Company of Heroes is a storied and respected franchise of strategy war games beloved by many. Most of the people reading this review are probably well aware of how it basically goes, thanks to experience with one of the prior games. For good or for ill, much of the gameplay you’ll find in Company of Heroes 3 is exactly what you’d expect based on experience with those previous games.
Company Of Heroes 3 Review
Relic Entertainment’s take on World War II real-time strategy hits all the usual beats, focusing more on adept and careful command of individual squads than huge armies and a lot of clicking. As always, cover, flanking, and good planning are far more important than how many troops you can throw around. However, there is something new to come to Company of Heroes 3 that the earlier games didn’t have. Unlike other entries in the franchise, this one comes with a turn-based strategy element to go along with that more familiar RTS aspect. That turn-based strategy aspect will allow players to have great control over the larger flow of the war itself, having a hand in a lot more of the logistics of strategic strokes of a theater of war. By doing this, players will have the capability to more or less create their own single-player campaign experiences.
While the game is still pretty far off, a select few have recently been given access to an early preview build of Company of Heroes 3 for the PC, and through that brief glimpse, we can learn a lot about how Relic’s return to form will go about its business. We know we said it was a familiar experience for fans, but it does actually have a lot of improvements that will provide players with much better control of both the larger battlefield and their individual squads. These changes, along with that turn-based element we talked about, make for a truly large single-player experience, all while giving players great control over how the campaign plays out.
The setting, as always, is World War II, but this time, players will be put in control of the Allied Mediterranean campaign. Why there specifically? Well, Relic says it is because that part of the war is rarely focused on in media, despite the heroic stories that took place there. And you know, they’re right about that: how much World War II media content have you seen that focused on the Mediterranean?
The lucky few that got to experience the early build experienced a play session that had them directing a battle near the coastal city of Naples, leading their troops to try and capture the mountain cathedral stronghold known as Montecasino. The campaign led them through many coastal towns, all of which were managed via the Dynamic Campaign Map, which is a map system that will be quite familiar to anyone who has played a Civilization game. Much like a big tabletop game board, it depicts troops, roads, towns, and terrain, providing players with a general overview of how the theater of war is evolving as both Allies and Axis take turns moving troops to attack and defend different locations.
On this campaign map, players will have several methods to direct the war from an overall tactical point of view. Capturing towns provides the player with territory and resources. Using those resources, players can procure many types of troops: companies comprise the bulk of your military forces and are able to move around the map and engage enemies at your whim. They are available in many different flavors, from paratroopers to tank units. There are smaller, more specialized units called Detachments, which includes things like medic and machine gun squads, capable of supporting your larger companies in various ways.
It goes beyond just buying different types of troops, however. With a general strategic view of the whole war, you can make various overarching decisions that heavily affect the battles on the ground: create or disrupt supply lines, capture airfields to enable air superiority, weaken defensive positions with bombardment, and much more. If there’s a heavily fortified enemy position your ground forces can’t take on alone, you can use bombers or artillery to weaken them before moving in yourself, for instance.
Some combat is automated: namely, skirmishes between smaller units on the overview map we just mentioned. But don’t worry, there will still be plenty of the RTS action you’re used to. The big, important battles will still be handled with the nuanced RTS battles Company of Heroes is known for. Most of these large battles will take place when important towns are attacked, major objectives are engaged, and things like that. On the other hand, there are also skirmishes, which are battles that happen whenever one of your companies encounters an enemy company. Taking all of this into consideration, the turn-based strategy part of the game won’t be overtaking the RTS action.
However, this is a perfect example of how the dynamic nature of the turn-based map element will affect the RTS battles you engage in. The ability to pick when and where to do battle has many effects you may not foresee: allow an enemy to retreat instead of finishing them off for good, and they may come back later, far stronger and more formidable than before. Ignoring an enemy supply line could make a crucial battle much harder to win. Ignore an enemy airfield, and you may face overwhelming enemy air support in an RTS battle. Your strategic choices have real effects on the battles you face, especially since you do not have to fight in every conflict that arises.
In an interview, lead campaign designer Andrew Denault explained some of the reasoning behind the campaign’s design. “The distance between landing on a beach and reaching the mission objective is a heck of a lot of distance in terms of the kinds of challenges that commanders had, the kinds of things they needed to be concerned with. And so for us, it was how can we get that, in terms of gameplay, in front of the player in an interesting way, to generate some fantastic connective tissue between missions that focuses on the player’s manipulation of their companies. Am I supplied? Is my company in good health? Et cetera, et cetera.”
“We wanted to widen the gameplay angle for the player, rather than seeing the gameplay experience as a linear number of missions with interesting cinematics and then pulse-pounding RTS and great action and all the cinema that the player’s accustomed to,” he said. “We wanted to expand on that and allow the player to fill in the blanks with regards to some of the narrative.”
