There is only one word that can adequately describe Relic’s strategy with Company of Heroes 3: ambitious. Whereas the studio seems intent on recapturing past glories with its approach to Age of Empires IV, this new Company of Heroes is pushing almost every boundary in an attempt to give fans a modern and exciting sequel. It is trying to follow in the footsteps of one of the most popular strategy games of all time, after all.
This has manifested in a number of bold design decisions. Firstly, CoH3 is hitting the Mediterranean hard. This will include the popular North Africa campaigns, but it will also mean Italy. Very few war games bother with the allied invasion of the peninsula, which knocked the Italians out of the war in 1943, and yet the core of the pre-alpha build focuses on exactly this.
The only real disappointment here out of the gate is that, currently, Italy isn’t really represented in the game. During our play test we brushed against mechanics for insurgents and partisans, and to be fair Italy did capitulate quite quickly after the allied landings. The Wehrmacht soon took over, disarming most of the Italian military and reducing their presence in battle overall. The Allies made great use of Italian partisans, which is why they play a major role in this part of the campaign.
But while we appreciate the historical realities of the snapshot Relic has taken of WWII, it does feel like a missed opportunity to do something other than Germany vs Britain/America. Italian forces played a major role in North Africa, more so than is usually recognised.
The second major change is the new campaign layer. Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault is one of our favourite RTS games of all time, and yet its campaign offering was quite modest. Other contemporary WW2 games such as Steel Division 2 and Unity of Command 2 offer more strategic depth, and Relic has certainly taken note.
“We look at everything,” Company of Heroes 3 lead mission designer Sacha Narine tells us, “there’s just so much to learn from other developers… So much great work that’s been done in the last eight years.”
This is perhaps the most ambitious element of Company of Heroes 3. The campaign map is rendered in full 3D, and you can move units around (called ‘companies’, because of course) to capture towns or hold defensive lines. You can also move smaller ‘detachments’, which can’t trigger RTS battles on their own, but can support companies or provide campaign-level abilities to give you more strategic options.
Fine-tuning the campaign layer will be a battle on two fronts: offering meaningful interactions between campaign and tactical play, and ensuring there’s an appropriate amount of busywork on the campaign layer. Company of Heroes 3 doesn’t want to be a full-on wargame, but it does want to offer enough strategic depth to make you feel like part of a theatre-wide operation. Supply lines are important, as is securing sources of additional supplies and strategic sites such as airfields. Fast travel routes will also become important in the mid-to-late campaign.
You can even deploy defences on the map with the right units, such as roadblocks and minefields, which mirror similar options you have in the tactical space. At the same time, Relic has expressed a desire to not bog the player down in busywork during campaign turns – actions are limited, and other than purchasing new units there doesn’t seem to be much else to do with your turn at the moment.
A recent change to the campaign layer – which was brought about as a result of the ‘CoH-development’ community collaboration program – was reflecting campaign consequences at the tactical level. Thanks to campaign-level air and naval assets, forces can take damage without engaging in an RTS battle. This is especially useful if you want to soften up a target, such as a defended town, but it can also happen to you. You’ll find that your units will enter RTS battles in a damaged state if they’ve been bombed on the campaign map, for example.
Speaking of tactical battles, the RTS layer is about the only thing that hasn’t undergone a totally seismic shift. Tactical combat in Company of Heroes was always good, and this fine tradition has so far been upheld. The changes here are minor, subtle, with the most interesting thing being a new ‘hot breach’ mechanic to make clearing buildings easier.
“I think it’s going to be the sum of its parts that really makes it feel different,” Narine concedes, although that’s not to do the tactical layer any disserve. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and so far CoH3’s tactical combat has proven very dependable. It’s hard to make ‘dependable’ exciting when faced with an enhanced campaign mode that – as far as this series goes – is very nearly unprecedented.
Other notable choices in the tactical sphere actually come from the environment. There’s a lot more verticality to maps, and the way troops at different heights interact has become more meaningful. As an example, troops in cover will have that defence bonus negated if they are being fired upon by troops at a higher elevation. There have also been changes to things like line of sight, and even in how buildings fracture and break when they sustain too much damage.
I’m excited for Company of Heroes 3, and while waiting at least 12 months for it to release is going to be a drag, at this stage you can tell that it’s still a work in progress. The original Company of Heroes sat at the nexus of mainstream strategy, historical wargames, and challenging tactical gameplay – a perfect storm. It’s an experience that’s never been beaten, not even by subsequent CoH releases.
Company of Heroes 3 has a lot going for it, but the campaign layer will need to work smoothly and offer meaningful interactions in order to not let the war effort down. The pre-alpha shows promise, and Relic is optimistic:
“One thing that’s helping us is we’ve had more time to make this game. Considerably more,” Narine says. “I believe we will deliver the biggest and best version of Company of Heroes.” It’s too early for us to make a judgement, but at least Relic has (hopefully) given itself plenty of time.
Related: CoH 3 Pre-alpha system requirements
Company of Heroes 3 is due out on PC via Steam sometime in late 2022, however the pre-alpha preview we played is available for anyone to play until the start of August, provided you link to a Relic account.