Whipping around a British trench line, my Panzers centered their fire on the enemy position. British troopers disintegrated under the sweltering fire, allowing my ground troops to move in and secure the position. After firing a few smoke canisters to cover their advance, I set up one unit in a nearby building to cover the road to our east while the rest of my units captured the trench network the British were holding just a moment earlier.
These battles came to define my playtime in Company of Heroes 3, the upcoming RTS from Relic Entertainment that pits players as one of the major powers during the Second World War. During a press preview last month, the team behind COH3 lifted the cloche on the upcoming North African campaign, allowing players to take the role of Germany’s Deutsches Afrikakorps as they fought the British during the early years of the war.
It's interesting that Relic is aiming to provide two very different campaign experiences as well. Previously, the team showcased a bit of the Italian Dynamic, an open-ended campaign meant to test players as they controlled an entire theater. However, the North African campaign is more focused on this single, narrative-focused experience. And it will tell a story that contrasts the destruction that the Nazis and the real conditions the people of North Africa had to deal with on the ground. The narrative isn't an easy one to tell according to Relic, but it is an important one. As such, the team states they are taking great care to not glorify or romanticize the Germans, Rommel, or the exploits of the DAK, instead showing the DAK war machine and how it impacted the people on the ground in a real way.
The early moments of the mission had me breaking through the British lines to come to the aid of my Italian allies that were under pressure. Riding in on my tanks, a new feature coming with Company of Heroes 3, I moved my ground DAK troops into cover, aiming to take out the enemy positions. Anti-tank guns threatened to decimate my Panzers, but with a little trickery, I managed to dismantle the British position, leaving their tanks open to a counterattack of my own.
It reminded me so much of the tactical strategy games I played growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. And that’s a good thing, as the North African campaign is meant to evoke a pure RTS experience. Every time I clicked the map to move a unit it required some real thought. Would my flank be exposed if I moved up here? Can I cover my units with smoke or lay down ground barrage to give them some breathing room? How do I ensure my Panzers survive the next encounter? It’s the type of RTS strategy I adore and grew up playing: the kind where every decision makes a tangible difference on the battlefield.
Thankfully, one of the mechanics coming to Company of Heroes 3 is the Tactical Pause. This allows you to, well, pause the action to set up maneuvers for each unit to carry out once you resume. Orchestrating full combined arms assaults with this feature made taking enemy positions a breeze. I found myself constantly pausing to assess the situation, lay out movements and orders for my units, and then let them play out, adjusting as the enemy AI did as I needed.
After breaking through the British lines and establishing a forward position, I was transported to a small base in the North African desert to build up my forces for the larger assault. Here I was able to recruit more Panzergrenadiers to assault the British, as well as use what became one of the most important parts of my arsenal: a repair vehicle.
Being able to bring damaged, smoldering wrecks back to life came in clutch later in the campaign when my enemy outfitted their defenses with anti-tank cannons and long-range artillery. Protecting this vulnerable repair truck became paramount as I moved him around the battlefield behind my main force, ready to jump in and bring a damaged tank back to life.
Other support vehicles, such as a towing truck or a medical vehicle were also vulnerable to enemy fire, so positioning my tanks and units to protect them, especially as I was towing my own anti-tank weapons later on in the campaign, became all-important to the mission.
After securing a nearby trench network and setting up my anti-tank gun at a nearby crossroads, it became time to take another British position near a town north of my own. Assaulting, uphill, into an encamped position stressed out my DAK forces, but thankfully Company of Heroes 3 also allows me to summon my Italian allies, namely one of their L6/40 light tanks as well as a squad of Guastatori combat engineers to bolster my ranks. Picking my way slowly at first with my DAK troops supported now with the Guastatori reinforcements, I laid down some fire using my le.IG 18 Support gun at what I thought would be an enemy machine gun emplacement.
And I was right to do so, because as my units got closer and the fog of war lifted, the British were in full retreat of their position, scared off by my withering fire. From here I whipped in my Panzers, each one streaking across the desert and into position to capture the crossroads that led into the main settlement. However, a hidden anti-tank emplacement threatened my tanks, destroying one and causing the next to retreat back down the hill. Enemy tanks came over the horizon in pursuit, but my own anti-tank gun made short work of the British armor.
Once I had secured the crossroads, the assault on the nearby urban center began. Company of Heroes 3’s North African campaign, to this point, had been about wide-open space to maneuver, with sparse buildings to use as cover and choke points. This let tanks whip around the sands of the desert with relative ease, though left many of my troops exposed when moving into new positions.
This all changed once we moved into the main city nearby, intent on capturing it from the British to pressure their right flank. Tanks, before dominating with their mobility, felt hemmed in by the streets and buildings around them. Leveling large stone structures with both tank and artillery fire (not to mention calling in airstrikes to aid in this) helped me slowly move my DAK ground forces into the city to capture its city center. British forces took pop shots at my DAK troops as I maneuvered around, eager to find a flank I could turn. My le.IG 18 Support gun trained its fire on any building I could find with an enemy squad, causing mayhem in my enemy’s ranks.
Once the city was captured the British sought to flee the field, something we were tasked with stopping. Quickly moving into a defensive position, I was able to keep most of the British from escaping, but not all, especially as tanks began to roll in ahead of their troops, taking out what vehicles I had left at the time.
However, despite letting some of the enemy escape, the campaign was a success. And while it took maybe an hour to complete, I was eager to jump back into the campaign again to try things differently. What if I move this unit here, or try a different composition of ground troops instead? Could I flank the anti-tank emplacement or maybe even come at the city from a different angle that doesn’t cost me so many ground troops in the process? It was good, old-fashioned RTS fun, something I haven’t had in ages.
Thankfully, Company of Heroes 3 is letting players try out the new campaign in their feedback program, COH-Development. The mission is free to play on Steam for a week, running from today through the 19th. Either way, I’m looking forward to diving more deeply when Company of Heroes 3 finally releases on November 17th.