Whether you're facing a human or AI opponent, every completed game will earn experience for your Company of Heroes 2 profile. Over the course of 20 levels you'll unlock a series of tweaks for Soviet and German forces. The commander skill trees that unlocked bombardments and special units over the course of a CoH1 battle have been replaced by 'Commanders'. Each offers a linear series of five mid-battle unlocks consisting of a mix of passive unit upgrades, bombardment abilities and special units. There are seven commanders for each army, which, once unlocked, can be combined into a set of three to take into battle. New vehicle skins based on authentic tank livery can also be used to customise each army.
As part of your profile loadout, you'll also be able to equip up to three 'intel bulletins' before battle. These are subtle passive abilities earned through Steam achievements, conveying minor boosts to your troops in the field. Berger explained how Relic want the system to work:
“If I really like to play with cover... I might get an intel bulletin that increases my cover bonus by 10%, or something like that. It'll be things like units take a little bit less damage in cover, units move a little bit faster, units do a little bit more damage against a certain type of vehicle. It's always going to be very slight.”
Commanders and intel bulletins feel like the last remnants of Relic's free-to-play experiment, Company of Heroes Online. Relic are still reluctant to talk about why that was shut down, but designer Ryan McGechaen voiced one of the most important lessons learned: “We learned people don't like pay-to-win. We don't want to allow people who have lots of money to have a leg up on people who don't want to spend a lot of money.”
Berger seconds this. “One thing that was very important for us is that if you unbox the game, and I've been playing for a hundred hours and have access to everything – if you're a better player than me you will beat me with your straight-out-of-the-box experience.”
If you're thinking that commanders, unit skins and intel bulletins provide the perfect opportunity for future DLC packs, then you're bang on the money. Relic have big plans for free and paid-for DLC additions after launch. Priced updates can be bought individually, or ahead of time with a one-time Commander Pass purchase similar to Battlefield 3's Premium edition.
New maps, skins and commanders are planned for multiplayer and a 'Theatre of War' mode will host standalone singleplayer scenarios. Game director Quinn Duffy describes it as “a great way for us to target little historical elements, a particular battle, or a particular time period and really dial into that experience.” These singleplayer scenarios don't even have to take place on the Eastern Front. “There's an opportunity to take this game just about anywhere,” said Quinn, cryptically.
Intel bulletins weren't in place when I played the multiplayer, which leaves me with a hint of trepidation. It's impossible to know how much or little those boosts will affect the action, and there's always a chance that a future DLC drop could inject imbalance or unfairness into the mix.
Relic are RTS developers of formidable experience, however, and the three or four hours I spent with the multiplayer was reassuring. This is no Dawn of War 2 experiment, it's an attempt to perfect the near-perfect and represent an aspect of WWII often glossed over in western media. Playing it reminded me why the original was such an important RTS. StarCraft II is about sport, Supreme Commander about spectacle, but Company of Heroes is about stories. Its little men are a detailed homage to a generation that faced off against unparalleled hardship. The death of three engineers under fire on a frozen river means more than the splattery demise of a billion Banelings ever will. Company of Heroes is back, and that's a great thing for PC gaming.