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It’s been 17 years since Company of Heroes 2 debuted with the Russian campaign of World War II. And now we’re finally getting Company of Heroes 3 with a massive campaign that combines both North Africa and the Italian theaters of the Second World War. It was worth the wait.
In contrast to shooters, the WWII genre hasn’t been overdone in the real-time strategy market for PC games, and there’s a lot of pent-up demand for this title from Sega’s Relic Entertainment studio. And so I’m happy to report that the developers did a great job with the title after more than four years of work.
Greenlighting such ambitious titles isn’t common since RTS games are best played with a mouse and keyboard, and that means they’re tied to the PC platform. And a single-platform game is a business risk since many titles do better if they’re playable across a bunch of platforms. That’s probably why you don’t see as many RTS titles these days even as their multiplayer only battle arena (MOBA) cousins are more popular. But I’m very glad that Sega/Relic took the time to deliver this title.
The North African campaign
One of the surprises is that Relic threw in the North African campaign as a prelude to the invasion of Italy.
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The North African mini-campaign starts in January 1942, as Erwin Rommel arrives in North Africa in charge of the Afrika Korps. It’s a mini-campaign because there is no strategic map of the region where you can fight back and forth to seize key points. It’s just a collection of battles that you have to finish in a kind of tutorial campaign. I would have liked to see a full campaign, or even a separate game for this one.
You play as Rommel, who became known as the Desert Fox for his wily tactics in beating enemies with larger forces and better supplies. In still-frame cut scenes, the game conveys the viewpoint of Libyan families who rebelled against the Nazi and Italian occupiers.
Rommel narrates the pre-battle briefing to tell you about the mission you need to pull off, using your own tactics. This campaign serves to educate players about the German forces, their weaponry and tactics.
There was one particular tutorial mission that was hard to win and very well balanced, as the British come at you in multiple waves. Setting up a defense involves using engineers to plant mines, laying down wire, positioning your machine guns and anti-tank forces well, and creating a defense-in-depth to hold on if the enemy breaks through against any part of your line.
But for most of the campaign, you are on the offense making daring moves against a static enemy that doesn’t understand tank warfare as well as Rommel did. For a starter, the North African campaign goes on for quite a while, but you don’t fight some of the big events like the loss at El Alamein or Rommel’s defeat. Still, you’ll be plenty ready to play the Italian campaign once you beat North Africa.
Overall, North Africa gets you ready for the notion that no battle goes as expected, and you have to deal with the chaos of war.
The Italian campaign
The invasion of Italy, starting on July 9, 1943, is the main event of Company of Heroes 3, with dozens of maps and lots of missions to fight through. This game took longer to make because it had 40 different detailed maps, compared to 22 for Company of Heroes 2.
Producing a variety of troops takes a lot of preparation and forethought. You can add capabilities to each company as it chalks up victories. Those upgrades such as aerial rocket attacks, carpet bombings, light tanks, and paratrooper drops can add a lot of firepower to each battle. It’s like a full RPG in that respect, and you have to be careful that you don’t put your veteran companies into meatgrinder missions.
The campaign map is like a turn-based chessboard, while the tactical maps are where you see the actual soldiers fight in real-time in highly detailed tactical maps full of trees, walls, buildings and entrenchments. As with Sega’s Total War games, I liked how you could spend a lot of time on the campaign map and auto-resolve battles on the strategic level, particularly the ones where it was a one-sided victory.
In the real-time tactical map battles, you are like a short-order cook, keeping an eye on so many things at once. You have to grab resources on the map, generate new units on the production line, make sure you have a variety of forces grouped together in squads, and always take the fight to the enemy. It’s easy to forget to toss grenades or lay down smoke, but these things can make all the difference in a battle.
The heads-up display is easier to use. You can see all of your special capabilities that have cooled down and are ready to use, like calling in more reinforcement tanks or air strikes. You can pause the battle by hitting a space bar and queue up commands to put your squads into action.
One of the best things you can do is pick up ammo along the way or make use of the enemy’s dropped weapons, such as anti-tank guns, Panzerschrecks, MG42 machine guns, and mortars. It tells you how ill-equipped many of the American squads were during the war.
