes 2’s campaign will be controlling the fight between two vastly different armies. The German troops you’ll be struggling with are well-trained, professional soldiers, with the best military technology of the age.
Your Soviet troops make up for their lack of training and crappy equipment with sheer numbers. Your tanks might not be as good, but you have a lot of them. Your men don’t have months of training, but there’s always more where they came from.
Matthew brings on another, bigger tank. He orders it towards the village alongside his infantry, and they force the Germans to retreat onto a sheet of ice. The tank follows, sliding on the frozen surface as it powers on.
Just as it looks as if the Soviets have the battle won, the sound of an overhead plane is heard. A bomb hits the tank and the screen fades to white, ending the brief demo.
It’s a thin slice of what Company of Heroes 2 should feel like to play, but the heart of the first game is there. The new additions, such as the snow, proper line of sight, and more advanced cover system, all feel like natural extensions of the original’s tactical combat. It’s not radically different, but it’s promising.
“Company of Heroes 2 isn’t about different,” Quinn says of Relic’s return to realistic warfare. “It’s about new, and it’s about more.” This takes me by surprise. In a world where sequels strive to justify their existence by twisting and warping original concepts, there’s something bold about saying upfront that you intend to repeat yourself.
“We tried a number of things,” Quinn says. “In part, it was ‘How far can we push it before we lose the essence of what Company of Heroes was?’ And we just had an innate sense that things got out the comfort zone of what the game should be, so we started to narrow in.” Relic have resisted the temptation to shoehorn needless modes and mini-games in where they’re not welcome. “We want more authenticity, we want more realism, we want tactical improvements...” Quinn sort of half shrugs. “I dunno, I’m bored of the original Company of Heroes,” he says.
Greg Wilson, the game’s producer, is incredulous. “Really!?” Quinn verbally backpedals, laughing.
Matthew Berger, another designer, explains the philosophy in contrast to Relic’s last sequel: Dawn of War 2.
“Dawn of War 2 was a very big departure, which was to bring newer players in,” he says. “When we started looking at going to Company of Heroes 2, that kind of departure did come up. We were really very clear that we wanted to maintain the core game, and that was a decision we made and that was in part because of Dawn of War 2.”
Greg quickly counters the obvious thought: “Dawn of War 2 is an amazing game, but there were certain things that didn’t suit the franchise very well.”
Company of Heroes 2 should, then, satisfy existing fans first and foremost. From looking at the forums, it seems there are plenty of them, although that raises one last question for the team: what happened with Company of Heroes Online?
CoH Online was a free-to-play re-tooling of the original, with most of its campaigns offered for free and an expanded microtransaction-fed multiplayer. It failed to catch fire, and was stomped out suddenly after a protracted beta period. As soon as I ask what happened, a chilly silence descends on the room. After a pause, Greg says that the project was “interesting”, “challenging”, and a lot of lessons were learned. They’re clearly not going to expand on that.
With the presentation over, the interview done, I’m hanging around the halls of Relic’s offices. The walls are lined with framed articles about their games. Every games company does this. There are previews of Dawn of War and of Space Marine, and on one wall, all eight pages of PC Gamer’s review of the first Company of Heroes. It concludes, “This is nothing short of genius.”
There’s still a lot about Company of Heroes 2 that Relic aren’t ready to show. They haven’t decided which missions will be in the final game, because they haven’t built them yet. They don’t know exactly how Order 227 will impact your troops outside of cutscenes. The game’s economy will be tied to territorial control, as per the first game, but they’re not yet ready to talk about it in full. If they’ve decided how multiplayer will work, they’re not telling.
But their ambition not to change, but to outstrip the superlative original Company of Heroes, nearguarantees the same thing the Soviet top brass enforced back in the early ’40s: not one step back
Relic have released two new screenshots of Company of Heroes 2, showing more of the snowy Eastern Front battlefields that'll form the backdrop to the sequel's central campaign. One shot shows soldiers trading potshots alongside supporting tanks. The snow drifts they're standing in will deform under the weight of marching boots and the tracks of Russian and German heavy armour. The fire shown in the second image will eviscerate flimsy wooden structures, causing them to collapse and instantly kill any men unlucky enough to be caught inside.
Relic are resisting the urge to follow up on Dawn of War 2's small scale action RPG approach, and are instead trying to perfect the Company of Heroes formula. The new setting and missions built around the bloodiest battles of World War 2 will hopefully keep things fresh. See more of Company of Heroes 2 in these E3 screenshots, and check out our video interview with Jacen Torres.