Fans of the original Company of Heroes likely won't be disappointed with the sequel, Company of Heroes 2. While most of the underlying mechanics haven't changed much, there's a lot that makes it feel fresh. The multiplayer-only beta only has a couple of maps, and you're limited to playing as the Soviet or German forces, but even with those limited selections, you can discern how the gameplay will be in the final release.
One of the biggest shifts in the multiplayer is the unpredictable weather patterns, which arrive in the form of blizzards. Units can freeze to death, so when the 60-second blizzard warning comes up, it can effectively pause an assault as both sides protect their forces. Units inside of vehicles or buildings have little to fear from the cold, but units in the field must get close to a bonfire to keep warm. As the blizzard intensifies, the rate at which units lose warmth increases, to the point that an infantry unit can freeze to death in 30 seconds. Once the blizzard reaches full strength, visibility is also drastically reduced, and your tank might only happen upon an enemy position once it's practically at point-blank range.
If this sounds like a pain to manage, it's really not. While blizzards can stymie your assault, they can also allow for some strategy. On the one hand, infantry needs to retreat, which gives them a chance to heal and get reinforcements. On the other hand, with the reduced visibility, your tanks can easily drive between gaps in the enemy defensive line and hit their positions from behind once the storm lifts. Blizzards are random and are rarely welcomed, but they feel less like an obstacle as much as a condition that can be leveraged to your advantage. Blizzards also negate an enemy's artillery or air support, so if your army is primarily mechanized, it can really play into your hands.
The weather isn't the only hazard. While tanks and vehicles can cross frozen rivers, a nearby explosion can shatter the ice and force you to lose your tank to the frozen waters. While the ice will refreeze for future vehicles to cross, it is of little consolation when you lose your tanks to the watery depths as they encountered enemy AT units while crossing the ice. The thick snow can also slow down infantry units at parts, making it harder for them to get to cover or cross a field.
Similar to the original game, your profile gains experience and levels as you complete multiplayer matches. However, unlike the original, there are also challenges that allow you to permanently boost your unit's abilities. Field enough infantry units (or kill enough of them) throughout the course of your multiplayer career, and your basic infantry units will get a bonus, such as a 5% boost to health or accuracy. These challenges feel akin to those seen in Call of Duty, and they provide some meta game in addition to standard gameplay goals during a match.
As you play, you also unlock different commanders and units in addition to camo patterns for your vehicles. Your selected commanders show up during gameplay, and you must click on their portraits, which determines your doctrine for that battle. Some commanders offer artillery or air support as some of their abilities, while others let you recruit powerful units. These selections can be swapped out and saved in loadouts, so you can have different sets for the task at hand. Many options were locked in the beta, but having loadouts with different combinations of units would be a big boon to players who want to adjust forces in the lobby.
Another change that affects gameplay is how you reinforce neutral points. To gain resources, you must capture and hold territories in the map, and some are specific to fuel or munitions generation. However, unlike the original game, the majority of the points is neutral and can be reinforced in two different ways. Rather than reinforcements solely making the point harder to recapture, you can now choose to reinforce them as a fuel or munitions point. While they don't bring in as many resources, they allow you to tailor your resource income in relation to your intended battle doctrine. For example, if you mainly field infantry, you have little need for fuel and can focus more points as munitions.
While the Company of Heroes 2 beta has a lot of functionality closed off, and we don't have an inkling about the campaign mode, the multiplayer gameplay that's available shows that the game is shaping up quite nicely. The new blizzard mechanic and otherwise snowy terrain and icy rivers add a few strategic wrinkles to the in-match gameplay, whereas the unlockable commanders and unit challenges are another good way to occupy an evening. We'll likely see more about Company of Heroes 2 during E3, so check back in a couple of weeks .
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