I have long been a fan of the Warhammer 40k series of RTS games.  While I have never been much a fan of the original Warhammer game (the one with all of the little pewter figurines and rulebooks), the game’s foray into the world of real-time strategy has been, from the start, an enjoyable and and rewarding experience.  And, while the single-player campaigns in the original game and its first expansion were considerably fiendish, leading me to never actually complete them, the third and fourth installments were incredibly fun to play, with a freeform world-domination campaign and manageable difficulty, as well as a persistent, upgradable commander and specialized units to aid your march across the battlefield.  All told, with the expansions, the series has elevated itself to stand along with the other RTS games that I have enjoyed immensely, including Starcraft and Total Annihilation.  

So, when I heard that a new RTS, Company of Heroes, was going to be release by the same company with a similar style of gameplay, I decided to give it a shot.  While WWII games are not my absolute favorites (I kind of had my fill of them after finishing CoD2), the game looked to be fun, and was back by tons of critical acclaim.  Given the usual tone of this weblog, you can probably guess what happened next.

Actually, at one point, I thought of drawing up a little comic strip about the host of glitches that plagued the game, but never quite got around to it.  Long story short, though, the game quickly becomes less of an immersion into WWII combat, so much as it becomes an exercise in absurdity.  

For example:  when you position an antitank gun, you choose its effective arc – and then it stays there.  Unlike in, say, one of the previous Warhammer games, where a turret rationally turns to face an appropriate threat, the gun crews in CoH simply sit there and guard their arc.  Even if a tank is literally coming up the road behind them, the team isn’t smart enough to simply turn the gun around – instead, unless you specifically order them to do so, they will sit there and shoot their rifles at the tank as it massacres them.  The same goes for the machine-gun team – once set up, the team covers an arc, and refuses to deviate (and this from a game claiming squad-based intelligence!).  Plus, to shift around, the gunner has to fold up the tripod, turn around, and unfold it again, instead of just turning around – you know, like you would in actual combat.  Oh, and for good measure, tank gunners are especially proficient at making sure that the last person they shoot in an enemy squad is the one soldier with a weapon that can actually hurt the tank.

So, instead of feeling like you’re commanding teams of capable, intelligent soldiers who can work with their squads to achieve individual objectives, you end up commanding a bunch of clueless automatons, who don’t even have the basic instinct to save themselves unless you specifically tell them to do so.  All in all, any sense of genuine chaotic WWII combat and heroism is quickly lost to these gameplay irregularities (not to mention, how come squads take more damage when they’re pinned, and prone on the ground, than when they’re running away and clearly visible to the enemy?).  

I eventually lost even the slightest sense of immersion when, midway through the game, I came across a mission where the gameplay involved capturing locations that earned you “victory points,” and you won went a bright counter on the screen reached a certain value.  They didn’t even try to disguise it with a plausible objective – not even something like “hold this point until reinforcements arrive,” or “you must control these strategic parts of town in order to gain a tactical advantage.”  Nope, just “capture some arbitrary points and wait until the counter goes up to win.”  Now, maybe I’m not up enough on my WWII history, but I’m pretty sure that the Allies never won a battle by sitting around in a town square while giant glowing numbers in the sky clicked upwards.  

In essence, CoH was the antithesis of the Warhammer series – instead of overall fun and enjoyable gameplay, it instead focused on intense unit micromanagement, an obtuse cover system, and a combination of historical “immersion” and traditional RTS gameplay that utterly failed to mesh in an interesting way.  The result was a game that turned into a slog rather than a good time, and it wasn’t long until I abandoned it and went back to the far more rewarding Warhammer series.

And so, with both of those things in mind, I recently downloaded the multiplayer beta for Warhammer II.  Of course, given my general unhappiness with multiplayer RTS, I quickly figured out how to use it to play some AI skirmish matches. Honestly, due to the not-so-awesome experience of using Games for Windows Live, I was actually unable to successfully connect to their ranked matching system, but luckily there is also an option for “custom” public matches that seemed, for the most part, to work.

