The Russian front in winter is a cold, desolate, unforgiving landscape. Armies have fallen by underestimating the bitter, bone-chilling conditions of the country's northern regions. Company of Heroes 2 puts this experience in stark relief by making the environment itself as dangerous as any enemy army, and looks to give the real-time strategy genre a fresh dose of realism.
In my hands-on time with a demo at PAX, the poor weather was a constant factor in survival. A combat engineer became indispensable, not just for constructing standard buildings, but for scouting ahead to build fires at key points on the map. Without precious fire, the infantry would freeze to death -- once an infantry unit's gauge drops below a certain point, they'll die without a single bullet fired.
Vehicles and buildings can provide relief from the cold. Even finding some cover will keep land units from dropping further, but it won't warm them up either. The most complex army strategies will fail without a basic handle on survival tactics.
The cold conditions also impact movement in some key ways. Thick snow will impact infantry units, forcing them to trudge through slowly. Frozen-over lake beds provide a thick layer of ice that can be stepped across easily enough with lighter units, but might crack under the weight of a heavy tank. In fact, leading enemies into cracked ice is a perfectly cruel way to use the environment to your advantage.
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The new "True Sight" mechanic, which creates a dynamic fog of war based on environmental hazards, adds another wrinkle. Almost anything can contribute to obscuring your vision of the battlefield, from buildings to weather patterns to forests. This adds untold complexity to the game, as positioning and ambushes become vitally important.
Despite the myriad of changes, the core of the game is still Company of Heroes through and through. The game carries its own methodical pace that is more about careful management than vast, overwhelming armies. The snowy landscape gives more context to the limited resources, but Company of Heroes 2 still feels like it has its own comfortable niche in the RTS space.
I lost my sample match. The combination of the cold, push and pull between other armies, and cracking icy lake bed ultimately overwhelmed my best efforts. I would have preferred a win, but I can't feel too much shame about losing. In real life, much more accomplished strategists than I have failed at the same goal. Russia is not a welcoming front, and Company of Heroes 2 appears to put that strategic mettle to the test.