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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

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Company of Heroes

We're in the army now.

"Everyone involved in the D-Day landings sh*t their pants. And anyone who says they didn't is a liar."

So says a man who knows a lot about these things, being a D-Day veteran himself. Having left his home town in Massachusetts and headed for the battlefields of Europe, Howard Manoian decided to sign up as a paratrooper, despite the huge risks involved ("Why? Well, I worked out how many extra beers I could buy with the extra money").

Manoian was parachuted in to the small Normandy town of Sainte Mère-Église in the early hours of June 6th, 1944, as the campaign to liberate France from German occupation began. And it was during those dawn hours, as the future of Europe hung in the balance and a day that would change history began to unfold, that our hero sh*t his pants. "That's just an expression, of course, but yeah, I sh*t my pants," he explains.

"At least twice."

However, Manoian was able to conquer his fears, and the Germans, and Sainte Mère-Église became the first town in France to be liberated. And how he lived to tell the tale - specifically, to tell the tale at a press event for Company of Heroes, THQ's brand new World War II RTS game.

Which feels a bit weird, if you think about it too hard. In fact, the whole day has been a bit weird. It began with a flight across the channel in a big old Dakota transport plane, which is the most fun you can have while feeling a bit sick. Then it was into the tour bus and on to Sainte Mère-Église, where we were greeted with a slap-up lunch and a speech by the town's deputy mayor (the actual mayor is on holiday, he revealed, much to the disappointment of the assembled company).

And now here's this bloke who was involved in the liberation of this very town, and he's just told us how everyone in the war sh*t their pants, and a journalist from a lads mag is asking if Manoian could "tell us any funny stories about things that happened during the war, or some of your mates who died or something". Understandably, the reply is less than forthcoming.

The thing is, Manoian actually lived through it all. Unlike so many others. Unlike the 9,386 soldiers buried at the cemetry we'll be visiting later this afternoon. And here he is, speaking at an event that to promote a videogame which is billed as offering a totally realistic experience of war. An experience that's lots of fun. Having heard Manoian speak, seen the war memorials, and listened to the tour guide talk about what happened when the Germans came to her house, it's hard not to ask - is real war really all that much fun?

Death or glory

Sean Dunn reckons this sort of thing is 'cool'. He's got a point.

Here to answer that question is Sean Dunn, creative director on Company of Heroes. He begins: "Well, war movies are fun. Certainly we want to be as respectful to the historical significance of war as possible. We try not to glorify, but in all truth, we do glorify, via the visuals and the physics - explosions are cool, blowing stuff up is cool, things like that.

"It is a glorification of war, it is creating entertainment out of something that's absolutely horrific. But we try to take care where we can."

For starters, Dunn says, "It's not just about getting a bunch of units to go and kill the other guys." Each mission has been designed to give you a feeling of personal attachment to the soldiers, and motivation to keep them alive. "We give the player advantages for doing that. So it's not just this meat grinder where you're churning out soldiers and having them die."

COH follows the story of Able Company, a fictitious unit sent in to fight in one of the key battles of the Normandy campaign. The first mission begins with them arriving at Omaha beach, in scenes which will be familiar to anyone who's seen the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

Able Company is aboard a boat heading into land, waiting for the ramp to lower and the fighting to begin in earnest. As we learned from our tour guide earlier in the day, it was always the officers who stood at the front of the boats. And the average life expectancy of an officer, from the moment the ramp was lowered, was 32 seconds.

Sure enough, we've lost a few members of Able Company before the cutscene has even ended. Then it's straight into action - your first objective is to move your soldiers from the water's edge to the relative safety of the shingle further up the beach. And don't forget the engineers; you'll need to get them to safety, too, so you can order them to chuck satchel charges in the German bunkers, while other troops take out the machine gun nests.

Command and conquer

A good first rule of war: stay behind the tank.

One of the main things Relic wanted to achieve with COH, Dunn explains, was to make you feel like you're a real commander - you can take control of any soldier on the battlefield, working out strategies at both a basic and advanced level. But that doesn't mean you need to hold your troops' hands. If they're being fired upon, they'll take cover and fire back, regardless of whether or not you've told them to; if it all gets too much to handle, they'll retreat. Which enables you to manage the battle on a larger scale, of course.

But while COH may look like a traditional top-down RTS, there's a twist. At any point, you can zoom right in, close enough to see the leaves on the bush a soldier is hiding behind and the expression on his face. Relic is rather proud of this, it seems, as they believe they've solved a major problem with traditional RTS games.

"A lot of people don't put a lot of time into the visuals, because they're thinking, 'You're playing the game from up here, why do their faces have to be detailed?'," says Dunn.

"It was one of the things that was keeping more casual PC gamers away from RTS games, because they had to extrapolate so much from the lack of detail, the lack of reality in physics, the lack of destruction of the environment.

"I mean, how many times have you played Command & Conquer, and there's this beautiful battlefield, and nukes and artillery are flying around, and the dust settles... And it all looks exactly the same."

Things don't work like that in COH. For example, you can go round destroying all the buildings you like, but any changes you make to the environment are permanent. One mission sees you capturing a town, while the subsequent mission sees you defending it; any buildings you destroyed the first time round will still be rubble.

