Company of Heroes 3 is the video game with which the publisher SEGA and the development team Relic Entertainment want to renew the ambitions of the series, after the convincing debut of the first chapter and the test of maturity represented by its successor (here the review of Company of Heroes 2). The intention was not to implement upheavals, on the other hand we are talking about a genre – that of real-time strategy – in which it is very difficult to do so. Refine and expand seem to have been the watchwords that guided the creation of the experience, which in this sense also benefited from a fruitful relationship between Relic members and mod developers.
So there is everything that has decreed the success of the IP up to now: an accessible but full of options gaming system. An approach that is strategic, but not simulative, for a profound but not necessarily complex experience and, last but not least, a historical background that maintains its charm unchanged (we are talking about the Second World War). Also know that there is a new way in which these elements are proposed: it is the dynamic campaign, which provides the more classic experience with a Total War-esque superstructure, complete with an extended map and turn-based system. All of this, among other things, without giving up a more traditional proposal, made up of series missions.
The Second World War according to Relic
And let’s start with the latter, in our analysis of Relic Entertainment’s production offer. Descending on the sandy battlefields of North Africa, enduring its scorching temperatures and inclement storms, leading Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps, is the best way to become familiar with the development team’s interpretation of real-time strategy.
In the intentions of the team, the North African campaign should have had a certain value from a narrative point of view, telling, in addition to the war, the difficult life of the civilian population in Libya occupied by the Germans. However, the fact that these stories are totally unrelated to the gameplay and are staged with rather poor interlude sequences reduces their emotional impact.
The best events are those that open and close the missions, with Rommel’s own voice describing the events. Net of some inconsistencies – the field marshal is first presented as an incomparable strategist, then his abilities are greatly reduced – the representation of the two sides of this figure (the man and the general) is in any case effective, although not particularly deep. However, the narrative structure is only a mere accompaniment, the glue necessary to put together a series of missions, which culminate with the first battle of El Alamein.
In this sense, the decision not to give space to subsequent events, from the arrival of Bernard Montgomery under the British command, passing through the second battle of El Alamein, up to the consequent conclusion of the conflict in North Africa, is questionable. What matters most in an RTS is the depth of the gaming experience, and in this Company of Heroes 3 does everything very well, albeit with some small ingenuity. As mentioned at the outset, the experience puts on a clever disguise, appearing to be more simulative than it actually is. This impression is conveyed by a plethora of elements, which makes the gameplay very rich and multifaceted, even if in practice it is less impactful than one might think. For example, the first thing Company of Heroes 3 teaches is to use cover when moving infantry. First of all, there are the light shelters, which can give way during a fight and leave the soldiers uncovered, and the heavy ones, which are much more solid: it is certainly a good idea to use them, but unlike other similar ones, they are not those two seconds in which one remains uncovered cause the unit to fail.
This discourse extends to many other situations that can occur during a battle. Running into an enemy tank when you have no weapons to counter it is not an immediate death sentence, although retreating is still the best option. Staying on the subject, a grenade or a bullet on the back of the vehicle, where the armor is less thick, does not imply its destruction. And again, an artillery bombardment can be very lethal, but by finding cover and moving in time it is possible to save oneself and contain the damage.
Where does Company of Heroes 3 work its magic, making every battle exciting? In always enticing the player to exploit any ability possessed by his units, without punishing him immediately if he doesn’t do it. Throwing smoke bombs at enemy positions to avoid, for example, an anti-tank gun targeting your Tiger can be very satisfying, as is exploiting the camouflage of US special forces to swoop in behind your opponents. Then there is the possibility of filling the road that we know will be crossed by the other side with mines, and then bombing the vehicles unable to move.
Whatever war tactics you can think of are applicable here, and it’s all thanks to the developers, who have equipped practically every unit with multiple options and created maps and missions that genuinely encourage you to try them all. This well-balanced, satisfying and entertaining depth is what really embellishes what is an interesting and non-punitive playful experience. The game works great when you take advantage of the micro management of the units, with the tactical pause that allows you to give orders at a standstill, but also when you let the AI handle the simplest situations.