Once the matchmaking thing was figured out, I jumped into the game, and played a few skirmish matches against AI opponents – matches against an Easy AI that were challenging but quite winnable, and against a Normal AI that I just barely beat.  What did strike me, though, about the new Warhammer game was this: in many ways, you’re basically playing Company of Heroes, with the main difference being a graphical one.

Admittedly, the interface is much more stripped-down – instead of an expansive base loaded down with turrets and structures in the initial Warhammer 40k series, or the multi-building bases of CoH, you get a base structure, surrounded with a couple of starting turrets – and that’s it.  For the marines, it’s less of a headquarters building, and more of a modified chapel-barracks, but it builds everything – units, vehicles, you name it. The advantage?  The game removes all of the base-building aspects, so there’s no more worrying about construction squads, and so more time can be spent shooting things.  The downside, of course, is that by stripping away an entire part of the gameplay, you end up with other limitations.  With no real options for much of a forward base, getting units into the field can be more of a challenge, as this often means your troops have limited options for reaching a battle beyond slowly trudging their way from a base on the edge of the map.  This becomes all the more problematic due to the fact that, like CoH but unlike any other entries in the series, troops cannot be reinforced in the field – instead, they must retreat back to a reinforcement point (read: that base on the edge of the map) to replenish their squads.  This means that if a squad loses more than one member, its progress is completely halted, and it must flee back to base, instead of being able to reinforce and press on.  While this is perhaps more realistic, it’s also much less fun, and means that a single misstep can much more easily turn into a complete rout.  Additionally, having no forward bases means that there’s no place to run and hunker down to reinforce and delay an enemy onslaught while you bring your own forces to bear.  Losing this strategic ability to balance a set of bases means that the focus becomes much more on “rushing” gameplay, which makes for fast but less satisfying matches.

Also making an appearance from CoH are the cover, suppression and pinning systems, which are just as much of a pain then as they are now.  Cover is spotty, and doesn’t always work all that well, and the suppression mechanic, supposedly a substitute for the morale system of the previous games, makes things much more difficult, and drastically shifts the unit balance of power from previous games.  Beforehand, a hero unit could quite easily put paid to some of the lower-level vehicles and most groups of basic infantry, and then heal up to do something else – the Tau commander, when upgraded sufficiently, was capable of taking out all but the most high-level equipment on a one-to-one basis.  Now, thanks to suppression, a hero unit can get pinned and annihilated by a basic, low-level troop carrier with a mounted machinegun.  And while, theoretically, infantry squads could go up against vehicles, the suppression mechanic makes that all but impossible to do – vehicles now easily eat through most basic infantry squads, meaning that in combat, vehicle must be met for vehicle to have any chance of survival.

And, to complete the gameplay-annoyance trifecta, targeting arcs are back.  Turrets, machinegun squads, and artillery all have that pesky preset arc of fire, beyond which they are useless, or must fold up/fold down to move their equipment.  Again, here, you can see that we’re talking about basic CoH units, with the only difference being a different set of graphics, a wholesale port of an existing game, and a wholesale departure from the unit gameplay of the first series.  Sure, heavy infantry in the first game took some setup time before opening fire, but in the new game, the wait is twice as long, and comes with each setup/move cycle.  Also, unlike in the other games, the heavy weapons can’t turn outside of their arc, making it trivially easy to flank any sort of heavy weapons unit (especially since the unit AI just gives up on trying to set up the weapon if the enemy gets too close).  

Now, admittedly, I’ve mostly played with the Space Marines at this point, and it’s possible that some of the other factions have mechanics that are at least a bit different.  However, with the Marines, it’s hard not to see a direct correlation between the Allied units in CoH and the units present in this beta, with nearly identical gameplay features.  Given the underlying mechanics, I don’t have much hope for the other factions (with the possible exception of the tyrranids – melee attacks work just fine regardless of cover).

