Company of Heroes 3 review - A middling war effort despite an ambitious scope
SEGA's Company of Heroes franchise of RTS games has enjoyed surprisingly decent success since its 2006 debut. The second entry was released back in 2013 and continues to be the most popular installment to this day, thanks to engaging and tactical large-scale skirmishes on the World War II front.
So, when developer Relic Entertainment announced its third entry in 2021, fans were excited to see the series is still alive and kicking.
But nearly a decade on, does Company of Heroes 3 manage to recapture the engaging, fast-paced unit-driven gameplay of its predecessors? Does it also improve upon its fundamentals, bringing in new mechanics that raise the gameplay to new heights? Let's find out.
Company of Heroes 3 is the biggest game in the franchise yet
For the uninitiated, the latest game in the series is based on the Mediterranean front of World War II. Split into two distinct campaigns, players will control different infantry and vehicular units, while reliving key moments from history's most iconic war period.
The main star of the show is the Italian front with its dynamic battle map. Stepping into the boots of Allied troops, players set out to free Italy from the Germans in the early-mid 1940s. From the landing in Salerno to the heart-pounding face-off against Axis artillery in Rome's Anzio, it is an exhaustive campaign that will take even dedicated players a while to beat.
Reminiscent of the CoH2 DLC Ardenne's Assault, players pick their battles on the map of Italy. They will create various units (called Companies) to move around on the map and capture territory via key locales, like Naples. But with the German forces digging their heels into the ground, players must dislodge them and take over the map slowly and steadily.
Backed by various Allied commanders like Buckram, Norton, and Valenti, players must manage their units and resources, as well as establish relationships with these individuals.
This can be in the form of optional objectives that will influence each of the three commanders' attitudes towards the players. This will not only grant them access to specific perks and bonuses, but will also result in one of the multiple endings.
Coming back to gameplay, all units take turns performing actions, from capturing territories to attacking enemy units - and there are new ones as well, like battleships. Players can establish emplacements for defense and will need to utilize air and naval forces effectively to make it through.
Occasionally, players will encounter hostile units on the map. They will need to face off against the Axis in real-time battles, which is familiar territory for fans who enjoyed the Company of Heroes 2's single-player. Be wary though, as taking damage on the map can affect effectiveness in actual skirmishes.
Players may also choose to automate the skirmish results depending on various factors, like unit type and health. Do take note of the unit being whisked away into battle - for example, the UK Indian Artillery will fare better against German light armor than US Forces' Air Support infantry units on the map.
As if that was not enough, each Company has access to different abilities, upgrades, and units. Winning skirmishes will reward players with not just extra resources to invest in, but also skill points to unlock new ones.
They must invest wisely in their efforts to liberate Italy and also think two steps ahead while deciding which sector of the map to tackle first. Patience is key as there are an untold number of traps as well as challenging units to face, in addition to the terrain which can also affect movement.
The "North African Operation" is more akin to the traditional CoH2 Theatre of War. Players will follow a predefined narrative as the German army in set-pieces across various places, including Libya, and follow orders from WW2's "Desert Fox" AKA German field marshal Erwin Rommel.
This campaign tells a heartfelt story about how war affects not just the soldiers out on the battlefield but also the common citizens, many of whom were drafted off to war. The gameplay is standard CoH affair, but places more of a focus on tank warfare.
Changes for the better and for worse
Company of Heroes 3 is an evolution for the franchise in many ways, with a massive list of changes and introductions. With that said, here are the key highlights:
- Tactical Pause feature: During single-player campaign battles, players can pause the game at any time and assign orders to their units. CoH battles are incredibly demanding of micromanagement.
- Battlegroups: Gone are the Commanders of CoH2. Now, players must select between three Battlegroups and, determined by amassed Command Points, pick between their tech trees to choose the desired abilities to be used in battle.
- Auto-build command posts: Players will build new headquarters buildings to gain access to stronger units. While this was done with the help of base pioneers or engineers in Company of Heroes 2, gamers no longer need a dedicated unit to construct them.
- Towable heavy weapons: Players can summon trucks to tow certain heavy weapons, like the 4.2 inch Heavy Mortar.
- Ridable tanks: Infantry units can now ride tanks to ensure they reach the battlefield faster. Do note that they cannot attack in this state and will dismount to engage in battlle.
There are a lot more changes present, including some undesirables as well. Garrisoned HMGs lack a manual direction button and clicking the desired direction seems to do nothing either.
What about multiplayer?
It would not be a CoH game without multiplayer, which is accounted for here on all fronts. There are four factions at launch: Wehrmacht and Afrika Korps representing the Axis, and US Forces and British Forces constituting the Allied. Each has access to unique Battlegroups, like the Afrika Korps' Italian Combined Arms or the familiar Mechanized group under Wehrmacht.
Afrika Korps are the newcomer here and frankly, they feel like a watered down Oberkommando West from CoH2. Overall, each Faction is still surprisingly varied. While there are familiar faces, like the German Fallschirmjager and the fearsome Tiger tank, there are newcomers too like the Matilda II under the British forces.
