Deploying your troops in the field, seeing them move forward and take down the enemy gives you the illusion of conducting a war, and for many players this is enough.
When you try Company of Heroes for the first time, however, you immediately realize that there are many elements that have been deliberately ignored by many strategy games of the past. No games like Company of Heroes manage to portray the battlefield so smartly, with the troops that seem to have their own intelligence, and that don't blindly follow what is imposed by the player. In other words, one has the feeling of giving orders, but it feels that the squads are composed of human beings, and that they aren't just puppets in the hands of the player.
This, perhaps, is the secret to the success of Company of Heroes, which is still considered the best strategy game ever made on Metacritic. With the sequel, Relic has to face mission impossible: a battle against itself, trying to improve something that was almost perfect.
Yet, after just ten minutes with the game, you immediately realize that Relic is succeeding in this endeavour. Company of Heroes 2 is a game that tries to improve every aspect of the previous game by introducing some interesting elements.
The first thing you notice is the variation of the scenario: we have moved from the cosy French countryside of the first title, to the frost of the Eastern Front. Despite the fact that our soldiers are Russian, they still have to deal with the grip of frost. A problem that has determined the outcome of many battles since the days of Napoleon.
A scenario of this type could potentially have major impacts on gameplay. And, of course, Relic took the opportunity to add some aspects to the formula that turned out to be really impressive.
First of all, a cold climate implies the presence of snow. This accumulates in the woods, and makes movement difficult. Our men are plodding, and are forced to make slow progress in order to walk a few meters. In contrast, the roads are quite clean, but the enemy is often lurking in the most comfortable places. Bypassing the location of a gunner, then, can become a very complicated procedure.
Another element is the ice. On the one hand, you can wade a river by simply walking over it. On the other hand, it is necessary to pay attention to the thickness of the ice: a tank can cross a frozen river. Two tanks can overcome it, causing some cracks. But the third tank could plunge into the river, killing all its occupants.
Finally, the temperature is often more deadly than the German troops. Each unit is equipped with a thermometer: when the temperature is lowered, the units may become less effective, enter into hypothermia and eventually die. For this reason, the engineers can be sent ahead to build fire camps and to allow our soldiers to advance.
Another key element of this sequel is the detection system used by your enemies. In strategy games, as a rule, the enemies appear when they are in range. In Company of Heroes 2, however, the enemies are visible only under certain conditions. An enemy hiding behind a building or a tree can not be seen.
In this way, the developers introduce that element of surprise which is present in many battles: a relatively quiet area can be transformed into a living hell when you pass a house or walk over a fence. This is something unsettling for those accustomed to the classic strategy games, in which exploring means knowing the Battlefield. In Company of Heroes 2 you have never the certainty of being in danger or safety.
Finally, a note on the AI: for over an hour I got to play against some computer controlled enemies, discovering an unusual aggressiveness. I fought for ten minutes just to conquer a church where I could place a couple of snipers. I found myself attacking five German soldiers with about forty men, only to find out that these five Germans were used as bait, as there was a tank behind them that killed my whole team. "AI will kick your ass," said one developer. And so it was: I lost the battle, but I walked out very satisfied.
Company of Heroes 2 is doing everything to match, and perhaps exceed, the results of its predecessor and, in my opinion, the game is succeeding in it. The title is currently in pre-alpha, but it's already very promising. If an hour in the company of a bitter version of the game made me leave the room with a smile on my face, I just don't dare to imagine what it will happen when the title arrives on my desk next year.