Company of Heroes has always had its feet firmly planted in recreating real events from the Second World War, focussing on the Battle of Normandy in the first game, before moving on to other major military campaigns like Operation Market Garden in its standalone expansions. Company of Heroes 2 turned its gaze to the war on the Eastern Front, but Relic have returned to the Western Front for its expansions.
Following on from the multiplayer focussed Eastern Front Armies, Ardennes Assault places you in control of the predominantly American forces fighting the Battle of the Bulge, and for the first time allows you to take command of the overall military campaign with elements of unit persistence carrying over from battle to battle.
Having had hands on time with the game, about you can read more in our preview from yesterday, we sat down with Mitch Lagran, the Campaign Lead on Ardennes Assault, to chat about the new direction in which Relic are pushing.
TSA: One of the things brought up during the presentation was that this was inspired by the Battle of the Bulge, but what do you mean when you say that?
Mitch Lagran: So, we’re really trying to push giving the player choice and agency over their own campaign experience. Obviously when you do that you can’t tie yourself directly to history, because you’re giving the player the ability to affect how it turns out.
So the reason for saying “inspired by” is because we really are inspired by the history of the events. We wanted to remain authentic to it and capture the essence of what the Battle of the Bulge was, but we didn’t want to tell the exact events as they happened. We wanted the player to kind of get in there and have their own ability to affect those events and create their own path through the Battle of the Bulge.
TSA: That’s something really quite new for Company of Heroes and, I think, quite new for Relic’s strategy games in general too?
Mitch: Yeah, we did some stuff with Dawn of War 2 a little bit, but for Company of Heroes this is brand new, and even for Relic we’re doing a lot of stuff here that we’ve never done before. We’re sort of trying to push the envelope, I guess, in terms of how we do a campaign.
TSA: Giving people the ability to determine their own fate hinges around the metamap, but just quickly explain how that actually works?
Mitch: Basically, after the Battle of the Bulge starts, the player is given almost full range to go in, take whichever of the three companies they have on the map into whichever of the missions they want and play the missions in whichever order they feel is best. In doing so, when you win a mission, the Germans from that area reinforce nearby German strongholds, so those missions become more difficult as you do it.
You can cut those off by taking out missions and gaining Allied territory, or by positioning your companies cleverly.
TSA: Are you able to completely cut off an enemy group and wipe them out in a single blow?
Mitch: If you’re lucky! You don’t know where they’re going to try to retreat, so you’re going to have to be clever about it.
You could cut them off using lines, so capturing specific territories and you could cut them off from other German territories so there’s nowhere for them to go. So that’s where a lot of the strategy come from, because if you don’t do that effectively, then you’re basically going to get a whole bunch of enemy strength 5 missions very early on.
That’s really going to eat into your forces as you play them.
TSA: Yeah, and one thing I’ve noticed is that as areas are reinforced, it’s not just a simple case of there being more troops, the extra enemy strength could be stuff like tank traps, more enemy vehicles or a counter attack. So it’s adding more of a variation, rather than just difficulty?
Mitch: Yeah, so we really wanted to pay attention to that and a big part of it is that we wanted players to be able to go and get information on the missions and understand how their decisions are affecting that.
So, understanding what’s going to happen if I let this mission get up to enemy strength 5 is important, especially depending on how I’m upgrading my own units. So if I see that, “Oh, crap, that mission’s going to have a King Tiger!” at enemy strength 5.
TSA: Not the damned King Tigers! [Laughs]
Mitch: [Laughs] Yeah, so it can have some pretty dire effects if you’re not paying attention.
It’s custom for every mission, so they all have their own enemy strength line that comes out of them. So yeah, it’s something that’s kind of new for us and it’s interesting because it changes up how the missions play quite a bit.
TSA: You’ve also got the three different companies and their specialisations. Is it a case where one might be able to tackle a certain mission better than another?
Mitch: That’s also something that we’re trying to encourage, understanding how the different companies play. Then you can affect that as well, in how you upgrade the specific companies and in gaining new specialisations and units.
But understanding how each company plays and what each mission is going to play like, you might want to make sure you’re taking a company that’s specced out for good defence into a mission that’s heavily about defending a specific area. We try to have a lot of variety in our different mission types, so you can understand what they are and make sure you’re making the right decisions for that.
TSA: Another factor’s obviously going to be which company’s still up to fighting strength, because there’s a form of unit persistence and veterancy. Seeing as you’re always needing to purchase units throughout a battle, how does that work?
Mitch: So for veterancy, every time you vet up a unit, it counts towards your overall company veterancy. You can vet up in game and it then persists through.
At the different vet levels, you get different bonuses, so when you’re at vet level 1 for instance, you now have a chance of, whenever you build a unit, them coming in at vet level 1. That increases up to vet level 3, as you level the companies up.
