A howling wind blows across the battlefield and a snowstorm descends. Blizzards reduce visibility and movement speed for troops and vehicles. They also kill exposed units stone dead if they're caught in the open. Soldiers can stay warm by sheltering within range of pyres or hiding inside a building or a troop transport. A small thermometer icon ticks down rapidly if they're caught in a perilous position. Once that expires, they lie down and turn into gruesome ice lollies.
Relic are still fine-tuning the frequency of blizzards. Around three or four struck in each multiplayer game I played, but in the final game this may be reduced to the possibility of one per battle. They provide a moment to take stock of the field and reorder your battle lines. Moving men is risky, but vehicles are fair game. I click on my sniper halftrack and send it ploughing over the bridge along the western flank my engineers braved.
After a minute or two the blizzard clears. The fog of war relents, giving my snipers a new angle on the elusive final mortar soldier. There's a tremendous snap, as though God has stepped on a twig. One sniper slug ends the war for that lone mortar crewman, but even as he falls I hear the grumbling of a monstrous engine. A German tank rolls into view. Oh, balls.
The skirmish represents much of what makes Company of Heroes feel unique. StarCraft II's base assault battles thrive on hard maths, precise timing and finger dexterity. CoH's control points bring the fight into the field. Victory is earned through smart unit positioning and mastery of the map. Your tactics aren't tied to build orders or optimal resource flow, but formed in response to the topography of a crooked wall, the positioning of a tower or the curve of a river.
Many of CoH2's new features are designed to make those all-important battlefields more dynamic. The number of resource points on each map has been gramatically reduced to make each sector matter more. In the original, points were scattered liberally across fields and roads. Here they sit at the heart of strategically useful zones. You'll find one on top of a hill by a watchtower that overlooks a highway. You'll find another in a copse near a river – the perfect hiding place for a mortar team. Additional munition and fuel resource points provide tempting secondary objectives that stretch the front line.
Relic are approaching Company of Heroes 2 with the benefit of six years feedback from fans of the first game. This has prompted much fine tuning. Tanks have a 'reverse' command that makes it easier for them to retreat and keep their heavy forward armour facing the enemy. The slimmer interface offers instant access to all your troops in a list on the right side of the screen. The Wermacht, playable only in multiplayer, are now faster and more flexible to represent their status as the more organised and well-drilled force.
The new maps have been designed to cater to differing tastes. Open field maps reminiscent of CoH 1's Angoville Farms should provide a good arena for 2v2 multiplayer battles, but Relic know that many players enjoyed facing off with friends against the AI. Tight maps with plenty of choke points have been created for those that love a good 'comp stomp'. The AI has been improved so that it will no longer slip small units behind your battle line to 'back cap' a useless patch of territory. And there's been another significant AI change, as multiplayer lead designer, Matthew Berger, explained.
“We've also actually stopped it from cheating,” he said. “The AI in CoH 1, to achieve a certain level of difficulty, actually cheated a lot, to the point where it got extra resources, its units moved faster, they shot faster at the higher levels of difficulty.
“We've really clamped down a lot on that and I believe that right now the only thing we do is, on the highest level of difficulty it has a little bit of a resource boost and on the lowest level of difficulty it has a little bit of a resource hindrance.”