Company of Heroes and its sequel soaked up a metric ton of tactical time for me, so I was more than a little excited to check out what Relic Entertainment had up their sleeve for the third entry. With nine years between entries, could they recapture what made Company of Heroes 2 so special? It took all of 5 minutes for me to see that Company of Heroes 3 won’t be as good as its predecessor – it’ll be infinitely better.
From the moment VP of Production David Littman and Executive Producer Steve Mele spoke, it was clear that they are incredibly passionate about this project. You could feel the infectious nature of their excitement, and it didn’t take long to see why. Before our unfettered hands-on time with the game they proudly proclaimed that this would be the biggest Company of Heroes game to date. You hear that all the time from developers, but these two brought the receipts.
First and foremost, Company of Heroes 3 will ship with two full single player campaigns instead of one, and that campaign is semi-randomized, replayable, and clocks in at 40 hours on average to complete versus Company of Heroes 2’s 15 hours of play. That means 41 missions instead of 14, and that’s before you get to multiplayer.
Beyond campaign length, the team was also eager to share that the game will have four factions instead of two, as well as fully supporting mods at launch. To fill out those four factions, the game will also have 120 units instead of the 42 the previous game had, with a total of 52 maps instead of 22. To say that the game will be significantly more robust than its two predecessors combined would be an understatement. Much of that improvement, according to Littman and Mele, came from direct engagement with all levels of players starting from the first day of development. While what we were playing was still a few months shy of launch and just a slice, that much was made very clear.
There are quite a few improvements to the overall formula, but a few bubbled to the top immediately – verticality, tank riding, side armor, and tactical pause. The fighting in Europe and Africa wasn’t always giant empty flat spaces, and as such, having to be aware of elevation became important. Not only does a silhouetted tank become a very easy to sight target, but a similarly elevated sniper can be devastating to anything on the battlefield. The high ground provides a tactical advantage, as well as a practical one as infantry gain bonuses when above their targets. It creates another layer for the franchise, and one that can be used to great effect with the right placements.
Getting your troops into battle on foot is dangerous and slow, but in Company of Heroes 3 you can now send them to the front lines mounted on armored vehicles. Blitzing a frontline position with light tanks, and then scattering a squadron of mortars at close range, or creating immediate interlocking fields of fire changes the space, meaning you’ll have to change how you think about how the enemy can suddenly breach your position without warning.
The next major evolution came when I began to mobilize armored units into the field. Tanks in Company of Heroes 2 only had front and rear armor to contend with, but that’s not where tanks are most vulnerable in the real world. Instead you’ll need to target the side armor curtains, and ultimately the tracks and wheels to disable a tank efficiently. Side armor can turn a dangerous weapon into a 20 ton roadblock with a carefully placed shot. In practice I found that you could stop plenty of smaller tanks with a few rocket barrages to the back, but for medium tanks and larger, you’ll want to be more surgical. It adds yet another layer to the overall depth of the game.
The last element added to the Company of Heroes 3 formula is a new system called “Full Tactical Pause”. This lets you pause the action, read the situation, give commands to your troops and vehicle crews, and then unpause to have them unleash hell. Obviously this only works in single player, but it allows you to slow the hectic pace down for a moment to catch your breath.
Obviously multiplayer is a huge focus for the Company of Heroes games, but before we got to all of that, I played a few hours of the two campaigns. You see, there are two campaign types – a dynamic one and a more static traditional one. This mission, set in the Sicilian city of Gela in Italy, represented the first mission in the Italian campaign portion of the game, serving as a tutorial for new and returning players. Once complete, the game would shift to its dynamic mode, in the overworld map in Calabria. We would then have five “days” for the war to “evolve”. Rather than a set outcome, each battle would play out, resulting in shifting battle lines and ever-changing resources. Decisions we’d make in the campaign map will shape the war effort, and supposedly the key narratives of the campaign itself, as we manage the sea, air, and land forces, as well as partisan allies and supply lines in the seaside towns of Italy. With only five days of fighting, it was hard to see how this would play out in the end, but it was clear that we’d need to react to an ever shifting battlefield that’ll keep you on your toes.