It is only a pity that the strategies do not change much depending on the selected faction: despite being equipped with unique units, in fact, the various deployments must be deployed by adopting substantially similar approaches. Whether you focus on the aggressiveness of the United States army, on the armored vehicles of the Afrikakorps, on the versatility of the British forces or on the solidity of the Wehrmacht, you don’t perceive a great fundamental difference. Generally it is always a good idea to accompany a couple of infantry squads with an armored vehicle, even better if equipped with anti-tank weapons; if then, from the back, it is possible to use a howitzer, or a rocket-launching vehicle to unlock situations in which one is pinned down by the fire of the opponents, then it is even better.
The Italian countryside
When this system is inserted into the dynamic campaign, set in southern Italy, things get even more interesting. The first impact with the made in Relic version of the structure seen in various games of the 4X genre is not the most promising. In addition to being able to move your own companies on the map, battle with enemy ones – in clashes that can also be solved automatically and not necessarily through real-time gameplay – and conquer settlements (some automatically, others through special missions), the impression is that you don’t can do much more. Fortunately, following the initial phases, the considerations on this component change and in a positive way.
Getting to Rome, the target of the Allied advance, requires more than just moving markers around. We soon realize that each conquered structure has its function, that the companies have abilities to exploit directly on the map; just as one realizes that progressing according to one’s own tactics is possible.
From Sicily, for example, we can aim directly at the capital, advancing with a few companies in an overwhelming way, but with the risk of crashing into the better established defensive lines; or we can proceed more methodically, liberating the great cities of the south, from Potenza to Salerno, from Bari to Foggia, to secure more resources and therefore deploy a well-fed and equipped army. Furthermore, based on the choices made, bonuses are obtained from the three commanders who accompany us during the campaign, each with his tactical creed.
After a few rounds you end up in a loop from which it is difficult to get out, net of the awareness of the limits of the experience compared to other similar productions. We are talking about small ingenuities, such as the defeatist attitude of the enemy, who rarely disputes the player’s conquests, allowing him to concentrate only on the attack and almost never on the defence; or the appearance of secondary objectives which in that particular moment, perhaps due to the simple distance on the map, are not pursuable. Before advancing into hidden territory, it may be useful to reconnoitre the area (provided you have captured a nearby airfield). Once you spot any enemies, why not decimate them with artillery and then storm straight into the occupied city? The missions that accompany his liberation are many, varied, and similar in quality and duration to those of the regular campaign. In short, it is not a question of skirmishes to be resolved quickly, as instead happens when it is necessary to conquer medium-sized settlements. However, the joint offer of both modes – with the dynamic campaign which also has a great replayability factor – makes Company of Heroes 3 a massive production, on which you can spend dozens of hours of strategic fun.
War and multiplayer scenarios
If the gaming experience is so exciting it is also thanks to a technical sector that makes the battles vivid, spectacular, gritty. In addition to the good artistic direction, in fact, each soldier of a unit is different from the other and in general the overall level of detail is quite high. The textures defend themselves well but it is above all the handling of the physics that shines.
On the other hand, it manages to make one perceive the impact of each shot, the fury of the shootings, also thanks to the environmental destructibility. The impetus of the clashes distorts the battlefields, blackened and burned by the explosions, with the buildings gradually falling apart, devastated by artillery and tanks. And the sounds of war, including machine guns and whistles, are the strong points of a highly effective audio sector. The matchmaking wasn’t particularly friendly to us, so we couldn’t try the multiplayer intensively. It consists, however, of two modalities, which can be tackled in various numbers of users.
In the first, victory is obtained simply by destroying the opposing forces, while in the second, triumph comes with the achievement of three control points, which progressively reduce the enemy’s indicator. Nothing in particular and nothing that hasn’t already been seen in the previous chapters of the series, and although a couple of more game options would have been welcome, we don’t feel like making a big deal out of it.