The physical feature that most impressed players of the first great Company of Heroes real-time strategy game was the earth. In combat, under the impact of a grenade or tank shell, it cratered.
There were many other things to like in the first CoH, which is one of the best-reviewed video games of all time. It was a smarter, smaller-scale game of real-time World War II battles, one that humanized its few player-controlled units and unfurled a dynamic array of combat opportunities.
The earth in Company of Heroes 2 is impressive. What's more notable now is its fire and snow. Those two features that will decide life and death in the early 2013 PC game's setting, the cold hell of World War II's Eastern Front.
In Santa Monica last week, I played a small portion of Relic's new Company of Heroes during a showcase by game publisher THQ. I played as the Russians, as all players of the game's campaign will. Our mission was near the town of Polunino, my small squad set up, for demo purposes, with infinite troop resupplies — for experimentation, of course. We had to walk a road, clear a house, engage a German tank across an icy lake.
The snow is everywhere in this game. That's expected. We're in Russia, after all. What Relic will do with the snow might impress you. It will accumulate. It will pile onto disabled tanks and it will cover the tracks of your enemies, tracks that may differ across unit types. Heavy snow will slow the infantry who wade through it. The snow will scatter when pounded with an explosion. It will melt away when it is met with flame.
Fire. It's the other stand-out. Russian engineers in your squad bring flamethrowers to the fight against Germans who have occupied so many wooden Russian buildings. The core tactic here is challenging but obvious: approach a house full of Germans; suppress the ones firing from the windows; bring the flamethrower closer; burn it all down. The spread and control of fire will be a key to victory.
The pre-E3 demo of Company of Heroes 2 that I played highlighted a few other features in the sequel: 1) smarter troop intelligence that sends men to the proper side of cover; 2) a vaulting mechanic that lets soldiers hurdle cover (if commanded )instead of only ever running around it; 3) enemy armour, mainly tanks, that can be disabled and then commandeered mid-battle, introducing the new option to try to leave enemy armour intact enough to use; 4) a new line-of-sight system that looks less like the radial clearing of most games' fog of war and more like the spreading of an amoeba of clarity, unfogging only the parts of the map that the troops on the ground can see (In real-time, that amoeba shape changes as smoke drifts past a previously open line of sight, blocking it for the moment; the game screen fully unfogs, briefly, during an aerial strike.
My own experience with Company of Heroes is limited. I know it mostly vicariously from the friends and colleagues who have fallen hard for the game. It was a game that rewarded tactics, not just rapid clicking. I see no changed direction with the new one. This sequel appears to be for the existing fans, a game made to convert those who will come to it. It's not budging, except to head east to the bloodiest side of a brutal war.