Shifting to the desert biomes of the North African operation, we get a far more personal story. Focusing on the real-world events of the North African conflict through the eyes of a displaced Berber Jewish family, we’ll be playing as part of the Georgian Afrika Corps. Given that this is a more linear and focused storytelling I don’t want to reveal much beyond that it’ll try to tell both sides of the conflict, not unlike period dramas like All Quiet on the Western Front. It feels far more akin to what we saw in the expansions for Company of Heroes 2, or Opposing Fronts in the original.
Speaking of factions, there are now four in Company of Heroes 3 – Britain, Deutsches Afrikakorps, the United States, and the Wehrmacht. As before, each has their own strengths and weaknesses, with Deutsches Afrikakorps being most mobile and agile, able to take advantage of the large open spaces in the African deserts. The British are the best all-arounders, with a blend of light, medium, and heavy troops. The US Forces are aggressive, with a heavy emphasis on flexibility, but with a few technical specialities to keep their enemies on their toes. The Wehrmacht are both incredibly strong and the most offensive, though they take time to get their war machine moving. That said, when they do get rolling, you can expect some of the heaviest armor and firepower. Beyond these major factions, you’ll also see appearances of International troops such as Italy, India, Canada, and Australian troops, with Relic intending to add to the list of nations post-launch to tell their stories as well.
The biggest lure of Company of Heroes 3 is, for many, the multiplayer. Relic knows this and has put a heavy emphasis on it, but clearly without sacrificing the campaign. To that end, Classic multiplayer and AI skirmish modes have returned, as has the cooperative mode we had in the second game. Company of Heroes 2: The Western Front brought us two more factions for a total of four, but Company of Heroes 3 is shipping with all four right out of the gate. If I were a betting man, I’d suspect we might see additional factions in the future for this game as well.
If there’s one thing that gives a game the kind of longevity that the Company of Heroes franchise has, it’s mod support. Thankfully, Relic knows this as well, and modding tools will be not only available on day 1, but baked directly into the game at every turn. We saw a little bit of this with “Tuning Packs”. Tuning Packs allow you to adjust the game to play precisely how you want.
Using a system called the Essence Editor, with direct tie-ins to the Steam Workshop, modders will be able to adjust just about anything under the hood. Tuning packs can make units stronger, weaker, faster, slower, take less resources to build, and the like, as you could in previous games, but that’s not the magic. Now you can create entirely new maps, new units, adjust terrain mesh, create entirely new modes, utilize the game’s day and night transition to build atmospheric moments, and honestly just about anything you could imagine. I can see people making simple modes like Battle Royale, but in the hands of modders you’ll see Company of Heroes 3 get total conversions beyond our wildest dreams — I’d bet my paycheck on it. The bonus being that it’ll not only be free, but also ready at launch.
Squaring off against a developer at a press event is always an interesting thing. You never know if they are taking it easy on you, or if they are giving it everything they’ve got. I spent 45 minutes battling against one of the folks from team Relic, and I think it might have started one way and then tilted back the other. Once again the forces of the United States of America would square off against the Reich.
By the end of my fight with Alex from Relic I knew immediately that I was going to be playing a lot more multiplayer. This battle was an absolute blast, and on more than one occasion I felt the ebb and flow for which Company of Heroes is so well known. I had Alex on the ropes, had punched into his base with a trio of M24 Chaffee Light Tanks and taken out several buildings, and then he snuck in from behind with three squads of rocket troopers. My rear and side armor was cut to ribbons, and by the time his Pak 43 guns were in position, my attempted coup de grace was over. Licking my wounds, I rebuilt forces, bolstering my M24s with some ground troops and some fast attack M8 Scott vehicles. Ready to unleash hell on my opponent once again, I rolled out and ran smack into a Tiger tank creeping into my base – a last ditch effort as Alex’s tickets cycled to zero. Throwing everything I had at it, I took the beast down. As I rolled my recovery vehicles on the vehicle’s husk, I prepared to unleash my enemy’s weapons on their own. This last-ditch effort by my opponent would deplete his ticket pool, ending the match. 45 minutes had gone by in the blink of an eye, and it was tense from the opening shot until the last.
With only a few months left before launch, Company of Heroes 3 is already not only raising the bar, but once again reinventing the RTS genre. New tactics, new troops, a wildly expanded campaign and multiplayer, and a modding engine strong enough to completely transform it into something entirely new, this isn’t just a sequel but something far greater than the sum of its parts. As we prepare for war, I leave you with this indelible quote from Sir Winston Churchill:
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
Company of Heroes 3 is coming to PC on February 22, 2023.