Thanks to these design elements, the actual story that players experience while traipsing about the Mediterranean will be different and noticeably affected by the decisions they do or don’t make. Players will be in contact with three different advisers, all of whom have differing strategic agendas. They’ll offer attack strategies and overall tactical appraisals, while also attempting to direct your focus to side missions that they feel are most vital. For instance, one of your advisors may find it more important to take an enemy stronghold, while another may think it more important to aid allied rebel fighters.
As you may imagine, you will not be able to take on every mission, so you’ll have to pick and choose where to direct your time and resources. Naturally, most of the missions follow certain paths to victory that are mostly opposed to one another. The choices you make will affect what kind of missions come up in the future, thanks to a system Denault called the Event Director: it takes note of your decisions and actions, and alters the game experience going forward based on those.
This even affects the major story beats that happen regardless of your choices. Montecasino is a major, unskippable part of the story regardless of your prior decisions, but it’ll play out differently based on what side missions you took on prior to it. Maybe you listened to one advisor and took an airfield, so now you can bomb enemy forces at Montecasino before attacking. Or maybe you listened to the other advisor and set up a partisan information network, which will give you access to more detailed information about enemy positions in the city. Whatever choices you make will influence the options you have available before, during, and after the battle.
“The Event Director will generate events that [the sub-commanders] will attach to and say, ‘Hey, that’s important to me. You should totally do that. You should focus on shoring up your supply lines here. You should really capture another seaport on the east coast. These partisans are in trouble. You should be focusing on supporting the partisans and the resistance effort,'” Denault said. “And so the storytelling, of course, is going to be a huge component of our missions, but a lot of the story is going to be living in the map. We’ve used this terminology in the studio of a living world, and the concept that the player can be moving from mission space to mission space, triggering not only the more dynamic skirmish missions that don’t have as much story encapsulated in them. But we’re still leading up to these moments on the campaign map with these events, constantly giving the player an idea of what’s going on in the world, that the conflict wasn’t really just about these epic battles, that there were smaller stories to be told. And so I think it’s really us focusing on building up this connective tissue between the missions.”
Of course, not every strategic decision you make will purely benefit you while commanding your armies via the turn-based map. There are all sorts of obstacles and hindrances that can get in the way of your success. Charge blindly forward without any recon, and your troops may stumble into a minefield, weakening your company when they enter an RTS battle right afterward. Hidden enemy machine-gun nests, arduous terrain, and a whole lot of other things can get in your way and affect your plans.
All of this strategic stuff is a great addition to the game, but we haven’t actually talked much about the RTS mechanics thus far. The good news is that it’s all pretty familiar stuff for anyone who has played Company of Heroes before. After all, that strategic planning we spent so much time talking about does ultimately lead to RTS warfare, one way or another. And as always, those RTS battles are tough. CoH 3 has mechanics reminiscent of the first game in the series, with most of the maps having base-building and resource management elements. The more territory you capture, the more resources you’ll have for building your army. The longer your squads fight and survive, the more experienced and formidable they will become. As always, cover, flanking maneuvers, special abilities, and the destruction of cover and terrain are al vital to success. Relic has even increased how much destruction you can cause to the environment, including a breach and clear ability that allows your squads to kick the enemy out of defensive positions.
There’s no denying that Company of Heroes has always been a pretty punishing RTS game. Unlike some other games, where you can just send massive waves of troops at your problems, even powerful units like tanks will get annihilated if you just throw them at prepared positions. Clever tactics and planning are a must for success, which has traditionally made CoH a bit intimidating for new players. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Relic has implemented some new features to make this entry a little more approachable, even for the total rookie. One such addition is the Tactical Pause feature, which does exactly what you expect: pause the game, even in the middle of an RTS mission. While the game is paused, you can peruse the map, assess the situation, and queue orders for your units. Players who have dabbled in other RTS games have probably come across a similar feature before.
Of course, if you want the more traditional, hardcore experience, you can choose not to use the pause feature. But there’s no denying how useful it can be. Like with all CoH games, positioning and outmaneuvering the enemy is vital, so being able to pause the game and look assess the situation really helps with that, especially with the very large maps. Naturally, though, you won’t be doing any pausing in multiplayer matches against other players, for obvious reasons.
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While it’s still just an early build, Company of Heroes 3 feels immersive and strikingly dynamic compared to its previous entries. Relic claims to be designing the game with a focus on providing several tools for its sandbox: with more elements than any of the games before it, each and every battle has the chance to evolve into something wholly unique, thanks to how many different things are involved in them. Company of Heroes 3 seems to be keeping the intense action that made the franchise so popular in the first place, but at the same time, it’s adding a ton of new, fresh features that prevent it from being a repeat of its predecessors. With how great the game is shaping up to be this early on, we can’t help but wonder what it will end up like in the final product. Unfortunately, that final product is something that won’t be available for purchase on PC until some unspecified time in 2022.