I'm in the the trenches at the Company of Heroes Online demonstration here at Gamescom. It's on course for a spring release next year, and I'm finding out lots about the business model and how the free elements will stack against the paid bits, as well as getting a good impression of the game itself.
From the top, then: You can create your own character - customise his appearance and give him a nice smart haircut, then name him. Matches jump off from a lobby system where you chat with other generals, put them on your friends list, and ask if they fancy a fight - a bit like real war.
You can play against your friends, skirmish with the computer, or join a ranked match against an appropriately skilled and levelled opponent. You can have as many as four players on each team.
As you battle, as well as XP, you'll earn upgrade points for your Commander. You can spend those on improving your abilities - more planes, higher payload, better damage, etc.
You unlock a new ability every six levels. For example, you can unlock the ability to fly in smoke grenades that confer an increased resistance against suppression and let you take less damage. It acts like instant cover, or a welcome escape route for pinned down troops.
These abilities are lined up like an RPG action bar across the bottom of the screen. You can summon bombing runs, drop in troops, strafe infantry with your aircraft.
You can also customise your army's loadout by adding army items: jeeps, tanks, better infantry armour, rifles for engineers, etc. Because you're limited to eight of them, these items will reflect your play style rather than progress you towards the same ideal as everyone else.
In addition, you can build hero units. They're built out of standard buildings and have more unlocks than your regular army. Hero units level up until they have everything unlocked, and if you keep them alive, you can use them in the next game. From infantry with flamethrowers, a fast jeep that can call in artillery strikes, to the Sherman Ace tank (faster, stronger, better tank), hero units stand out from the crowd.
Not that your soldiers are useless idiots. They behave intelligently - as they come under fire, they dive for cover. Squads of soldiers work well together, leapfrogging to gain ground and providing covering fire.
The battlefield is also dynamic. You can destroy or hide behind anything - walls, hedges, buildings, telephone polls, trees, the works. You can even hide in craters left by artillery (which is a small commiseration for having your bunkers bashed in).
Money will make things convenient, not more powerful. You're not going to get the "I Win" tank. When it ships, you'll be able to buy upgrades with cash or just play - whether you win or lose, you'll level up and you'll get in-game cash (or "supply") to spend on items. Some items are drop only - they can't be bought. Your premium money will get you more character slots and upgrades that you'd get by grinding anyway.