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Strategy Session: Company of Heroes 3 Review

Joseph Bradford Updated: Posted:
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Reviews Strategy Session 0

Company of Heroes 3 is ambitious, its dual-wielding campaigns aiming to tell a more focused story of the Mediterranean campaigns of World War 2. And by and large it succeeds, giving me vibes that reminded me why I love real-time strategy titles. However, technical issues undermined some of what Relic was trying to do here, giving me engine trouble on the way to the front more often than I'd like.

Company of Heroes 3  is the largest entry into the franchise, bringing its large, dynamic Italy campaign, a more focused North African campaign, as well as more units and ways factions to choose from. Set in the Mediterranean Theater of World War 2, players can take the role of the British, Americans and two German factions (the Deutches Afrikakorps and the Wehrmacht ) and duke it out with the other side in its iconic blend of tactical and real-time strategy.

Company of Heroes 3 has a few game modes on offer: the aforementioned campaign modes set in Italy and North Africa, as well as full competitive and co-op modes against other players or AI to test your skill across fourteen different maps, the most CoH has ever lauched with. The maps themselves are beautifully detailed, with the lush greens of Italy giving way to the destruction brought on by both armies as they fight over a city or chokepoint, while the deserts of North Africa look plenty arid and as if they would be no fun to fight in real life, let alone virtually.

These battlefields change dynamically over the course of the fight, with buildings being reduced to rubble, the landscape showing off the scars of combat, and more. It never gets to the level of destruction to where you can knock down a building to cut off a path from your enemy, which would have been nice, but the degree with which it feels the landscape changes as the war rages on is such a nice touch as I felt it more fully grounded me in the action.

Scrolling past shell holes where I lost an Airborne squad to a mortar attack reminds me to scout ahead before commiting more troops to that section of the front. Destroying a bridge to cut off the advance of German armor, making them easy pickings to my artillery and airsupport - these types of developments really made Company of Heroes 3 feel like a fight I could affect in new ways. I felt like I could adapt to any situation put in front of me if I thought about it long enough.

Company of Heroes 3 Gazala

The wonderful tactical pause in Company of Heroes 3 allows this even more. Going full tactical let me plan exactly what I wanted my units to do, where and how I wanted them to get there. Being able to move a group of units from cover to cover in order to flank a machine gun nest that was suppressing a wide lane I had to cross was made all the easier since I could pause and plan every movement of my squadrons. Calling in creeping barrage with artillery while sending in commandos after the curtain of steel was pummeling enemy forces was easier to coordinate if I didn't leave it up to the AI pathing completely to coreograph their movements.

And honestly, it's for the better that I'm able to meticulously plan each move, as time and time again the AI pathing let me down when left to their own devices. Taking an American Rifleman squad to breach a building where a sniper hid, picking off my units, was a nightmare as the squad couldn't find the door to breach. One instance left my rifleman stuck behind some trees, caught in an eternal limbo where they couldn't breach the compound, but also couldn't retreat - leaving me one company short in my final assault on a rail gun that was decimating my headquarters in the Italian campaign.

These pathing problems weren't isolated incidents either, as every match I played had at least one moment where I found myself throwing my hands up in the air as my units threw themselves into the meat grinder with no regard to their own safety. One instance had me taking three Paratrooper squads to outflank a German machinegunner nest that was holding down an area I needed to secure. The small town square was flanked by walls and buildings, meaning I could draw the attention of the nest with one unit under cover while my other two flanked in a pincer movement.

Despite setting up the moves in the Tactical pause, when it came time to execute, it seemed my Paratroopers forgot their commands, throwing themselves into the line of fire as opposed to carefully picking their way across the walls and out of sight of the machine gunners, as I had instructed. I took the next, eventually, but at the cost of one of my units being sent back to recover instead of being able to quickly press my advantage.

The core of the tactical combat on offer will be very familiar to Company of Heroes veterans: you fight over sectors of territory, claiming them to build up a pool of resources to build more units or spend on Command Abilities, such as calling in an airstrike or bringing in extra troops, such as the wonderful British Gurkha infantry or motorized gun platforms of the Deutches Afrikakorps. Each army handles a little bit differently, such as the Americans relying on aggression and adapting to the battlefield to come out on top, or the Deutches Afrikakorps' reliance on what they were known for best historically: mechanized warfare. 

Under the Tuscan Sun

The centerpiece of Company of Heroes 3 is its Italian Dynamic Map campaign. This long, challenging campaign sees players taking the role of the Commander of Allied Forces as they attempt to liberate Italy from German control. The campaign plays out on an absolutely breathtaking map of Italy, however, the rolling Italian countryside has become a hornet's nest of German gun emplacements, chokepoints and more, all of which will need to be overcome to steadily make your way towards the prize: Rome. 

