Well, it’s been a while! Just under a decade after the previous edition, we can once again eagerly await a new Company of Heroes. The war RTS has been an inspiration for many – just look at the recent Iron Harvest – and the game series knows better than anyone else how to transform the events of World War II into tactical, squad-based gameplay. With Company of Heroes 3, Relic Entertainment once again lives up to expectations, even if you have to turn a blind eye to an agonizingly poor single-player campaign to do so.
A good foundation
Company of Heroes 3 builds on the strong foundations of its predecessors. During missions, you control various platoons of infantry and light or heavy vehicles with the goal of taking out the enemy. This can be done by simply shooting the enemy base to smithereens, but usually it is easier to take strategic points that will earn you victory points. Collect enough of them and you win.
Battlefields revolve almost entirely around these defensive points and are therefore full of them. Only some give you victory points, because with the vast majority you collect resources such as ammunition and manpower. This collection process is slow, so it is important that you maintain a strong defense, using natural bottlenecks, buildings to take cover in and higher ground to get a view of the enemy.
These basic elements make Company of Heroes 3 look like a simple RTS, but actually deliver a deep system. Skirmishes tend to be slow when infantry is well dug in, and training new platoons is a matter of minutes, considering they often have to cross half the battlefield to reinforce the front line. Still, Company of Heroes 3 is far from a slow game; with the right troops and from an advantageous position, you can even saw through tanks at lightning speed, allowing your defensive line to advance in a single rush. Moments like that feel wonderful, because you overcome the enemy with strategic thinking and not just by sending an army forward with a single click of the mouse.
More diverse than ever
With four factions to choose from – US Forces, British Forces, Wehrmacht and Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) – there is a huge package of army units available. Flamethrowers, snipers, artillery and even the famous Tiger tank are at your disposal to make battlefields in the Mediterranean and desert unsafe. Because you can specialize your faction once in each game session with so-called Battlegroups, you can find enough diversity even within a single faction. For example, the Wehrmacht may be fully committed to heavy vehicles or, on the contrary, to bombing and other air support.
The absolute best part of this system is the way you protect the army. As mentioned, training new platoons or tanks is slow, and besides, they cost a dime. So you want to do everything possible to keep your troops alive. The retreat option is literally a lifesaver in this; soldiers rush back to an infirmary or mobile medical truck to heal and refresh men, so they can go back into battle a few minutes later. It would have been great if you could name troops, because you quickly become attached to that one upgraded bazooka squad that already has ten tanks to its name.
In the North African Operation scenario missions, your skills with this system are well tested. This classic single player approach takes you through a series of linear missions where you pound through North Africa as the DAK with a fearsome tank offensive. Preserving your units is at the top of the list during these missions, requiring you to rely mostly on positioning and make strong use of your troops’ unique skills. The icing on the cake is that the missions are narratively pieced together by the real losers of the war: civilians.
As strong as the North African Operaion is, the real fun of Company of Heroes 3 only begins in multiplayer. After all, in single player you have the choice to pause the game and issue commands – nicely called Full Tactical Pause by Relic – but against real players everything happens in real time. Battlefields are large and filled with lots of natural features, roads and the occasional village, so you move your camera from place to place to keep your line intact. In the first 15 minutes of an online session, you see skirmishes between infantry unfold. Sometimes you pick up a strategic point. And then the tanks come.
Honestly, I haven’t felt such adrenaline since StarCraft 2’s multiplayer. My armored vehicles were losing out to enemy artillery, so I sent a mortar platoon at them. Out of nowhere, combat engineers with flamethrowers loom. My heart races as I withdraw my machine guns before they are burned alive in the apartment building. Thus the battle goes up and down for ten minutes, ending with a blitzkrieg-worthy flanking attack that caused me to lose half my army.
Still, the feeling that I had a chance was enough to keep me playing through.
Online play sessions are not won overnight. During the above example, I was continuously in the lead in terms of victory points. It was only when I suffered that big defeat that things went downhill. I managed to stay in the game for another fifteen minutes, although I realized afterwards that that flanking attack was the beginning of the end. Still, the feeling that I had a chance was enough to make me play on. That experience alone drew me back to Company of Heroes 3’s multiplayer again and again.
And then you have the single player campaign. I purposely put this part at the bottom of this review, so that you are armed with the knowledge that Company of Heroes 3 has rock-solid gameplay. Hopefully that will soften the blow. After all, the Italian Dynamic Campaign is one of the worst single player campaigns I’ve played in ages, which is almost handsome considering the many inspirations Relic has on hand for the Total War-like campaign map. With stiff movements and numerous (graphical) bugs, you move platoons forward to conquer cities from southern Italy to northern Italy.
Sounds fun, is terrible. The game gives you the illusion of choice by saddling you with myriad elements, such as bombings from feed and aircraft or infiltrations by Italian partisans, but ultimately these make little to no impact versus simply sending your platoon into a city. Indeed, this results in three options: you take over the city directly, you play a standard skirmish, or you perform a story mission. Because you can simply build up a full army in these missions even with a damaged platoon, all strategic choices on the campaign map are dwarfed.
To make matters worse, Relic claims that you can create your own dynamic story in this sandbox style. Nothing could be further from the truth: there are no narrative cutscenes, and aside from some generals constantly telling you what to do, there is simply nothing to do but send your platoons into cities. Anything just to get to the battlefield faster, because admittedly, the story missions are usually very entertaining. Then again, for that you have to wait for minutes during enemy turns, during which they calmly explore your lands with planes. What they are looking for? I still couldn’t figure that out after twenty hours.
Company of Heroes 3 lives up to expectations on every level, with one gigantic exception: the hideous Italian Dynamic Campaign. Believe me when I say it’s best to skip this one so you can get all your enjoyment from the excellent North African Operation single player mode and the rock-solid co-op and PvP multiplayer. Never before have you been able to approach the World War II battlefields so tactically and with so many options in terms of factions and army units. Especially versus real players, you can expect quite the adrenaline rush when you break through the defenses with the perfect tactics. So for fans of the realistic RTS genre, Company of Heroes 3 is a no-brainer, as long as you stay away from that dynamic campaign.