Once a bastion of the RTS genre thanks to massive successes like Dawn of War and the original Company of Heroes, Relic has crumbled in recent years, their sterling reputation now resembling a building hammered by a mortar barrage. So after ten years without a sequel, bringing back Company of Heroes is their chance to show the world that Relic still has what it takes to deliver an awesome RTS experience. And do you know what? They come close. Company of Heroes 3 is very good at times. It’s also in need of some work.
For this third entry, it seems Relic wanted to play it relatively safe, which is smart because nobody comes to a third game in a series looking for something radically different. In other words, if you’ve played either of the first two games you’ll be able to quickly grasp all the basics in Company of Heroes 3 in seconds. That might be disappointing to some, and that’s understandable. After so long without a new game in the series, there’s a natural expectation for Relic to make some big leaps forward and define what Company of Heroes will be going forward. But by being cautious and heavily pushing the idea that the game has been developed alongside the community, Relic clearly aimed to rebuild its faltering reputation by taking what they were known for a decade or more ago and doing it again.
The “dynamic” Italian campaign was the big focus of the game’s marketing campaign, bringing a new turn-based strategic layer to the action and showing that Relic is willing to evolve the series, at least a little. On paper, it’s an excellent idea: marry the tense real-time fights with a new tier of strategy where you capture towns, hold territory and push back the Nazis across a huge map. At first glance, it would be easy to make comparisons to the Total War series, just with a World War 2 skin, but really this is an evolution of the Ardennes Assault add-on from Company of Heroes 2.
Available On: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developed By: Relic Entertainment
Published By: SEGA
Review code provided by SEGA
For the jaunt across the Italian countryside, you’re given control of a mixture of Allied forces and the basic goal of taking Rome back from the Germans. Of course, at this point Italy was actually aligned with the Axis forces, a fact that sometimes seems to get forgotten about when discussing World War II. The Italian campaign takes place in 1943 when the Allies invaded Italy which led to the rapid fall of the Fascist government led by Mussolini, and in his place, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who opposed the regime, began working with the Allies.
Starting from the coastline, you’re given a single company to begin with which you can order across the map, each turn bringing with it a chance to order the capture of a town, requisition another company or even call in a naval bombardment to weaken an enemy force or soften up defences. Towns around the map can often be taken in a turn by simply moving a unit to them, while others require a skirmish battle or a properly scripted mission before they can be captured. In return, they generate resources and can offer other useful bonuses such as healing, requisitioning warships to patrol the coast and more. There’s a lot of emphasis on securing support bonuses that can affect both the turn-based mode and the real-time combat, making the two elements feel cohesive. Ships can bombard areas to destroy defenders and weaken towns, for example, while an airport provides recon support and bombing raids.
Companies are your way of interacting with most things and new ones can be purchased provided you’ve got the resources and the population cap available. Each company has different strengths like an armoured company obviously specialising more in rolling out tanks. But they can also be upgraded using skill points, bolstering the unit by being able to field new troop types, adding extra abilities or just buffing up other aspects of your company. It gives you the incentive to keep them alive, just like how it can be worth looking after veteran squads in real-time fights. Emplaced guns on the map, town assaults or being attacked by an enemy company can lower your company’s health bar, and while that doesn’t affect performance in combat, if it hits zero the company is destroyed and all those resources poured into them are gone, too.
Prattling away in your eardrums are several characters who’ll throw out suggestions on what to do next. The American commander is the more aggressive, typically pushing you to take more territory and make a run for Rome straight up the middle, whereas the British commander favours a more cautious approach, cautioning you to build solid frontlines before you advance There’s also a Partisan liaison to consider, asking you to rescue some of her chums in return for extra aid. If you choose to heed their advice they’ll appreciate it, boosting your standing with them and unlocking new bonuses. Likewise, ignoring their requests will piss them off. Except, it doesn’t matter. You’d probably have to pour real effort into disappointing any of them. No matter how many notifications popped up about their dislike for my choices, my standing with all three kept going up and unlocking new bonuses.
