This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK, just before the game's publisher THQ caught fire, fell over and sank into a swamp. As far as we know, Company of Heroes is still set for release under new publisher Sega, but no date has been confirmed.
Severe hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature drops below 28 °C. Human blood freezes solid at -0.5 °C. Soviet and German forces fighting on the Eastern Front faced temperatures that fluctuated between -10 and -30 °C.
Over the years, the Russian cold season has taken the lives of so many would-be invaders that it has earned the nickname 'General Winter'. The truth, however, is that it is an indiscriminate killer.
The devastating winters of World War II are a cornerstone of Company of Heroes 2's singleplayer campaign. Missions spanning four years parachute players into different battalions participating in some of the most famously frigid encounters on the Eastern Front, from Operation Barbarrossa to the gates of Berlin. What Relic hadn't revealed, until now, is that the winter that devastated armies in 1941 will also appear in CoH's heavily expanded multiplayer.
I met General Winter for the first time ten minutes into a 3v3 battle on a snowy skirmish map. My Russian conscripts were huddled around a resource point, taking cover behind some half dead shrubbery. The enemy had garrisoned a point across a frozen river and we were playing a game of mortar tennis over the glass. The fragile ice was taking a beating from stray shells, and neither of us felt like charging our men over that exposed plane.
CoH2 immediately feels as tense and ferocious as the original. Shells shatter the earth, automatic fire echoes across the map and men die, writhing in the snow. Relic excel at battlefield ambience, but beneath the flash and shrapnel, the game has always been about thoughtful, ordered decision making. The rock-paper-scissors relationships that prop up strategic conflict in every RTS are less decisive here. Encounters last minutes, not seconds. There's always time to retreat and reform.
So I prepare for a flanking attack. I requisition a half-track and call in a sniper team. In CoH2, Russian snipers can shoot from the open trailers of their troop transports. The combination of mobility and precision at a distance should be devastating, but their potential is curbed by Relic's 'true-sight' fog of war. If your troops don't have direct sight of an area, there's no way of knowing what's there.
I need spotters. I equip a unit of engineers with a flamethrower, move them tentatively across a bridge and shuffle them along the shore towards the enemy position. Their sight lines peel back the fog of war as they march. There's no sign of the mortar team harassing my control point. I find something much worse: a heavy machinegun team holed up in a bunker.
They spot my engineers immediately and their weapon roars to life. It's a terrifying din. Relic hired a top sound engineering company to fire off and record working versions of the WWII weapons the troops are carrying. My engineers respond by dousing the bunker in flame. The fire spreads to the surrounding trees. Before they can do much more, my engineers are pinned. They hit the deck and start crawling, terrified, out onto the ice. Suddenly, a message flashes up on screen. A blizzard is coming.
They're doomed, but as they crawl away from the bunker they gain line of sight to the point. There! Three Germans crouched around a mortar cannon. It's the moment my snipers have been waiting for. From the back of a vehicle on the other side of the river a sharpshooter takes aim and lances one of the German gunners in the forehead. My engineers continue to crawl away. The sniper reloads and takes out another mortar crew member. One left. I eagerly listen for the crack of a third bolt, but the last engineer dies moments before my snipers can finish the job. The point falls into darkness once more, then the blizzard strikes.