Typically the player assumes the role of an omnipotent all seeing Colonel as he throws his troops against the other side. It's a numbers game were you expect losses and as long as you reach your objectives they're expendable.
The losses are part of the game, and as long as we are winning we can't worry about that. But Company of Heroes 2 takes it one step further. The troops get scared, writhing in pain when hit by bullets. There's a constant desire to call for retreat as every mortar round decimates our troops. You almost feel the anxiety hammer into your chest.
The game follows the same formula as its predecessor, but this time moves to the Eastern front. The heroes are the Russians, committed to resist the onslaught of the German army. Unlike the first Company of Heroes, in which we played the role of an invading force in unknown territory, in this sequel the Russians have the home advantage. It is, therefore, a defensive war rather than a war of aggression, and it's very noticeable by the many defensive tools that are on offer.
The version we tested is a multiplayer alpha build. We immediately notice small improvements. The troops have the ability to launch Molotov cocktails, can join together when they are decimated by the enemy and, most importantly, show us what they see.
In this sequel, in fact, the devs introduced a feature called True Sight, which gets rid of the old "Fog of War" to return a field of view that takes into account not only the conquered territory, but also the obstacles. More than once we happened to lead a troop to a point to conquer, only to see a bunch of enemies appear out of nowhere and literally tear apart our men. This aspect creates an element of realistic surprise, which can be exploited by players as well as their opponents. A more realistic fog of war that takes some getting used to.
Something we noticed when we first saw the game in action at last year's Gamescom is how weather affects the action. The icy cold of Russia has a tremendous impact on our troops, who can die froze if not properly managed. In addition, the snow and ice affect the movement of people and vehicles, adding another variable to the battlefield. A storm, for example, can pin opponents and allies, and every corner on the field can become a death trap when surrounded by enemies. Retreat is sometimes a useless option. Conversely, we can take advantage of the same conditions to eliminate any enemies that dare tread across our lines at the wrong time.
When engaging in the multiplayer mode, a 3 on 3 battle, it's important to communicate with the other players and to decide some roles. The only way to win, in fact, is to organise well-timed attacks, leading the way with light artillery and launching our cavalry troops supported by tanks. As in a real army, only through precise organisation will you be able to move into enemy territory.
From a technical point of view, despite the months that separate the game to launch (a period that, unfortunately, likely stands to be prolonged due to THQ's current state of affairs), the game holds some clear advances over its predecessor. It is not just the extraordinary weather engine that makes this game stand out, but wonderful animations of man and machine alike, as well as superlative fire and smoke effects and collapsing buildings. An izba blowing up in the steppe has never looked so good.
Last August, Company of Heroes 2 surprised us. After this extended test with the alpha version, we are even more eager to dig in. We hope that the splendid multiplayer will be supported by an exciting campaign. If it delivers a campaign that surpasses the one in the original game, we're likely dealing with one of the finest strategy games of all time.