Another issue is that the gameplay has been modified significantly in terms of resource allocation.  Again, switching almost entirely to the CoH system at the expense of the traditional game mechanics, each and every resource is based solely on capture points – instead of building power generators, power points are captured along with strategic points.  However, power points can be (somewhat) fortified with additional power plants.  Listening posts do not seem to make a comeback in this game – a strategic point (or requisition point) is held only until an enemy squad happens to walk up to it.  To my knowledge, there is no way to fortify these points at all, which means that unless you spread your forces painfully thin to cover all your resource points, all it takes is one enemy scout squad to quickly turn the point over to the enemy.  This leads to either a spread-out force trying to protect everything, which then becomes vulnerable to a concentrated enemy spearhead, or a constant game of whack-a-mole, with units running back and forth repeatedly capturing and uncapturing various strategic points.  In previous games, such points served as important early-warning structures that could distract an enemy in time for you to redistribute your forces – now, they fall so quickly that maintaining a useful intelligence view of the map becomes a difficult task indeed.  Plus, the cat-and-mouse mechanic results in units chasing each other around, never being able to truly engage, but only meeting midway as they crisscross yet again to uncapture each other’s strategic points.  I literally fought a skirmish in which my hero and the enemy hero walked back and forth, repeatedly uncapturing and recapturing each other’s victory points, because to stay and force a decisive confrontation would have led to the enemy point being in operation long enough to potentially win the game.  And so, instead of fighting, it was a giant game of wandering back and forth, holding the points just long enough to score a not-particularly-enthusiastic victory.

What can I say?  The original Warhammer 40K series was fun to play because of its unique mechanics.  CoH kept some of those mechanics, while drastically changing others to be more “realistic and tactical,” which led to the game being much less fun, and demonstrating that a Warhammer 40K RTS is much different than a CoH RTS.  Because of this, streamlined gameplay or not, simply dumping the CoH mechanics into a new Warhammer game feels like something of a betrayal, and it certainly means that people who are pleased with the usual Warhammer RTS gameplay style will be in for a rude awakening, and even those who prefer the CoH style of battle (although I can’t imagine why you would, unless you derive joy in sneaking up on units that are too dumb to turn around) will find that things are a bit different.  For me, though, the traditional style of play is missing, and painfully so.

However, that being said, the game still manages to be fun – at least, much more fun than CoH ever seemed to be.  The fun, however, is based entirely on fast-paced gameplay, and is less enjoyable for the type of player (like me) that likes to do a bit of turtling, or at least building up a presence, with forward bases and the like.  It’s like asking a contemplative chessmaster to compete in speed chess – they can probably do it, but it’s not as much fun, as it feels like you’re constantly scrambling to put out fires and stay on top of things, rather than building up and calmly planning your next strategic move.  

In a sense, the only reason that Warhammer II is a more enjoyable game than CoH is that, while it keeps a number of annoying mechanics, it strips away most everything else, making the game all about action and on-the-fly strategy.  While that is, perhaps, somewhat innovative in terms of standard RTS play, it ends up feeling too bare-bones, too stripped-away from how Warhammer RTS games ought to be.  So while I can’t bring myself to like it, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it, either.  It’s a mixed bag, to be sure – I couldn’t tear myself away from the matches that I played, but I’m weary as to how the mechanic will play out in an actual single-player campaign, as opposed to a one-shot online skirmish.  

So, based on everything laid out so far, my views on the multiplayer preview of Warhammer II: the graphics are nice, the gameplay is fast, although quite tough, and that, overall, the game borrows far too many less-than-helpful “tactical” conventions from Company of Heroes, advancements which, in my mind, are anything but, and disrupt the usual style of gameplay present in the earlier games in a series.  In short, it’s worth a look, but try the beta carefully and see if the radically different play style leaves the game as something you still want to play.  Overall, with this game, the enjoyment is winning out over the frustration – but only just barely.