In Soviet Russia, Game Plays You!

World War II has long be fertile ground of video games, and for good reason. There are clear-cut good guys and bad guys, enough conflict to tell the story of countless heroes, and plenty of opportunities to romanticize the cultures and countries involved. There’s one area of the war, however, that games have long had a blind spot for: the Eastern Front.

As the Germans continued to spread out across Europe and into North Africa, they found their greatest difficulties arose when they attempted to cross the Ural Mountains and conquer the Soviet Union. The USSR, of course, fought using attrition warfare, whittling down German forces, take advantage of the long Russian winters, and even destroying some of their own resources to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Many believe it was this strategy and prolonged conflict that finally led to the fall of the Third Reich.

But that’s enough history for today.

Company of Heroes 2, THQ’s follow-up to the popular real-time strategy game, looks to explore this rarely represented conflict—and take full advantage of those long Russian winters as well. Earlier this month, I got to go hands-on with both the single-player and competitive multiplayer modes, giving me a chance to see firsthand what it’ll take to survive along the Eastern Front.

During my single-player time, I tackled a mission that tasked me with building up the Russian forces and conquering three strategic points along a riverbed. The bleakness of the winter setting was immediately apparent, as a whirling snowstorm blew in and hindered my onscreen vision. I also saw the effects of hypothermia set in on my troops, causing them to take ill and requiring me to build fires to keep them warm while we waited out the storm.

As I started my advance across the frozen tundra, I approached the riverbank and experienced another new dynamic as German tanks started moving across the ice towards my position. The game advised me to use mortars to blow holes in the river to sink the German tanks. It would hinder my progress, shrinking the lanes my troops could use to cross the river, but considering the damage it would do to the German armor line, I was left with little choice. As the Panzers sank to their watery graves (in exquisite detail for an RTS game, I might add), I was able to advance across what was left of the frozen river and conquer the objectives with little resistance from the remaining German forces.

While much of this single-player excursion played out like most other RTS games with regard to stockpiling resources, building units, and attempting to use superior strategy to overcome our foes, the new environmental hazards and dynamic terrain were a joy to play around with. From minor visual details like tank tracks in the snow to the new tactical options afforded by the winter elements, there were enough innovations here to make the standard RTS gameplay feel novel and fresh.

After thumping the Germans in the single-player mode, I was afforded the chance to take on some human opponents in versus multiplayer. Wanting to continue to experience the cold Russian winters, I tried out some new maps—including one where the middle capture point was placed on a tiny sliver of land surrounded by a frozen lake. Here, after my experiences in the single player campaign, I made my greatest RTS stand in quite some time.

Allowing myself to fall behind early and basically giving my opponent the middle capture point, I settled in around my base and began to build. Tank after tank after tank would soon dot my base’s perimeter. With only 50 or so points between me and defeat, I sent my armor columns onward towards the middle point. My German opponent did not stand idly by while I built my forces up and had quite the armor division himself by the time we faced off for our grand conflict.

He had unwisely placed much of his armor on the fragile ice, though. With a few well-placed barrages from my tanks, I sent much of his armor to the bottom of the lake and deployed a single engineer to capture the point. Thanks to my shelling, I’d set up a natural barricade of broken ice that my opponent was unable to overcome. Victory was mine, and it was time to break out the finest Russian vodka to celebrate!

Much like the single player campaign, the multiplayer was tremendous fun, and having to balance the elements along with the unique terrain made for a RTS experience unlike any other. What’s more, the level of detail on each unit and locales is almost unheard of in an RTS. If the small snippet of game play we saw was any indicator, Company of Heroes 2 should be a must-have game for strategy fans and World War II buffs alike when it launches on PC in 2013.