Interview: Relic’s creative manager Simon Watts spills the beans on taking Company of Heroes 2 to the next level, optimising for min/max PC specs and touches on Dawn of War III.
David Hollingworth and I were waving the Atomic flag at a recent THQ showcase where, among other games, we saw Metro: Last Light and Company of Heroes 2. As someone who never quite got around to finishing Metro 2033 but sunk countless hours into the Company of Heroes franchise, I drew the longer straw for some Skype-based interview time with two of the developers. First up was creative manager Simon Watts who, after some jokes about Skype webcam stripping, gave up a whole lot of information on what can be expected from the evolutionary step in the Company of Heroes franchise.
Atomic: Why did you guys go with the Soviets?
Simon: I think it was a really interesting part of the war that isn’t normally talked about. I think, whenever you talk about the Second World War, the western perception is always the D-Day landings, the Western Front, and the conflict in France and Germany. But the Soviet conflict was a huge part of the war; I believe the German Army actually lost 80 percent of their casualties on the Eastern Front.
Simon: So it felt like an incredibly interesting part of the war for us to tell a Company of Heroes story in.
Atomic: Part of the marketing to date has been labouring the point of the fact that Company of Heroes was a 90-percent-plus game. How do you improve on that?
Simon: One of the key strategies when the team sat down to create the first Company of Heroes, one of the goals they set themselves, was to be the highest rated strategy game of all time, which was something they achieved. The decision with Company of Heroes 2 was to not kind of go for a revolution, not completely change up the mechanics, but to make it better in every way that we can. So you’ll see with improvements to the engine: it’ll be improved graphics, improved destructibility, improved physics, improved AI, improved gameplay features. So we’re looking to make it bigger and better in every way.
Atomic: StarCraft II is still one of the biggest RTSs at the moment, and I think, personally speaking, Company of Heroes was kind of derivative from that formula because it got rid of this whole idea of just build a hundred tanks, rush, win (http://www.atomicmpc.com.au/Feature/246575,devolution-real-time-strategy.aspx). Are you a bit upset that Company of Heroes didn’t revolutionise the way that RTSs have advanced since then?
Simon: Well I think there are two types of RTS now, and we were kind of the first to really take the RTS into the strategic direction. I think that Company of Heroes and a game like StarCraft are very different types of RTS. And I feel, in our own way, we’ve sort of evolved the genre a little bit with the strategic gameplay; the reliance on using a small number of troops wisely, rather than controlling mass armies, and sort of including things like cover and some features that we’ve seen coming through in other games.
Atomic: We just saw a demo of Company of Heroes 2 before and it’s looking rather beautiful. Is this the RTS equivalent of Crysis? Are you expecting it to break people’s PCs?
Simon: The original Company of Heroes was obviously a graphically beautiful game. I think we were the first RTS game to have 10 fingers on our men, and we’re definitely looking to push things with [Company of Heroes 2], too. The demo you just saw is running on DirectX 9, but Company of Heroes 2 will support DirectX 11, so it will be even better looking when it comes out. But another thing the Essence 3 engine lets us do is optimise the game further than before, so we’re actually going to be able to optimise the game so it works on a wide variety of PCs, so you won’t need a supercomputer to be able to run it. And that’s something that’s really important to us. We don’t want to have players running on minimum specs, meaning everything is turned off, because we want them to be able to experience the True Sight system and deep snow, and features like that which would be traditionally turned off on minimum specs. So, for us, we really want to make sure that minimum spec for us includes all of the cool features, rather than it being a really toned down version of the game.
Atomic: If you do that super Company-of-Heroes-2-killing rig, though, what sort of stuff can you expect from the engine in that regard?
Simon: You’re going to be able to turn everything up to 11, and that’s going to be really great. For those people with high-end PCs, the game will look visually beautiful once you’re taking advantage of DirectX 11. We have really great features… you would have seen in the demo that all the vehicles leave tracks in the snow. The DirectX 11 version of that is there’s actual real deformation in the snow and the tracks will be shaped to vehicle tracks when you zoom in on them, rather than just being a flat-painted texture. There are some really cool features that DirectX 11 lets us add, so I think those people with the really powerful rigs that can turn everything up are really going to see a genre-defining game and, I think, for years to come, it will be something that, like the original game, people stick in their machines to show off how good their graphics card is or how powerful their rig is.
Atomic: Hell yes. I’m working heavily on the assumption that you’re going to have multiplayer—you’d be mad not to—can you tell me what armies will be included in multiplayer?
Simon: Yeah, we’re definitely having multiplayer, it’s obviously a really important part of Company of Heroes, and you would’ve noticed in the demo video that we did that we mentioned that we’ve been improving our skirmish AI as well, which is obviously incredibly popular for the multiplayer guys. We actually use skirmish AI in single player now, as well, so you’ll see that more and more throughout the game. Now, in terms of multiplayer, we’re not talking about all the details yet. Obviously, I can confirm that there’s the all new Red Army is going to feature, and you guys saw the Germans, but I can’t go into any other details on multiplayer, apart from that it will be all-new troops, and even the sort of returning army in the Germans, those guys will have tweaks. We’re talking about the Eastern Front German Army, which is very different from the Western Front Army. So you’re going up against different units and slightly different gameplay doctrines to what you did in the first game.