Comparisons will be made to Total War, another real-time strategy title that uses a dynamic map to plan and carry out battles for supremacy, and while I think it's an apt comparison, Total War allows for a bit more freedom versus the Italian campaign here. The goal is always the same: taking Rome. How you get there each time will depend on your approach up the narrow boot of Italy. 

This campaign really drove home how planning, not just from a battle perspective, but resource management, approach, and cost of each action, matters in warfare. Oftentimes I found myself early on strung out with dwindling supplies, German gun batteries making work of my few Airborne and armored battalions as I moved ever closer towards my prize. 

Claiming ports and airfields can help with supply issues, while controlling cities and chokepoints can give a commanding presence from which to launch the next attack. All the while I dealt with the bickering Generals of the allied forces, each with their own idea of how to get to Rome. 

The British and American generals are, in a sense, caricatures of the best and worst qualities each side was known for during the war, with the American general brash, eager and unwilling to let up the attack at the cost of maybe stretching the supply lines a bit too thin. His British counterpart seems more interested in a plodding, slower affair, determined to capture supply lines and establish a link to the Adriatic first instead of just rushing to Rome. And his aire of British Aristocracy that never seemed to be questioned hangs over every interaction with the American general. 

Also in the mix is an Italian resistance member who, when you've helped to keep them happy, can provide bonuses on the map itself, such as unlocking an ability to effectively reset a zone of control with a partisan explosion or recruit partisans themselves to fight alongside your troops.

At first this campaign was thrilling, as I moved from Sicily to the main penninsula, taking towns and fortifying them with gun emplacements of my own. However, as I moved through the campaign, cracks began to form, both from a gameplay and technical perspective.

The Italian campaign felt almost buckled under its own expectations, as I would find the map bugging out or performance on my i9-13900K and RTX 4090-equipped PC ground down to a halt over time. Moving across the map itself felt like a challenge, especially if I wanted to move my troops off the road and into the countryside. AI pathing reared its ugly head again as oftentimes it would default to the roads, right into the path of enemy gun emplacements and troops locking down a chokepoint. 

While at face value the idea of slow, plodding movement and planning each route was nice in theory, I started to notice that the towns and points of interest I captured didn't seem to matter much to the Germans themselves as they would never really try to force me back. A few scripted counterattacks happened, such as the one after I took Potenza early on, that gave the illusion that I was under pressure, but by and large I was able to just take territory and move on, never needing to fortify it that much from an assault.

As a result, this made the idea of the campaign map a bit moot, so to speak. On one hand, it's an interesting way to present the Italian campaign, especially as I was faced with choices that could have a lasting impact on the narrative Company of Heroes was trying to tell. Pivotal moments historically are presented, such as the infamous bombing of the Monte Cassino abbey or the assault on the railguns in the port city of Anzio, but otherwise it all felt a but unimpactful.

The actual action in the campaign is incredible, however. The assault on Anzio was multilayered, with pressure being added to my troops and planning on multiple fronts. Dealing with a railgun that decimated my troops, while also needing to help my allies establish their own beachhead, all the while picking my way through the town avoiding gun emplacements was a proper challenge that brought out the best in Company of Heroes 3. Having to deal wth anti-aircraft guns to call in paratroopers was pivotal for me, playing as an Airborne company, as oftentimes my transports would come crashing down before any Airborne parachutes would open in the early stages of that battle. 

Storming Monte Cassino was a treat, even if i couldn't stop the Allied bombing of the storied abbey, and the upward climb felt tedious at worst, glorious at best when I finally overcame my objective. These moments are interspersed with more skirmishes and fights that felt less random and more deliberate than a standard match against the AI. It gave each fight more purpose.

Coupled with all of this are the moves you make on the campaign map itself, such as unlocking air support to come to your aid in battle with specific detachments or ensuring you always have a handy Naval bombardment at the ready when needed while taking ports. Unlocking these bonuses on the map itself gave me a reason to keep building up the strength of my armies, as they conferred more bonuses in battle when I did, to the point where I would find myself hamstrung a bit when commanding newer companies later on in the campaign, especially when I assaulted Anzio.

However, even here technical issues reared their ugly head, as textures would flicker seemingly on and off like a lightswitch or framerate could buckle under pressure. On the campaign map, I ended up needing to restart multiple times just to alleviate the performance issues that would degrade the experience over time, while a few times Company of Heroes 3 simply crashed to desktop, making me glad for its generous auto-save.

All in all, while I was excited to play the Italian Campaign after my preview with it back in December, I'm not sure it's a path I'll find myself playing again in Company of Heroes 3. Hopefully patches can improve its performance while a balance pass could make the enemy AI more aggressive and challenging on the map itself. As of right now, the nearly 25-hour campaign felt like a slog, and not a particularly fun one when outside of combat itself.