With one side representing the Allied forces and the other Axis, players can participate in up to 4v4 battles across 14 maps at launch. This could be against other real people online or against bots in co-op with friends. The latter's AI difficulty can be tweaked across four settings: Standard, Tough, Veteran, and the hardest, Fearless.
There are two modes to partake in: Victory Point and Annihilation. The former sees players work towards holding three (or sometimes more) Victory Point locations on the map. At the same time, they must secure resources to boost their means of unit production and deny the opponents any ground.
Annihilation has the same map-control mantra, but without any Victory Points. Instead, players must gear up and gather their best units to destroy the opponent's headquarters on the opposite end of the map.
But the core loop is all about engaging in combat and capturing territory to gain experience to raise unit veterancy. Higher stars increase the performance of the unit, like greater damage, reduced cooldowns and more.
Be sure to flank foes to catch them by surprise and set up defenses as needed to avoid being surprised. At the same time, manage resource income to manufacture the biggest and deadliest units in your arsenal as fast as possible to gain the upper hand.
It is best for players to finish both campaigns before dipping their toes into the multiplayer as it should give them a good grasp on how the units are to be controlled - from the recon Dingo to powerful BL5.5. Artillery Emplacements.
That is because there is no Training mode in Company of Heroes 3. Given how drastically varied each unit is from one another as well as their sheer quantity, it can be a painstaking process to try out in AI skirmishes. This is especially true for resources like Command Points and Fuel/Ammunition that will be slowly drip-fed to the player.
Perhaps it might be added via a future update, but for now, players are left with no choice, and this can leave a bad taste in both newcomers' as well as veterans' mouths.
On that note, cosmetic skin loadouts make a return as well. The Shop is inaccessible since the game is not out yet, but it remains to be seen if the monetization will be as aggressive as it was in Company of Heroes 2. There is a dedicated Mods tab as well, futureproofing the game for the community.
Visuals, performance, and audio
Running on Relic Entertainment's custom in-house tech dubbed "Essence Engine 5.0," it is a surprisingly solid showcase for the Canadian studio. The environmental destruction is the star of the show here, with buildings falling apart piece by piece and terrain changing to reflect the aftermath of combat.
Mortar strikes also land with a satisfying impact and the vehicle's armor can be visibly affected by bullet rounds or even fire. What doesn't impress though, are the visuals and certain other effects.
This has been a complaint since the debut gameplay showcase and even the Alpha playtest, but the assets and overall aesthetic seem a bit too saturated at times. It is also a shame that a lot of the one-on-one impact feels lacklustre, like a tank hitting another armored target - like a peashooter.
Company of Heroes 2 in comparison felt less one-note and packed an oomph in either regard. However, each model is well-detailed, from various infantrymen to hulking tanks, all with relevant decals.
The sprawling maps are varied as well, from coastal areas to abandoned cities. There are some inconsistencies, however, that may irk history buffs. Case in point, I called in a Tiger tank (under Afrika Korps) only to notice the Commander's hatch was occupied by the gunner. But there are other areas it maintains consistency, like the 3-inch Mortars for the Allied.
On the performance side, as it an RTS game with large-scale destruction, Company of Heroes 3 is understandably a hardware-intensive game. Thankfully, most mid-high end rigs should be fine.
However, given the dynamic nature of the game, expect various gameplay scenarios to run differently for the better or worse. At the very least, it is in a far better state than Company of Heroes 2 was and still is.
The audio is overall pretty great, with well-voiced characters in the campaign both major and minor. The infantry dialogue and jokes are funny as well, lending personality to the otherwise gameplay-driven format.
The music also features bold drums and melodic trumpets, not unlike previous entries to portray the grim, yet dramatic tone of World War II. Overall, it is what fans would expect for the most part.
There were a few bugs as well. One of the missions saw me using the new Breach ability to flush out opponent units, but my infantry ended up trapped as the building in question was not normally enterable. I had to resort to TNT to blow up the surrounding grates to get them out. Definitely a nightmare for 3-star veteran units.
Company of Heroes 3 is a decent RTS, all things considered, but makes several missteps in the visual and gameplay design elements. Fans coming from previous entries may find themselves turned off by some changes, and history buffs even more so.
But overall, even with the odd art-direction and eyebrow-raising changes, the experience is digestable, at least in part thanks to several quality-of-life improvements.
Varied factions as well as their unique Battlegroups let players specialize in the playstyle they want, thrusting them into fierce matches either against other gamers or challenging AI. Throw in the variety introduced by the grand strategy-inspired Italian Dynamic Map and the story-centric African campaign, and Company of Heroes 3 has enough quirks to make it worth a pickup.
If nothing else, its multiplayer focus should ensure it will have a healthy lifespan in the form of updates that further polish the game post-launch.
Company of Heroes 3
Reviewed on: PC
Platform(s): PC | PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S (TBC 2023)
Developer(s): Relic Entertainment
Release date: February 23, 2023
Abu Amjad Khan