I'm impressed. The transformation of Company of Heroes (one of my favorite RTSes ever) into the free-to-play Company of Heroes Online has not neutered the game at all. Relic hasn't built a dumbed-down casual version a la Battlefield Heroes, and they haven't stripped out a single unit or map in order to sell it to us piece by piece.
On the contrary, they've started with the highly polished Company of Heroes and added more, all of which can be earned through playing rather than by opening your wallet. The changes they've made to add a metagame with persistent upgrades and hero unit leveling are looking good so far. I got a little time with the game on the show floor, and my initial observation is that it's almost exactly like playing Company of Heroes, which is among the highest compliments I can pay to an RTS.(opens in new tab)
The biggest difference is what you do before you start: I was given a dizzying selection of upgrade options that I could equip for the next battle. In the real game you'll have to earn these through victories, when some of them can drop like loot. They weren't new units, but rather bonuses to existing units: an upgrade for my Engineers that equipped them with the same weapons as riflemen, making them just as powerful (but not as durable) as basic troops in a fight.
I also equipped old-school CoH commander abilities like the bombing run and AT gun para-drop, plus a couple of new ones: smoke drop and decoy drop, a hilarious and useful ability that drops dummies on parachutes onto the field to draw enemy fire. Each of those abilities can be upgraded through experience, giving you more bombs per bombing run or more frequent uses, or making your dropped dummies explode on impact to deal damage or temporarily disable enemy weapons.
I also got to equip some hero units, like the Charismatic Engineer. He initially behaves just like a normal Engineer but with a four-man squad instead of three. As you use a hero he'll level up and gain new abilities, and his level is persistent, so he'll get stronger the more games you play. There are several variants of hero for each unit type, and you can only have one of each type of hero on the field at a time. I also equipped a Heroic Sniper and a Heroic AT Gun, but their abilities had yet to manifest themselves at level one. The Ace Sherman hero unit, one of the most powerful in the game, isn't for sale. It can only be earned through playing.
When you load a match it shows you what the enemy has equipped, so you're never surprised - unless it's a feint. I'm told that at the Relic offices, they sometimes put all their upgrades on one unit to make the enemy think they're going to face lots of that type, then they build a different unit to catch them off guard. I was playing against a punching-bag easy AI, though, so I was free to play with the new stuff while it slowly built up an attack.(opens in new tab)
It was instantly familiar, since all of the tech trees are identical to CoH, and all the units behave the same way. The UI had a few tweaks, like new icons for the hero units, a display that shows what upgrades are affecting the selected unit, and the XP point counter now represents what level you are within the match - that's how Relic keeps players from calling in airstrikes in the opening moments of an game.
Owners of the three CoH games will be able to enter their serial numbers to earn some bonus rewards - a little thank you from Relic to us for supporting their games. You're welcome, guys. Keep 'em coming.