It's safe to say that the original Company of Heroes was something of a game-changer, renewing interest in both the RTS genre and World War II titles alike. And given how many of the latter were kicking around at the time – Call of Duty and Medal of Honor were still stuck in the 1940s, if you remember – that was really no mean feat.
Relic has taken its sweet time with putting a sequel together – six years, in fact. The Canadian studio wanted to find a theatre of battle that would give the game a strong flavour, mindful of the fact that the D-Day Landings tend to dominate our visual imagination for the war. Relic's solution is to focus on The Eastern Front, a lesser-used scenario that was the backdrop for 13 of the 15 bloodiest battles in the whole conflict.
The presentation at THQ's recent showcase event was peppered with brutal statistics like these. Russian conscripts were often forced to fight with a single gun between four men, and at one point there were 90 million of them behind German lines. One in seven Soviet civilians died on The Eastern Front, with the overall death toll estimated to be 25.6m. These are sobering figures, to the extent that you start questioning the morality of turning such events into a game in the first place.
Still, there's no doubting Relic's dedication to authenticity; the developers even took audio recordings of bona fide WW2 weapons to ensure that the sound effects are spot-on. And while gameplay changes appear to be fairly subtle, the action looks to have the same tactical range that helped its predecessor to stand out. Even an apparently minor addition - like the fact that your troops can now mantle over low scenery – will offer fresh considerations when planning your approach to a given situation. Not all of the tweaks are helpful, either: if you try to make your infantry retreat from enemy fire they'll be gunned down by their peers, as the case was under Stalin's notorious Order No. 227.
For the time being, however, it's the game's appearance that's the real talking point. There's a long way to go between here and release day, but even at this stage there's a huge amount to admire. Personally speaking, the highlight of the demo was watching a T-34 tank crawling across a frozen lake, the ice around it slowly cracking under its immense weight. Even a toy as powerful as this has its downsides, however; it'll be invulnerable to all but the strongest of enemy weapons, but this is offset by an extremely limited field of vision – a touch reflective of the cramped cockpits that crews had to endure.
Indeed, the new line of sight system may end up being the game's biggest innovation. When smoke starts rolling across the battlefield, for example, you'll find that it's not just eye candy – it also messes with your fog of war, cutting off parts of the scenery that were previously visible. And given that this is a game where a surprise enemy can suppress or kill you with ease, the unknown is very much something to fear.
It's here, in the marriage of graphical prowess and strategic depth, that Company of Heroes 2 hints at its true potential. Given Relic's prowess, and the studio's glittering track record with the genre, there's every cause for us to expect great things once again.