TSA: Right, and is this just a chance of it happening?
Mitch: Yeah, exactly. In addition to that, you get bonuses in resource income as you vet up, as well as different starting units. So that means you’ll have better set of units at the start of the mission and the ability to build more units with the increased income and stuff.
But you can also reduce in company strength, which is ultimately a health bar for your company and you can lose your companies if you let that run out. In the mission, if you see your company hit zero strength, you’re going to be unable to build any more units. All of your units are already fielded, there’s nobody left to bring to the front lines, so that can be a very dire situation.
You’re not dead when you hit zero, you’re dead when you hit zero and you can’t get out of the mission safely. You still always have a chance to get back out, but can you can lose a company permanently with that, and that’s something that was really important to us, making sure there was consequence to what the player does and how well you’re doing.
TSA: So it’s really a case of picking a difficulty that’s good for you, or you’re not making it out!
Mitch: Yeah! [laughs] You do want to pay attention to that. We’re trying to very carefully tune our difficulties and make sure we’re communicating that so players can choose the right one and enjoy the experience.
TSA: Another factor in trying to make the companies feel distinct is the different commanding officers, and going back to the inspirations, these feel like archetypal characters. Is that the case, or are they actual people?
Mitch: Yeah, they’re fictional characters, and they’re somewhat archetypal, I guess. Each of them has their own personality…
TSA: Yeah, but I mean you’ve got the young buck, the WWI vet, the guy following in his family’s military tradition. They’re easy to see as stereotypes, almost, but how do you give them a personality?
Mitch: To start off, in mission they’ll be voicing dialogue and there’s actually quite a bit of dialogue which we recorded [a few weeks ago] that is going in. So you can hear them there as well as several other points in mission. Then after every mission, they kind of give you a report of what happened, and that report is customised to what you do. So it’s sort of made up of pieces that are put together to make this custom report.
As you play, and the longer that you play through, you’ll see them evolve in how they react to certain situations. So when you lose a lot of units, they’re going to react in a very different way at the start of the game compared to later on.
TSA: “What were you thinking?” [laughs]
Mitch: There’s some lines a bit like that, where they can be, “Oh my God, we gotta do better here. C’mon!”
It’s really about trying to react to what the player’s done, give them feedback on it and to show a progression in the personality of the character. A lot of that comes across in those post-mission reports, and you also get a battle log so you can see the events that happened to each of them and kind of look back on their history.
TSA: Finally, I think it’s quite interesting that you don’t have multiplayer as part of this expansion. It’s a standalone expansion, but it seems that you’ve taken the units from Western Front Armies and put them into a different scenarios?
Mitch: Yeah, so we wanted to give ourselves some breathing room in creating this, just because it’s quite difficult to create a campaign and single player content with armies that are still under development. They’re still getting balanced, they’re still getting tuned and a lot of stuff like that.
So we sort of split it off to give ourselves a little breathing room so we could create a better campaign, and it’s also, you know, a very big and separate thing compared to what we’ve done before and it gave us the opportunity to do that.
There’s definitely some important decisions that we made there…
At this point, Brand Manager Alex Price, who’d be leaning up against a nearby tank chipped in to lend us his thoughts on the divide.
Alex Price: We actually observed that there’s two quite distinct audiences actually, in terms of their player preference. We also wanted to cater to our multiplayer audience much earlier, so this afforded us the opportunity to immediately deliver that multiplayer content that they were crying out for.
In noticing these two disparate audiences, we thought, well, to Mitch’s point, it gave us breathing space, but it allowed us to not only create an amazing campaign and also innovate, to add the companies, to add the meta map. So it was actually quite a deliberate move but mostly in responding to what we thought the players really wanted.
We noticed those two disparate audiences but, and Mitch can talk to this, we actually actually introduced some multiplayer aspects to this, in order to try and reconverge them – specifically maps and also the balance of those armies are very much brought back to the campaign.
Mitch: Yeah, that’s an important point. Partly because those armies were finished an balanced out, this campaign actually plays alot closer to multiplayer. We noticed in the data on our previous campaigns that there’s sort of a change in play style between multiplayer and single player, which was a barrier for a lot of players.
So we tried to use that to create a more contiguous experience with the multiplayer in this campaign with things like opening up your base buildings for every mission, and giving you balance that’s a lot closer to the multiplayer was also important.
Thanks to Mitch (and we mustn’t forget Alex too) for taking the time to chat to us about Ardennes Assault. You can also check out our preview from yesterday evening, ahead of its release next month.
This interview and our time with Ardennes Assault came from a trip to the Bastogne Barracks that were a cornerstone of the defensive battle. Travel was provided by Sega and I got to see some actual tanks, like the one that Alex was leaning on.