It’s been almost ten years since Company of Heroes 2 first launched, a whole generation of gaming ago. In that time, Relic’s RTS has gone on to become one of the most renowned, beloved WWII strategy games of all time after a slightly patchy start, with thousands of dedicated fans playing at any time even now. Company of Heroes 3 has a lot to live up to, with many different fans wanting very different things from a decade of anticipation. So how does Relic’s newest, more colourful entry fare?
It’s difficult to say that Company of Heroes 3 revolutionises the genre, but those who were absorbed by the constant risk/reward pull of the original games and the scale of conflict will find plenty to adore here, though the game isn’t without its fair share of flaws.
The headlining addition for Company of Heroes 3 is its Italy campaign, an epic in all senses of the word. From a humbling, hectic beach landing on the shores of the country, you must slowly take back Italy piece by piece, bolstering your forces and cultivating relationships so that you can make a final break for the final line of German defence and take back Rome. It sounds simple on paper, but there are so many ways of marching on the capital that no two playthroughs will likely be the same.
Much of your time in Italy will be spent clearing territories, establishing defenses, adding new units, and taking part in battles both large and small. Skirmishes are quicker battles that shouldn’t take too long to complete, but there are more cinematic, narrative-based encounters that feel like absolute blockbusters. There are many moments where it’s hard not to feel overawed at just how much is going on to an almost Spielbergian degree — you will be mumbling tactics to yourself and demanding reinforcements so much that you may as well start dressing up for the occasion and slip into a uniform. When Company of Heroes 3 is at its best, it’s so immersive that almost nothing else matters.
The battles are so good, in fact, that you won’t mind doing them over and over again across the substantial Italy campaign. It took me around 30 or so hours to get past German defences (to, it must be said, quite the anti-climax, though it’s understandable considering actual history), and I relished throwing my forces at any random enemy squad that came my way almost every single time. The ability to sit down, slap the pause button, and painstakingly plan out several moves in advance make you feel like the Dio Brando of strategy when it all comes together after unpausing.
Away from the actual conflict, the brunt of your Italian adventure is spent progressing across the map and completing secondary objectives to grow relationships with your peers, including Italian rebels. If you work well with them, you will gain their loyalty, unlocking new units and abilities that will really help you out the deeper into Italy you go. Those who played the supremely underrated Marvel’s Midnight Suns might remember a similar system.
What makes it so fascinating in Company of Heroes 3, though, is that your allies don’t always share the same ideas on how to go about things, meaning that you may actually lose loyalty with one person after gaining it with another. General Buckram, the most impatient man who’s ever lived, seems to want you to march on Rome with whatever you have in your pockets, while General Norton would prefer you to help out across the country. Eleonora Valenti, the leader of the Italian resistance, hates almost any bombings of her country, but it makes your job so much easier to be able to use sea artillery and attacks from the skies. It’s not easy keeping everyone happy.
However, there is one issue with this campaign: it’s far too easy overall on the default difficulty, to the point where veteran players will probably want to crank the difficulty dial right up. There’s not much sense of jeopardy and resource management never became much of an issue — I felt like I was at max capacity for pretty much the whole time and never once lost a battle. The only real difficulty I had was trying to not get too frustrated with what can sometimes feels like incremental movement across the board between turns, and a restrictive population cap. You’re just given units for completing certain objectives, which limits the units that you yourself can choose, as well as the detachments that can be placed on the map and used to help you out in battle.
For those who want a more straightforward time, the North African Operation is the way to go, and it’s significantly more of a challenge from the off. You play as the German Afrika Korps, a feared tank division under the guiding hand of the infamous Erwin Rommel. With narration from the beleaguered locals that shows just how much the war is affecting everyday lives, it does feel like a bit of a dissonance to then play as a tank division reaping so much carnage and does make you pause before you start bombing places wildly. It’s not quite The Last of Us Part II levels of emotional manipulation, but it does make you think about how gleefully you blow things up.
A lot of your time in this campaign will actually be spent on the defensive and not trying to get yourself blown up, though. Progress across the battlefield is glacial at points with mines and mortar everywhere, with you having to flex all of your tactical muscles to constantly beat the odds. Resources are finite, so every vehicle always has to be well looked after — there’s no sending your tanks in blindly and hoping for the best here. It feels like brutal, unforgiving attrition across some very long, very involved missions sometimes that can become all the more annoying when you save mid-battle and quit, expecting to be able to just load up exactly where you were. That never seemed to be the case for me, for whatever reason.
Away from the narrative-focused offerings, Company of Heroes 3 will likely live or die by just how much the community takes to its multiplayer offerings. Playing with and against others is like a whole other game without the crutch of a tactical pause, so you may be in for a rude awakening as I was when I came up against a season strategy veteran who had me on the backfoot from the word go. It’s an often exhilarating arms race with a steep learning curve that asks you to capture points and accumulate units fast enough to be able to start gaining control of the map and really hemming the opposition.
However, PVP does highlight what may be the biggest flaw in the game for the more dedicated and competitively-minded players: The pathfinding. While generally fine, there are times when your units will just take the most illogical routes right through enemy lines, or go straight through areas that are filled with mines that they surely should know are full of mines because they just watched their friends explode. The level of control required might be welcome for some, but personally having to hold my units’ hands and map out every single route in critical moments was a bit much, especially in multiplayer when you’re spinning many plates.
Luckily, there is the option to play with others against bots so you can get more accustomed to actual real-time real-time strategy, but the onboarding process still feels pretty lacking. For instance, the Co-Op vs AI option doesn’t allow you to change AI difficulty and is stuck on the equivalent of hard by default, but Custom Game does. There needs to be slightly better onboarding for newer players to help them figure out the distinction between each multiplayer option, as right now it feels opaque for little reason.
If it feels like the criticisms are Company of Heroes 3 are really mounting up, don’t let me undersell just how invigorating and thrilling the moment-to-moment gameplay is — I lost afternoons before I even knew what was happening. While the animations can at times be ropey, the spectacle of war as body parts go flying and buildings collapse really is quite impressive, even more so when backed by the phenomenal soundtrack. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and create your own little narrative threads as you grow attached to particular units, while also reveling in the power creep as your forces grow stronger and stronger. Company of Heroes 3 loves to make you feel ten foot tall and then beat you down to size, and somehow you’ll still be thankful for it.
This third entry might not immediately offer enough innovation on the battlefield to unite an expectant community from day one, but newer players will at the very least find a solid starting point. It will be interesting, however, to see if Relic build upon that foundation and deliver another game that we’ll playing for the next decade.
A Steam key for Company of Heroes 3 was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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