The campaign map and the tactical maps are beautiful, and it makes it so much more pleasant to play the game. The campaign map has strategic unit information and notifications that keep it busy, but you still get the bulk of the screen to look at the gorgeous colors on the map. I played it on a machine with a 3080 graphics card, and it slowed down at times and still managed to get the job done.
If there are drawbacks to the campaign map and the user interface, it’s that there isn’t enough meta information about how the campaign is going. You hit the population cap before you know it. I had to discard units that weren’t very useful, like the recon aircraft that seemed quite expensive.
I know I’m not a game designer, and I recognize that you can’t make the allies too powerful. But I would have liked to have seen the enemy be more aggressive and my own strategic options more plentiful.
At the same time, the tactical maps have lots of detail. One of the greatest features here is destruction. Buildings can be blown up and barbed wire can be torn up by tanks. These create new tactical opportunities and ways to protect your troops.
As the head of the invasion forces, you have to please different factions. The British general Norton is careful about supply lines and pushing forward in his region. But the American commander Buckram is brash and wants to get to Rome first, reflecting the real world tensions of the allies. And the head of the Italian partisans wants you to liberate towns, help the spies and guerillas, and avoid unnecessary destruction of towns like the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino, one of the great tragedies of the war.
Of course, you can’t make everyone happy, and the game keeps score on who is happy with you and who isn’t. It’s a kind of political meta-game atop the campaign.
The missions are battles where the pre-brief is narrated by a commander, with moderately good storytelling.
The one where you land at the beach in Salerno is pretty mild as far as beach landings go. You can fight your way ashore simply by flanking the Germans, finding a flamethrower, and then attacking everyone from behind. But the counterattack was one of the most difficult early missions.
You have to take two bridges across a river that runs around the city. It’s a hard push to be able to take both bridges and blow them up. But then you have to defend the bridges (yeah, that doesn’t make sense) as the Germans come back with heavy squads and tanks. It made me so happy when the German tanks blew up my mines, but I was sad when German artillery took those minefields out. The pitched battle at Salerno was just one example of the well-crafted missions and storytelling that the team could do.
You can tell that the missions are where the dev team applied their care and skill in balancing the fighting. The battles were longer and less one-sided.
In each mission, you have to reach a territory goal, wresting it from the Germans on a timetable. But since there’s the fog of war, you never know what you need. If you spend too much time gathering resources and beefing up your forces, you may run out of time. The wartime pressure of time versus strength, of being careful of ambushes or too careful and slow, is always weighing on you.
There’s also a highly personalized mission. The nephew of one of the British generals gets trapped behind enemy lines, and your job is to help his solo squad escape quietly amid a bunch of German infantry and armor.
I enjoyed missions at the airport at Pomigliano, the landing and German counterattack at Naples, the capture of Potenza, the battle of Minturno, the rescue at the Anzio beachhead, the assault on Monte Cassino, the taking of the Bari seaport, a mission where you destroy three coastal guns, and the final attack on the Winter Line.
That’s a lot of good missions, and I gladly replayed a lot of these just so I could complete the highest mission goals. In the Anzio map, the challenge was that there were many tasks to do in order to win the map, but I often only had the bandwidth to make a single push at a time, and even then I ran out of time to complete the mission a couple of times.
An odd campaign scale
The scale of the game seems a bit off. In the early part of the campaign, I had control of just a few units. At one point, I was trying to drive to the eastern coast of Italy and drive north on a couple of prongs. And so a single company served as the spearhead of an entire campaign to the east. When I lost such a unit far from the beaches in the west, the only thing I could do was drop paratroopers into the same general vicinity to keep the campaign going.
I noted that at one point in the early campaign, I could have had one bomber, one recon plane, one fighter, and one transport plane and that would have constituted two-thirds of all of the units I had on the map.
That was kind of maddening because there were so many vectors to attack and I could only pursue one, two or three strategic goals at a time. As time passed and more supplies came into the seaport or airfield, I could add more. But I always seemed starved for resources. I had many avenues of attack, but there was no point in sending troops into alternative paths as demanded by small local missions.
By the end of the campaign, I was in charge of perhaps 11 units on the entire map of Italy. Since each one represents a company, that just isn’t very many units. I would have much preferred a larger number of units and a more granular approach to the campaign, like you see in the Total War games.
Company of Heroes 3 was often akin to playing a game of chess with five pieces. Why make such a target-rich map with so few resources to attack it with?