Really, it’s the whole “dynamic” aspect that is missing from the campaign. As I marched toward Rome, the German war machine remained a largely passive force that almost never attempted to re-capture territory. Venturing into Nazi-held ground might spark an enemy company to attack, but otherwise, the Germans seem content to let the player trample across the countryside. That takes a lot of fun out of the campaign because all of the emplacements you can build feel like a waste of time, and you don’t have to consider leaving companies behind to hold territory. I spread myself thin by sending companies all over the map like heavily armed tourists, clearly displaying a whole host of weak points where the Germans could have easily cut through my frontlines and caused chaos, yet they never did. They sat and watched, patiently waiting for me to come to them.
Perhaps that’s a deliberate design decision, done to stop the campaign from becoming too much of a grind. It’s easy to imagine a frustrating scenario in which you take a town, head out and it’s instantly retaken, so you head back, take it again and immediately lose it on the next turn. I’d be curious to find out Relic’s thinking on this aspect of the game.
The Italian campaign doesn’t boast the same levels of depth as the Total War series or something like that, but I don’t think that’s an issue. It’s a great addition to the franchise and a solid evolution of Ardennes Assault. The turn-based action helps break up the regular gameplay and has enough strategy to keep it interesting yet light. Sadly there are a lot of bugs and issues plaguing the campaign, some small and some bigger. I captured Ardennes, for example, and opted to increase my population cap by 10 as a reward but it never changed. Even reloading the whole game didn’t solve it. I encountered an area where my company wouldn’t cross either bridge, forcing me to take a far longer route. The worst were missions that just wouldn’t end, forcing a complete restart.
If you want a more traditional linear campaign then the eight-mission North African campaign is for you. It puts you directly into the boots of a controversial figure: Erwin Rommel, the so-called Gentleman General of the German war machine. He’s a fascinating historical figure, largely because his days as the Desert Fox was noted for being comparatively clean compared to his Nazi peers. He earned a reputation for being respectful and humane. But he was also a Nazi and a supporter of Hitler, at least until he was implicated in the plot to assassinate the leader of the Third Reich and committed “voluntary” suicide to protect his family. He’s a complicated chap.
I say all this because placing players into the boots of Rommel is a surprisingly ballsy move, and I think was brilliant. Exploring different viewpoints and theatres of war is important, including those on the other side of battlelines. Though Rommel was undoubtedly on the wrong side of the war, he’s still a fascinating military figure that has become hugely divisive as people argue back and forth over whether he was as good or strategically savvy as he was made out to be. The bigger debate is whether Rommel was a good person since he refused to obey unlawful commands and attempted to wage an honourable war. He didn’t appear to want to kill the Jewish people, but he did support kicking them out. He’s a terrific example of how contradictory and complex humans can be.
Sadly the campaign doesn’t attempt to tackle any of this. It’s clear Relic wanted to use Rommel as a foundation for the campaign, but also didn’t want to commit to saying anything about him as a person. They try to stay very basic in their portrayal, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, he’s a very difficult historical figure to get a good grasp on. Even years of research might not be enough to figure out just what sort of person he was, the depths of his support for the Nazi regime and how much of his status was inflated via propaganda. On the other hand, it feels like a cop-out to focus on someone like Rommel without even attempting to delve into topic. And the brief interludes following a Jewish family and from the British perspective feel like a thin attempt to combat the fact that you’re playing as a Nazi.
Regardless, the eight missions are very enjoyable and have a hefty focus on maintaining your heavy armour and salvaging wrecks to add to your forces. Several of your units can grab fuel from destroyed vehicles to bolster your own reserves, too. The Italian campaign’s maps tend to feature narrow streets, but the African campaign swaps that out for wider spaces where the tanks can manoeuvre. The mission designs are solid and fun, and a welcome break from the Italian campaign where you can spend relatively long periods of time without getting into a proper skirmish.