If you want to, you can avoid blowing stuff up as much as possible - the point, Dunn explains, is that the strategies you use, and therefore the way missions play out, are entirely up to you. "Your mission is maybe to take a town, but you can do that however you want. Our objectives are not 'Kill 300 guys', or 'Get as many dismemberments as possible.' You don't have to kill all of the enemy; you can secure a town without wiping out every single soldier on the map."

But of course, one of the key features of the game is the way that "You just get to blow sh*t up and it looks cool... Everything blows up real good, and everything burns real well." In fact, during the earlier presentation, Dunn interrupted a colleague discussing the importance of strategy and tactics to emphasise just that. So how would he describe the balance between strategy and, you know, blowing sh*t up in Company of Heroes?

Striking a balance

When things really kick off, you might find that brilliant strategy goes out the window a bit.

"We wanted to make sure that one did not predicate the other. We never wanted to make the decision to get rid of strategy so we could have better explosions, or vice versa," Dunn says. Right, so it's a 50-50 thing, then?

"I'd prefer to call it a 100-100 thing. When you're doing the strategy and the tactics, it doesn't mean the entertainment goes away."

For example, Dunn continues, let's say there's a heavy machine gun team inside a building. "It's really cool to watch them kick out the windows and set up the tripod, then throwing up dirt where rounds are missing, hitting sandbags or ricocheting off a tank.

"Then you might use a strategy of bringing up a squad of guys, putting them into heavy cover and getting that machine gun team to focus on them - while you sneak your other squad around, throw a satchel charge in the window and watch it blow out the side of the building," says Dunn, who is getting rather excited.

"There, you have all the strategy and tactics that you want, and you also get to see all the explosions, and the cool animations, and the texture detail and all that stuff at the same time."

For Dunn - and the rest of the COH team - it's all about creating a game that will "really bring RTS to the same level of entertainment value and usability and playability that a lot of the other gaming genres have," with a focus on "fixing on what we thought were some of the problems with RTS games."

"What sets Company of Heroes apart is the real soldiers, the real battlefields, the real war. We didn't want the player to be pulled out of the belief in the game."

So, Dunn says, unlike in so many other RTS titles, the soldiers don't move like autonomons; they have highly developed AI, and they look like real people. They become more effective the more they fight - as indicated by chevrons that appear above their heads - learning to fire faster, and with more accuracy. They even sound like real people, since hundreds of different lines of dialogue were recorded to ensure you won't hear the same soundbites over and over again. The game's narrator, it turns out, was himself a veteran of Omaha beach - a fact Relic didn't know when they hired him.

You can forget boring old resource collection, too, at least in the traditional sense. There's no gold or wood farming here; resources are divided into fuel, manpower and munitions, and you earn them by capturing territory. Each battlefield is divided into sectors of territory, and you can check a tactical map to get an overview of where resources are located. The idea, Dunn says, was to give players a "tactical sandbox" with the freedom to work out their own unique strategies.

History repeating

If you get bored of the traditional top-down view, you can zoom right in on the action.

Which is all very well. But the question is, after Call of Duty and Medal of Honour and Brothers in Arms and all the rest, does the world really need another World War II game?

Absolutely, reckons Dunn. "You know, we need a triple-A World War II RTS game. Yes, there have been lots, but a lot of them only sell 10,000 units, and only appeal to really hardcore historical buffs.

"Relic is a high quality studio, and we've had as many as 90 people at a time working on this product; it's our triple-A attempt at this genre. Just as games like Call of Duty reinvented the enjoyment of a World War II first-person shooter, and Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan proved with movies, if you make a good story with the setting, there's still so much you can do. I think that people will forgive the fact that it's another World War II game."

According to Dunn, Relic has invested a huge amount of energy, effort, money and passion in Company of Heroes. Not to mention time - the game's been in development for three and a half years now. And you can expect further instalments in the series, more than likely: "A lot of that depends on the success of this product, but we have a certain amount of confidence," Dunn says.

"I think it's pretty safe to say, if you look at what we've done for things like the Dawn of War franchise... This is new IP, and we're not interested in popping one product out and letting it die."

So, it sounds like Relic is in for the long haul with this one, and they're confident they've developed a game that offers as realistic an experience of war as you can get in the comfort of your own home. In fact, it's so realistic, Dunn says, "I don't know if I'd want to put the game in front of a veteran; I don't think they'd want it."

Game over

Howard Manoian lived through this sort of thing. So he probably doesn't need to play the game.

They wouldn't, by the sounds of it. Another journalist tells us he approached Howard Manoian after his speech at lunch, to be greeted with: "You're not going to ask me about this goddamn game, are you? I don't know sh*t about it."

Manoian, it seems, is not a fan of videogames. He prefers to spend his time chatting with the locals down the bar in Sainte Mère-Église, a town he liked so much he eventually made it his home, returning to Massachusetts only for a visit now and then.

As for the events of that June morning more than sixty years ago, Manoian has no hard feelings. In fact, he recently met up with a German soldier he caught trying to flee from Sainte Mère-Église with the help of a bicycle. Manoian, seeing the fear in the man's eyes alongside the knowledge that the war was over for Germany, let him continue on his way.

Decades later, the soldier tracked him down, and now they are friends. "I like the Germans," Manoian says, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief on behalf of the group of German journalists over in the corner.

"Except for those assholes the SS and the Luftwaffe. They're just dirt."