It's safe to say that Company of Heroes 3 is one of the more anticipated RTS games of 2023, especially for fans of World War 2-inspired games. Relic Entertainment created video game history with the first Company of Heroes in 2006 and recently has been behind the revival of another classic RTS game, Age of Empires IV. While I've actually become a bit disappointed in their work on the latter game, my experience playing Company of Heroes 3 for this review is very positive.
While the first two Company of Heroes games took place on the Western Front after the Normandy landings and the Eastern Front of World War 2 respectively, Company of Heroes 3 is about the North African and Italian Fronts between roughly 1942 and 1944. The four playable factions represent the forces involved in this conflict: US Forces, British Forces, German Wehrmacht and German Afrikakorps. Other nations that were historically involved are represented differently: the British can also rely on Commonwealth troops, including Gurkhas and Indian forces, while the Deutsches Afrikakorps faction can call in elite Italian units and armour for support.
The game includes an old-fashioned single player campaign played as the Afrikakorps, but one of the major novelties in this game is the addition of a 'dynamic' single player campaign. Playing as the Allies, the dynamic campaign map allows you to move units and capture settlements on a turn-based campaign map similar to that of the Total War games. When a battle ensues, you can choose to either auto resolve or fight it yourself in a familiar real-time battle. Relic has clearly put effort into making this a multifaceted experience, which puts you at the head of an Allied force landing in Southern Italy, with the capture of Rome as its ultimate goal. In its essence, you're controlling companies, such as a British Indian Artillery company or a US Airborne company, while the campaign storyline gives you a dynamic set of objectives.
The storyline is dictated by strategic choices you make. On one side, there's an American general who's constantly pushing for action and keeping momentum, while on the other there's a British general who favours a more cautious approach. It depends on which advice you choose to follow what your objectives will be, for example capturing adjacent regions first or immediately striking at an important port or airfield, which might allow you to call in new company types. After a while, requests by the Italian resistance are added for even more strategic choices. The system indeed makes for a dynamic campaign that's different on each try, because every choice matters. They also matter on the battlefield: at one point, I decided to await a bombardment before attacking a settlement. The next turn when I dropped down into battle, the Germans had been preparing positions. It's clear right away that I would have been playing a different battle if I had charged in right away.
While the idea behind the dynamic campaign is nice, at times it does make me feel like I am merely clicking things and going places just because I am supposed to. While visually similar to a Total War campaign map, Company of Heroes 3 doesn't offer the same level of freedom to do what you want. And like in Total War games, the AI's competence is important. Unfortunately, I did experience some issues here. During a (scripted) German counterattack at Salerno, I was told to prepare for the worst. However, the German panzer company just sat idly next to Salerno for a couple of turns. I ended up killing it with naval bombardments which you can call in, and mopped it up with a quick auto resolve battle. This could have been a single incident, because at other times the AI did attack and retreat normally.
I therefore wouldn't say that the dynamic campaign is the highlight of Company of Heroes 3 for me. Because the game is a lot stronger in the areas where the series was good to begin with. And that's the real-time battles. In a characteristic system that's also used in the Dawn of War series, battles revolve around capturing key areas on the map. These areas provide manpower, ammunition and fuel to purchase additional units. Additionally, a match is won by the side who scores the most victory points, which also depends on certain areas under your control. Base building is limited to just building higher tiered structures to call in increasingly powerful units. This allows the game's pace to go from initial skirmishes, to a point of (armoured) assaults mid-game and ultimately specialised units to decide the battle.
Victory on one of the 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 maps requires a careful balancing act. There are many different units at your disposal, and each counters or reinforces a specific other unit. You might be able to take a capture point with light infantry, but it then depends on what units your enemy is sending in to decide what counter-units you should produce as reinforcements. Besides calling in things like machine guns, mortars and flamethrower units, it's also possible to construct field defences using engineers. However, there's always a limit to your population, so you're constantly kept on your toes as to what unit you'll be needing, which technologies to research and how to spend points on Battlegroups, with these being a new addition, which allow you to call in specialised units such as elite infantry or tank destroyers.
Playing against the AI in the single player campaigns was usually not too hard for me. However, in the skirmish modes, I was struggling even when facing the easier AI setting every time. There's simply a lot of things going on simultaneously, including managing my resources and finding the right counter units. I'm often still calling in machine guns to counter enemy infantry, when the enemy is already bringing in armoured cars. I imagine that for the game's multiplayer, it's essential that players are matched well by skill level, otherwise beginning players will not be having an enjoyable time.
Except for the Battlegroups, none of the above is actually new to Company of Heroes. However, there is a list of improvements compared to Company of Heroes 2. Units move flawlessly across the map, automatically jumping over obstacles now. Armoured vehicles now also have a side armour metric, meaning positioning becomes more important. Moreover, it's possible to tow guns for more rapid redeployments, and infantry can now ride tanks to get to new positions more quickly. Also, the environmental destruction system has been improved, which is clearly visible in-game. Grenade impacts, hits by tank or artillery shells and moving vehicles leave highly realistic marks on the battlefield. A gun shooting at a window of a house will only damage that specific window, for example. These things simply take Company of Heroes to the next level.
Expanding on the visuals, I must remark that there is a lot of detail in the new game engine and an effort to make units historically accurate. There's Indian infantry wearing turbans and Italian Bersaglieri infantry with their characteristic black feathers, for example. I am constantly entertained by the game's visuals when playing, from watching gunfire and explosions to the details on houses, vehicles and units. Another new addition is the ability to breach houses to clear out enemy infantry. This ability also comes with a neat animation of your squad positioning at the building's door, forcing it and entering while firing their guns. It's a treat to see, really.
It's a bit of a shame that the camera doesn't allow you to zoom in very close to observe the action better, or to zoom out for that matter. A lot of times I wish I could zoom out more to keep an overview of everything that's happening. And on a final critical note: the game's background music can become quite repetitive at times. It seems to be either quiet, or the same handful of suspenseful tunes playing over and over.
Company of Heroes 3 is a well thought-out and visually enjoyable game that feels very similar to its predecessors, but adds a lot of improvements and an entirely new Mediterranean-themed theatre of war. There's more single player content than ever, with an eight-mission campaign as the Afrikakorps in North Africa and a dynamic campaign played as the Allies capturing Italy. However, in my opinion the biggest reason to play Company of Heroes 3 is going to be its great potential for multiplayer. It will no doubt be a challenge to become good at this game online and I hope that multiplayer matchmaking will take different skill levels into account. However, there are beautiful units, lots of combat effects and (destructible) environments to observe as you work on improving your skills.