Whatever the Italian campaign fails to deliver dynamic action the real-time battles make up for in spades. At the core of the gameplay is ordering squads to take cover, and flanking enemies smartly. It’s the traditional Company of Heroes formula and remains incredibly satisfying to use. Intelligently positioning things like a heavy machine gun can lockdown an enemy squad, leaving you free to sidle around behind them. Sheer numbers rarely prevail over basic tactical thinking. And the second key part of the gameplay is capturing logistical points on the map in order to feed your war machine. You can’t simply sit at your base and turtle up, you have to get out there and grab ground or risk being steamrolled by an enemy with vastly superior resources.
Most of the changes Relic has made are smaller, like vehicles having properly modelled side armour now, making them easier to flank and making it more important to micromanage your own tanks so they don’t get trashed. Other stuff like auto-vaulting fences has made moving troops around smoother, while the breach option is good for assaulting a squad that’s holed up in a building. Anti-air and anti-tank weapons can be towed by trucks now, too, making it easier to quickly deploy them to the battlefield in reaction to the enemy armour suddenly smashing through your frontline.
There has been a substantial change, though, in the form of elevation. Company of Heroes 3 takes into account hills, dips and stairs. Now, whoever has the high ground gets a massive defence bonus while the poor suckers below them get a negative bonus, making them easy pickings. It’s a great change that feels like a natural evolution of the cover system, giving you a new tactical element to keep track of. Now, a squad entrenched at the top of a hill can hold off and defeat an overwhelming force. I like having to focus more on the terrain, picking out where to position units for maximum effect.
Overall, the gameplay is possibly the best it’s ever been. The pace is a little quicker in some regards, hitting frantic levels when the action kicks off and you’re trying to maintain several fronts across a map, quickly reacting to a Panzer smashing through a wall or double-checking that a heavy MG is holding its ground against an infantry assault. Mixed in is just the right amount of micromanaging stemming from the fact that most squads have one or two abilities like grenades or extra suppression that can really turn the tide of a fight, especially if it’s just some infantry taking potshots at each other from behind cover – trust me, a full cover vs full cover battle is a prolonged grind if you don’t do something about it.
Company of Heroes 3 ships with four factions that have all appeared in both of the previous games: the American forces, the British, the Warmecht and the Afrikakorps. Familiar names that play largely the same as they once did. The American forces favour infantry, with their Commandos being able to tackle both soldiers and enemy armour on the fly. A lot of airdrop options help them keep the enemy guessing, but while they do have access to tanks they aren’t as effective as other factions when it comes to vehicular warfare. Meanwhile, the British would rather keep all this war nonsense as far away as possible, utilising long-range weaponry to batter the enemy into submission before sending in infantry to mop up the survivors. As for the Warmecht, fielding vehicles is their primary strategy, leading up to the mighty Panzer tanks which can dominate the field. The Afrikakorps is also focused on deploying vehicles, but tend to favour lighter stuff with more variety. This faction is fast, making them ideal for gaining a lot of ground in the early game and then flanking big tanks later in the game.
It’s a little disappointing to see Relic return to factions that have already been featured in the series, especially as World War 2 has so many other armies and theatres to be explored. Considering there’s an Italian campaign, where’s the Italian army? Still, in a bid to add some variety each faction has three battlegroups associated with it, each split into a further two sub-divisions, and by earning command points mid-fight you can pick one of these battlegroups (you’re locked into it as soon as you spend a point) and begin unlocking upgrades. The British forces, for example, could head down the Indian Artillery Battlegroup which then splits into either Infantry Assault, including the mighty Gurkhas, or the Artillery support that includes stuff like a BL5.5 Artillery emplacement and more powerful barrage abilities. It’ll be interesting over time to see if any of these battlegroups become the de facto choices because right now the factions feel quite fairly balanced in skirmish, but as always it will be the hardcore fanbase who ferret out the overpowered tactics.
