When one looks for a game series that has survived the test of time, the Company of Heroes games would certainly make that list. Back when PC gaming was just starting to hit its stride with advanced graphics and sound, Company of Heroes broke away from the sci-fi and fantasy RTS glut of the time to provide gamers with a realistic title set during World War II. Players followed an American fighting force known as Able Company as they pressed deep into Germany in what could have easily been the plot of a blockbuster movie.
I reviewed the original Company of Heroes for GiN way back in 2006, and it earned a very rare perfect score from me. The gameplay was fluid, the plot was engaging, and the graphics were surprisingly good for the time. Over the years I continued playing the COH series, and enjoyed almost all of the game DLCs and modes that were released for Company of Heroes 2, including the mode where you had to defend a central position either alone or with a group from waves of enemies, and the tank versus tank battle mode which served as an interesting, action-oriented distraction from the main game. I played all of the campaigns COH 2 offered, and hundreds of single skirmish battles against and with the computer and also real people.
So, I was pretty excited to hear about Company of Heroes 3, which was recently released on Steam. The game promised some never-before-seen features along with better graphics and gameplay, without moving too far away from the core concepts that makes the series so fun to play. And for the most part, Relic Entertainment accomplished those goals. The title is not perfect in its current form, but hopefully it will continue to evolve and get critical patches until it has ironed out some of the flaws. I remember that Company of Heroes 2 was also far from perfect when it was released, so I am hopeful that COH 3 will follow that same path.
Like with the previous COH titles, there are multiple armies that players can command in Company of Heroes 3. Your top-level choices include the American forces, the British Army, the German Wehrmacht and the combined German and Italian Afrikakorps. Within each of those four main groups, you also have the option to command a specific faction or army type, each with special abilities and units. For example, an American commander can choose to lead a Special Forces deployment or an Airborne or Armored Battlegroup. Meanwhile, the German commander can lead a Mechanized, Breakthrough or Luftwaffe Battlegroup. Certain sub-groups are better at either attacking or defending, so choosing the right one for the mission at hand, or whatever group best fits your playstyle, is both important and also serves to make the game more enjoyable.
The single player campaign is probably where most players will start, and it is here where the biggest differences will be found from the previous titles. There are two very extensive campaigns in Company of Heroes 3, one set in North Africa and the other in Italy, so the Mediterranean Theater is the focus here.
In those campaigns, in addition to typical tactical battles, armchair generals will also now be responsible for keeping their armies moving on a strategic map. The strategic map is turn-based and will have players moving units around it to capture strategic resources as well as locations like towns and cities. Much of what you will do on the strategic map can be auto-resolved without tactical combat by simply spending turns in order to accomplish objectives. For example, if you come up to an enemy-held port city with two shields floating over it, that means that it will take two full turns for a single army group of any type to capture it. But you do have options. For example, you could attack that town with two different units and take it over in a single turn. Or you could order an offshore battleship to bombard the town, which removes one shield and lets you then capture it with a single unit in one turn.
Each town or resource you capture adds different perks to your overall campaign, or it will simply provide a place for your battered units to rest and refit. Units lose strength every turn while marching in enemy territory, which adds yet another factor to the strategic layer.
Not everything can be accomplished on the strategic map alone. Seizing control of certain key locations on the strategic map in the campaigns can’t be resolved without dropping into the kind of tactical combat most associated with Company of Heroes games. Most of those key battles are scripted, which allows the developers to present different conditions and story points to players as they fight, which I thought was a nice touch. The developers certainly set up those scenarios to give players a lot of options about how they want to accomplish different objectives.
You will eventually also run into enemy units on the strategic map, who take their turns opposite you. When you encounter an enemy unit, you have the option to automatically resolve the combat after looking at an estimate of your losses if you choose to automatically run the combat. You also have the option to fight the skirmish battle yourself, which of course takes much longer. However, if you like the real-time combat in Company of Heroes 3, then this is a way to experience more of that. Also, you will sometimes be offered special rewards if you choose to fight a skirmish instead of auto-resolving combat.
Outside of the campaigns, the big draw with Company of Heroes 3 is the skirmish battles, fought against the computer or other humans. There is also a cooperative mode where human players can team up and try to fight the AI together. And unlike in campaign mode, anything goes in terms of teams. You can have American and German armies on one side fighting American and British teams on the other, or whatever else you want to set up.
There are only a handful of maps right now to skirmish over. However, the game is on Steam and publisher Sega enabled Steam workshop support. There are already quite a few really good player-made maps that you can download and fight over, including many of the popular “chokepoint” type maps where pitched battles happen over bridges or tight mountain passes. There are also some player-made modifications available which adds new units or new capabilities, or that act as de facto cheat codes if anyone is interested in getting a big advantage while playing.
For all that Company of Heroes 3 does well, it’s sadly not a perfect title. The interface is a little bit of a mess right now. It does not default to WASD and QE controls for moving and rotating the map, so you have to program those in. More puzzling is the fact that you can’t zoom out far enough to get a good look at the battlefield. I am not sure why the zoom hangs at about 40 or 50 feet off the ground, but it’s not nearly enough to get a good look at the battlefield, which gives the computer a very unfair advantage. You will constantly get a stream of alerts about contacts and battles happening off-screen, and the enemy can easily “sneak” up to your lines without really trying. Being able to pull back to get a better look at what is happening across the battlefield is critical, and yet COH 3 currently does not support that. It’s puzzling that such a critical feature was not included in it from launch.
Pathfinding, which was never a strength of Company of Heroes titles, also somehow seems to have gotten worse with COH 3. Tanks and vehicles, if given an order to drive straight at a firefight to help out, will often instead take a leisurely stroll around the block, sometimes arriving too late to do much good. Vehicles are also very stupid about their facing, which is bad because most are heavily armored in the front and weaker in the back. So, when you tell your tank to reverse and back away from an enemy, and it instead turns around and exposes its flank, that is not a smart move. Tanks also can no longer crush enemy infantry or light gun emplacements, instead politely moving around them when told to charge, parking behind the enemy and again exposing their weak backside. This is something that is almost unforgivable in a real-time tactical battle game.
The infantry AI is not much better. Squads like to stroll out in the open in front of a known enemy machinegun nest, even if there is a nearby stone wall or other cover that they could use to traverse that same ground safely. You can micromanage them using the tactical pause button, which stops all action across the entire battlefield to give commanders the chance to issue or even stack orders, but that is difficult to manage on large maps where there is a lot going on. Players should be able to rely on their squads to have some sense of self-preservation and basic tactics when they are not being directly controlled.
Hopefully, most of the negative issues like pathfinding and restricted zoom levels can be quickly fixed because Company of Heroes 3 has the bones to be another great wargame, not just within this series but also overall. It’s a solid title now just a few weeks after launch, but it could become so much better if a few negative issues are resolved.