Weak enemy AI
The AI for the tanks and soldiers is not bad. You can set them loose and watch them pound away at targets that come within range. But if you ask it to shoot at some enemies behind a wall, it won’t go around the wall so that it has a clear shot. It will pound away at the wall, often to no effect. That means you have to show more initiative and tell the tank exactly what to do. Similarly, if a vehicle is under attack, it won’t always wheel backward and try to escape. It may just sit there and get pounded until it’s done for.
Skirmish missions are predictable
Fortunately, in single-player combat, the AI enemies aren’t so smart either. It’s quite easy to win Skirmish battles, which take place when you fight in towns or spaces where there aren’t specific missions. The goal is to take over as many flags on a map as possible.
Some of these battles where you randomly take towns or run into enemies in the field could have been the most fun and unpredictable, but they were kind of generic. If you don’t do much recon, you’ll find you’re running into emplacements that can degrade the strength of your companies. But when you go into non-strategic towns, you can chose to “auto-resolve” a battle or fight it out in a Skirmish mode.
I simply multiplied my forces as fast as possible and got the advantage in gathering resources. Then I concentrated my forces wherever the enemy attacked. I won these battles easily with a formulaic strategy. The only tough trick was to figure out when to switch over my production to armor and anti-armor units to head off surprise attacks.
Despite the mundane nature of these battles, I found it always necessary to fight them rather than to “auto-resolve” battles on the campaign map (rather than fighting it out on a tactical map) because the outcome was almost always better. I found the Skirmish battles to be the least interesting in the whole game.
The main reason was that it was often just one squad against another in a battle for a capture point.
That sort of defeats the combined arms concept of air, armor, infantry, machine guns, mortars and bazookas. To dislodge enemies from entrenched positions, you need all of those things. But the most valuable way to swing a duel is to manually have your infantry toss a grenade over at the enemy.
I would note that I played it on standard difficulty, and I could increase the difficulty levels in my future campaigns. On top of that, the battles that involved missions in the story of the campaign were almost always well-orchestrated and more difficult to beat.
There are occasional dud missions. I didn’t enjoy one where my job was to destroy a bunch of enemy ammo caches. It was exceedingly hard to find all 40 ammo caches on the map, and it was quite annoying to be attacked while I was doing that. And sometimes I’d blow up some ammo and kill my own men doing it. But for the most part, as noted above, the missions were more exciting.
Multiplayer requires multitasking
If you feel like single-player campaigns are too easy, then you should give multiplayer a try. I always found it to be difficult when I played during various stages of the game’s development. Veteran human players are almost always much smarter than the computer AI.
And while my resource-gathering focus worked fine in single-player battles, the human enemy would be quicker than the AI by far in adapting to my fast-moving strategy. While I focused on weak units, I would inevitably be surprised by a human who would show up with multiple tanks against my forces or would take back a capture point as soon as I left it.
One of the nice post-game charts showed where my resource collection took off fast but then I lost the lead after a certain time had passed, and that was usually when the multitasking exploded. I had to keep my production lines busy, gather resources, and concentrate firepower at the right battles. One of the key ways to gather intelligence is to send a suicide mission into the enemy’s stronghold to find out what the other side is making and how far along they are in production.
Beyond that, I hope to learn more from others out there about how to fight better in multiplayer. You might learn better in 2-versus-2 battles than 1-versus-1 at first, but I’d find someone who can fill you in better on the nuances of multiplayer fighting.
I might have sounded grumpy than I actually am in describing what I like and don’t like. But overall, I’m joyful that this kind of big-budget RTS is still possible in our age of blockbusters. I hope the game does well and proves that RTS and WWII are still economically viable categories in gaming.
I would note that this is one of those games where I would be perfectly happy playing the single-player campaign over and over again before considering multiplayer. As with Sega’s Total War games, I would love to spend tons of hours playing this game and venturing online as well. I stopped playing Call of Duty: Warzone for a bit to play this and Dead Space, and both were great uses of my time.
As I noted in an earlier preview, whether I was fighting against humans or the computer AI, I never got the sense that war was too easy and my opponent was too easy to be. And so there was always a cost to fighting, and that’s the way it should be.
Disclosure: Sega provided me with a copy of the game on the Windows PC for the purposes of this review.
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