I really like this new take on the doctrine system. At first, I was worried it would end up too much like Crossfire: Legion where you had to pick from a few units before you even entered a match, immediately locking you into a strategy. But that’s not the case here: regardless of what battlegroup you delve into, there are plenty of units to choose from, and no path feels like it’s overly restrictive. And you can opt to hold off picking a battlegroup if you aren’t quite sure how the match is going to develop.
Of course, the lifeblood of any RTS is the online portion where a ravenous crowd will rip the game to shreds far better than I can ever hope to do. There’s a decent selection of 15 maps to play on either against the computer or against other people. I didn’t spend too much on the multiplayer side of things, so all I will say is that it works well enough and seemed to match me up with similarly skilled players as myself, which is to say, idiots. Only time will tell if Relic can keep everything reasonably balanced and fun.
I’ve seen a lot of people squeezing out their opinion that the graphics aren’t very good, to which I declare bullshit. Sort of. Let’s be fair: they aren’t amazing, but they’re also far from being bad. There’s a decent amount of detail in the environments and the various units, though the animations are a little sloppy in places and you can most certainly find some dodgy textures. Like, the scarring on tanks and vehicles is a nice idea but you can tell it’s just a 2D texture tossed onto them. Really, it’s the shadows that don’t quite work, giving the whole game a slightly flat look. That and a slightly washed-out colour palette. There’s also a general lack of grit and grime, something which Company of Heroes 2 did better. All in all, though, it’s fine.
As for the audio, that’s a little trickier. Most of the sound samples are really good, albeit a few of them have a weird echo like they were captured inside someone’s tiled bathroom. It’s the mixing where the problem lies, I think. Some effects are too soft and low, others are a bit too loud and it can lead to a muddled soundstage. And there are some issues with voiceovers playing at the same time, although that’s an easy fix.
Then there’s the user interface. UI design seems to have been dropping off a cliff for a few years now and I’m not sure why, but everywhere you look there are crazy mistakes being made or developers sticking a cursor into console games. Company of Heroes 3 isn’t quite that annoying but it’s certainly rough around the edges. A few of the panels are incredibly barebones like they were forgotten about until the last second, and there are utterly baffling choices to be found, like how in multiplayer enabling unique player colours can result in your allies being red and the enemy being blue. A few icons are entirely wrong, your friends list isn’t in alphabetical order and for some reason you can’t see a player’s name in matches. Yup, it needs some work.
So does unit pathing. It can be hit-and-miss, to say the least. I’ve given orders to tanks to cross a bridge, only for them to become confused and drive around in circles. I’ve witnessed infantry saunter through a barrage of gunfire in enemy territory rather than taking the shorter route through safety. And I’ve seen squads ignore a move order entirely. Maybe they were on a tea break.
As for the future, there are some questions surrounding it. There’s already a store tab in the game, although it’s currently greyed out, and there’s room to alter your loadout even though there’s nothing to do there. It points to plans to introduce more paid content, and that could spell disaster if Relic isn’t smart about it. Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3 launched to a generally disheartening reaction and then Relic completely destroyed it by announcing they were throwing all the support and DLC plans in the bin. This time, they need to stick with it.
Company of Heroes 3 is a safe sequel, and while that might be a problem for many people, it was arguably a smart choice on Relic’s behalf as its reputation isn’t as shiny and impressive as it once was. Dawn of War 3 was a dud, and Age of Empires IV is good but not exactly astonishing. They need to polish their name up and get back to their former glory. Company of Heroes 3 hasn’t exactly managed that, at least according to the community who so far have given it a mixed rating over on Steam.
I can’t help but think they’re being a bit harsh, though. I had a damn good time with Company of Heroes 3. The Italian campaign has its flaws but it’s a meaty piece of content and the African campaign is a nice bit of traditional RTS fare. Most of all, I think the actual gameplay is a terrific foundation for Relic to build on. The battles are fast, tense and tactically interesting, offering enough depth to keep the multiplayer crowd happy, at least for a while. Hopefully, then, Relic can repeat what they did with Company of Heroes 2 which didn’t please the baying mob when it launched but was slowly moulded into something great.