Despite planning to launch Age of Empires IV in a few months, Relic Entertainment has been secretly working on another strategy game. Designed to be the next instalment in the critically acclaimed series and the follow-up to 2013's RTS Company of Heroes 2, Company of Heroes 3 has finally been announced, and we've had the chance to get hands-on with an early pre-alpha version of the game to see get an idea of what we can expect when it does eventually launch down the line.
Alike previous Company of Heroes games, the third iteration of the series takes place in World War 2, and follows the allies as they look to move through Europe pushing back the Axis forces. The main difference with Company of Heroes 3 however, is that the game won't be taking place on the Western Front, but rather in the Mediterranean, meaning the campaign and the battles will be based around Italy and northern Africa for the most part. What does this mean? Well, battles aren't fought in France, Belgium or Germany, instead we're in charge of pressing into Italy from the south, using various tactics to claim strategic points on a dynamic campaign map.
Company of Heroes 3 is bringing back its traditional real-time strategy gameplay, and that is a very important part of the title that we'll touch on further in a moment. But, there is also more on offer, as leading an assault into Axis operated Italy means you'll have to conquer a lot of ground, claiming a broad range of objectives along the way, which is why the overarching campaign map is crucial. The map plays more like a standard strategy game, asking you to move units across portions of Italy to increase your control over the country, with a limited number of actions available per turn. This part is fundamental to COH3 because the decisions you make on the map, the units you use to take objectives, and the way you look to fight against the Axis, directly impacts the RTS section of the game, as both are tied together and play off each other.
To dive into an RTS section, you'll have to find a strategy mission on the map, which is essentially an important military campaign that needs you to directly command and organise it. This could be anything from liberating a town to hunting a German general, but each will take you to a smaller map where you, from a top-down view, have to train and lead regiments of soldiers and vehicles to claim objectives and achieve the mission goals: Typical Company of Heroes. Sometimes these missions can take fifteen minutes if you employ a capable strategy and execute it perfectly, but other times, when things ultimately start going wrong, you can take upwards of an hour to achieve your goals, as while you are in control, the AI enemies won't hesitate to show you the strength of their armies.
Whether you are in the campaign map or in an RTS mission, the units that you have at your disposal are pretty varied, and range from British Black Prince tank squads to American destroyers. You can use a list of soldiers and airborne, naval, and land-based vehicles to enact your strategies, and alike previous Company of Heroes games, COH3 seems to do a great job of providing players with a lot of options. But, this game does seem to still be tailored to veteran or hardcore strategy fans, as the many different responsibilities and goals you will have to complete are quite extensive.
There are a few new additions to lessen the load and to make Company of Heroes 3 more approachable for new players or those who are looking for a less intensive experience, such as the Tactical Pause, which allows you to freeze time in both the campaign and the RTS missions, so you can collect yourself and plan out new strategies. It's a neat feature, but considering this game is about essentially running a country-wide military campaign on your own, a break here and there isn't exactly the final answer.
As you can probably tell, one of the areas that Company of Heroes 3 really does excel in is its scale. The campaign maps are massive and have plenty of locations to capture and hold to make it easier to break the Axis control of the Mediterranean. You can't move across all of Italy at once, the country is split into separate campaign maps, each of which ask you to complete a set of objectives to win. But Relic Entertainment did mention that we'll have all of Italy to travel over, as well as northern Africa, which we haven't seen a look at, bar a tiny glimpse at the end of the cinematic trailer. So, expect a huge amount of content to chew through when the full release comes.
This brings us onto game modes, because as you would hope Company of Heroes 3 seems to offer quite a few. We only got to check out a section of the campaign, as well as being able to dive into campaign Skirmish modes, but there will of course also be a range of multiplayer modes. In fact Relic promises that Company of Heroes 3 will bring the most campaign content ever, the highest number of multiplayer maps, and even more than triple the units of any COH game at launch. All of this has been done because the strategy game developer has been creating this game for years using feedback from the community from the first two games and their respective DLCs from day one. And this includes using a dedicated team of community figures to constantly test and provide feedback on the game over the course of the development.
It's hard to give much of an impression on how the game is currently playing since the title is "over a year" from release as Relic stated, and not even in its alpha state, but from our experience, the game plays incredibly well and looks great. Sure, we had a few crashes, and sometimes the AI seemed a little dumb, almost requiring you to babysit it from the second it walks out of the barracks, but these are all things that can be hammered out way before launch, so we shouldn't be worried about this right now.
Company of Heroes 3 is shaping up to be a really interesting strategy game, and we're excited to follow it as it gets closer to launch. Considering the announcement has only just happened, and we've already been able to dive into a hands-on look at the game, it seems to be off to a great start. The only question we have, which can't really be answered until its release, is if COH3 can live up to the stellar acclaim of the original, or if it will fall a little short alike the sequel. Right now, it's in a good position to achieve the former.