Dealing With The Heat

The other campaign is the more traditional RTS fare, with a linear campaign that sees players taking the role of the Axis forces as they drive the British back in North Africa. It's an interesting proposal, placing players right into the role of the German army in World War 2, though the choice of Erwin Rommel as the focal point is likely easier to stomach for many compared to the SS or the Wehrmacht storming European cities. 

The North African campaign aims to tell two stories: the lightning fast successes of the Deutches Afrikakorps in 1941-1942 juxtaposed with how this theater impacted the local inhabitants of North African, told from the perspective of a Jewish family caught up in the war itself. It aims to tell a touching, grounded story that reminds us that no one is left unscathed when caught up in the gears of history, though telling it while operating an arm of the army that also commited some of worst war crimes in the history of human existence is a bit jarring.

However, if you can get past that, the African campaign provides some incredible RTS scenarios to work around. These eight missions highlight the brutality and speed of mechanized warfare, as my Panzers and Stutka rocket barrages decimate enemy encampantmens all around each map, bulldozing my way towards victory in each scenario. Fighting through an enemy counterattack to secure an escape route for my communications company, or destroying a supply line of the British with carefully placed ambushes were highlights of this more focused, traditional RTS campaign.

In between each mission are beautifully drawn animatics telling the story of a Berber family torn apart by the ravages of war, and it's a nice touch, albeit jarring when you consider you'll be rolling around the desert as part of the Nazi war machine moments later. Also, while the cutscenes are beautiful, they don't appear to be rendered at native resolution, meaning that while I played Company of Heroes 3 in 4K, a standard PC resolution by modern standards, the ccutscenes here, and in the Italian campaign, looked like they were being stretched and uprezed to my resolution, making for a subpar experience.

Into The Fray

However, despite the issues with the campaigns, Company of Heroes 3 excels where it matters: it's moment to moment combat. I touched on this a bit earlier, but it's on each of the beautifully and meticulously crafted maps where Relic shows off why they are among the very best in real time strategy development. 

Each map is beautiful, and challenging to fight on, whether it's the close quarters combat of an Italian city, where elevation, locking down chokepoints and more make a massive difference when fighting the enemy, or on the more open North African maps that see troops station on ridgelines and more room for tanks and armor to out manuever each other. Fighting in a city such as Potenza was thrilling as it forced me to really sit and plan out routes and carefully choose how I would approach each sector of the map.

While in some RTS titles you can overwhelm your opponents with just sheer numbers, here in Company of Heroes 3 numbers are only one part of the story. How you manuever them, the combined arms you're fighting with, and how entrentched you or the enemy are play a pivotal role in combat. This isn't a title where you can simply treat each fight like that of a general sending troops into a meat grinder (though some fights did turn into feeling like that for me), instead it rewards tactical and agile thinking, planning, and figuring out the best way to overcome an enemy versus just sending everything you have and hoping the zerg will turn out for the best.

Verdict

Company of Heroes 3 is a great RTS game - maybe one of the best I've played in recent memory. The moment to moment action kept me hooked in its grand skirmishes and battles, each moment ramping up the tension as I sought to counter and overcome the enemy. While the Italian campaign is, overall, a fun way to play Company of Heroes 3, it does feel weighed down by the sheer amount it's trying to do, all the while not really feeling like much of a challenge outside of some of the set piece fights. Technical issues marr the experience both in combat and out, though hopefully these can be alleviated with a patch down the line.

Where Company of Heroes 3 shines the best is on the battlefield itself, blending its real-time strategy combat with the tactical gameplay the series is known for. Adding in the Tactical Pause is a stroke of genius as it makes each encounter more deliberate, allowing for geater control over the units doing the fighting and making me feel more like the commander overseeing the strategy I've built as the battlefield unfolds in front of me. 

All in all, Company of Heroes 3 is great, and should be on the list for any strategy fan looking to get stuck in one more turn, or one more fight. It's a fitting inclusion in Relic's library of incredible RTS games, and continues to show why the developers there are some of the best in the business. I cannot wait to tuck myself back into the fray, delighting in its beautifully crafted RTS-goodness over and over again in the coming weeks and months.

Full Disclosure: The product described was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.

8.0 Great
Pros
  • Outstanding tactical combat
  • Large roster of factions and units to choose from, each different than the last
  • Beautifully and meticulously crafted battle maps
  • Italian Campaign battles are some of the most tense and briliant I've fought in any RTS
  • Sound design is absolutely epic
Cons
  • Italian campaign is a bit of a dud overall
  • Technical issues really hamper the overall experience


lotrlore

Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore