'Company of Heroes 3' Tries to Capture Some Total War Magic

A strategic map and the ability to issue orders while the game is paused signal an exciting new way to play a classic RTS series.
July 13, 2021, 6:00pm
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Screenshots courtesy of Sega

In their day, the Company of Heroes games were best-in-class single-player and multiplayer real-time strategy games. The original Company of Heroes, when it debuted in 2006, hit all the familiar beats of mid-2000s World War 2 nostalgia in a long narrative campaign that called back to Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers as you led a hard-fighting company of GIs from France into Germany. It was slick and cinematic and had just about nothing to do with the multiplayer game, which was a mercilessly fast-paced tug-of-war across a map full of key strategic points, where the battle lines often shifted faster than you could think.

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That's how RTS games have generally worked: forgiving scripted missions with lots of voiceover and cutscenes that are designed to let you play around with all the toys in the box, and then hyperactive multiplayer battles where the primary resources are time and attention, and efficiency reigns supreme. Effectively, then, they are two different games that speak to different audiences, without a ton of overlap. It presents a familiar problem: People who like multiplayer will find the story missions boring, and the people who find the campaigns challenging will often find the multiplayer to be totally overwhelming.

 Company of Heroes 3, newly-announced by Relic and Sega and slated for a release in late 2022, is aiming squarely at this traditional disconnect in RTS design with a campaign that scraps most of the RTS single-player playbook, borrows a few pages from more open-ended strategy games, and remains connected to the multiplayer and skirmish modes that make RTS games so enduring. It has the potential to make Company of Heroes 3 a uniquely approachable RTS game, but also turn the campaign from an appetizer / tutorial to a deeply replayable main event. 

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Since it's been a few years, let's talk about what distinguishes Company of Heroes from a lot of its peers. First, the game is entirely about controlling territory for resources, there's no "harvesting" of resources in this game. Second, Company of Heroes is all about micro-management: you're rarely going to be click-dragging a box around a dozen units and flinging them at the enemy base. Instead, you're going to be carefully positioning heavy machine gun teams behind stone fences, peeking armored vehicles around corners on city streets, and building individual obstacles like barbed wire or landmines. Third, as a mission unfolds your company levels up and you choose from a variety of special abilities that you can add to your army's baseline list of units. An airborne company can call for aerial reinforcements, and an artillery unit can order up a barrage of high-explosives to strike a part of the map. These abilities can be dramatic game changers, but they tend to cost significant resources and operate on a long cool-down, so picking your moment is a big part of the game.

Company of Heroes 3 brings all these familiar elements to a new setting: the Mediterranean theater of World War 2, where the western allies and eventually Italian partisans fought the German and fascist Italian forces from North Africa to Sicily and up the Italian peninsula. The section of the campaign that was made available to media during a session two weeks ago covered the Allied landings in Italy in 1943 and the slog up the mountains to the infamous Monte Cassino monastery that became synonymous with the bloody, often futile combat that defined the Italian campaign.

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The Big Idea behind CoH 3 was visible right from the start of the playable campaign: instead of opening on a cinematic or an RTS mission screen, it opened on a large strategic map of the western coast of Italy from Naples up . A branching choice was proposed at the start: I could go with the US plan, the UK's plan, or some mix of the two. Each option brought different bonuses and changed which forces were available at the start of the campaign. For this section, the American forces were a Special Forces company and an airborne company, while the Commonwealth brought an armored company and an Indian artillery company. I spent most of my game playing with the Indian troops, who seemed to be built around a subtle strategy of "blast the shit out of the Germans with high-explosives, then wipe out the survivors with Gurkha shock infantry."

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But first I had to establish a beachhead on the strategic layer, which operated a bit like a megacosm of the RTS layer: taking over different town and crossroads would provide bonus resources that I could use to call in fresh reinforcements at my landing site, or that I could spend on special attacks like bombing raids or partisan harassment campaigns. Capturing airfields gave me places to station fighter and bomber squadrons, which could then conduct recon or airstrikes. Weakening German forces on this map meant that when we met in battle and the action moved into the familiar RTS layer, the Germans would effectively be starting from a score disadvantage, making it easier and less costly to win the match. In some cases, I could hammer the German force with enough attacks on the strategic layer that their units would be destroyed without the need for a battle. The map also created some contexts that would follow me into tactical battles, like if a medical detachment was stationed on the map near a battle, medics would be available for that battle.

There were also special missions I had the option to respond to. I had to divert my armored company to go rescue some Italian partisans: it led to a costly mission where I had to race up a mountain road to a town square where German troops were trying to wipe out a dwindling number of partistans, but once I'd taken the town, I had the option of using partisans on the strategic map for special missions and intelligence gathering. Another mission had me infiltrate a manor house, kill the guards, and set an ambush for a German general that had shades of The Dirty Dozen, especially once German reinforcements arrived to swamp my tiny commando team.

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Still, it might have been the unscripted battles that made me most excited. After a long march through the central mountains toward Monte Cassino, I was attacked by a German panzer company that I'd never spotted, nor weakened with any special abilities. So instead of a special story mission, we fought it out along an Italian riverfront in what amounted to a skirmish map that was pretty much identical to anything you'd find in multiplayer. The one catch was that there was a single strategic point that, if the Germans took it away from me for even a second, I would lose the match.

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That made for a return to some classically white-knuckle Company of Heroes combat, as both sides grappled for an advantage around this central victory location and slowly turned the surrounding town into a bomb-cratered hellscape. In terms of tactics, Company of Heroes is not fixing what ain't broke: all the familiar game balance and dynamics appear to be in place, with a few differences based around which specific units you control. 

Maybe the biggest change is the addition of a "breach" command. In Company of Heroes, whenever an infantry unit moves into a building, they are effectively in a fort. A wooden building doesn't provide much shelter, but every stout multi-story stone building has been a Hougoumont-in-waiting. The only way to drive infantry out of those positions has been to blast the building with shells and bombs, or soak it with flamethrowers.

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To encourage a bit more movement in these urban battles, infantry units now have access to a "breach" ability. If they get close enough to an enemy-occupied building, they can breach it and immediately send the enemy fleeing out the back door while the breaching squad storms in the front, effectively flipping positions. However, that also means the attacker has to run that infantry into point-blank range, exposing them to deady defensive fire.

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In practice, it seems like a decent change. Taking and holding strong-walled buildings still felt as critical as ever, but having the breach option there meant that the situation didn't always turn into a micro-siege.

A bit of conservatism with the core RTS is probably warranted on Relic's part. These games were great in their day and, returning to this flavor of RTS after a long absence was like slipping into a favorite pair of shoes. What was enticing was the possibility that all these great RTS battles would finally have the context of a great campaign game where each playthrough told its own story, and hinged on different pivotal events.

It's also welcoming in another key way: you can now hit "space" at anytime to pause the game and issue orders to your units. If you really want to push this idea, CoH 3 could as easily become a turn-based tactics game in single-player as a fast-paced RTS. I didn't end up using "tactical pause" a ton but it was nice to have an easy way to freeze the action and review a couple situations while leaning back and sipping a drink. For anyone who has ever talked themselves out of starting an RTS match just because they'd like to be able to relax with a cup of coffee and enjoy a game, Relic's small concession has an outsized impact on making the game feel as welcoming as it is impressive. 

These kinds of features and the more varied campaign structure could make Company of Heroes 3 the kind of game that holds the interest of people who have traditionally been chased-off by the ratchet-like pressure of its multiplayer modes. It's a series that has often held its best parts back from its more casual fans, presenting them with a more generic facade than Company of Heroes really deserves. Company of Heroes 3 looks like it has some ideas about how to turn this dynamic on its head, and finally kill the notion that the "real" game only resides in multiplayer matches.