In almost any other medium, the topic of war typically conjures up bleak imagery and the accompanying horrors that come with it. But in video games, the idea of war has allowed many impressive interpretations, and in the realm of real-time strategy, the Company of Heroes franchise has consistently been the frontrunner in delivering a realistic rendition of military combat. It is no surprise, then, that Relic Entertainment and Sega’s Company of Heroes 3 continue in that vein, bringing home yet another resounding victory for the series.
With two single-player campaigns that stand out for their own good reasons, and a multiplayer offering that offers a suite of options, Company of Heroes 3 goes beyond just the typical march towards domination, circa World War II and covers the Italian and North African theatres. Yes, there will still be a need to smash your opponents and exert control, but there’s always an added layer of drama and doing the impossible that makes it so intoxicating.
Any progress made will be paid by the blood of your virtual soldiers, with players having to build up their forces, make the right moves, and capture essential territory that continues to fuel the machine of war. Overextend yourself, and the enemy comes roaring back, resulting in a tug-of-war that is both exhilarating and tense.
This is apparent both in the shorter North African campaign, and the headlining dynamic campaign focused on the Italian theatre. For the former, it is everything a player could ask for from a classic Company of Heroes experience, as the linear missions will have you fight across the continent, engaging in battles large and small, and requiring tactical nous from would-be commanders.
Playing as the Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK), the German expeditionary force in Africa, the reliance on tanks and armoured vehicles is clear, giving players more options of not just rolling over enemy territory, but also mobile cover for infantry following behind. The open maps are ripe for such manoeuvres, and it provides room for more strategic approaches when it comes to maximising the unique abilities of the DAK.
While there will likely be some concern for players assuming the side of the DAK, Company of Heroes 3 tries to balance this out with contrasting tales that seek to educate players from the other side. Focusing on a Jewish Berber fighter with the British as well as his wife and daughter back in Benghazi, the animated cutscenes help set the stage as the campaign pivots from celebrating wins to witnessing a comeback by the good guys. The final mission is a treat, to say the least, another excellent example of how Relic has refined its formula to close perfection over the years.
For those of us who prefer to be fighting the good fight straight from the beginning, the dynamic Italian campaign is certainly nothing the series has ever seen. Players are given free rein to plan their march towards Rome with its open campaign map, creating a turn-based formula that feels more similar to grand strategy games than an RTS.
You make the choice to fight whichever battles you want, going from the overworld to maps where smaller skirmishes and larger battles are waged, lost, and won. Naturally, there is the inclination to romp towards Rome straightaway to end things, but that would mean missing out on so many intriguing secondary objectives and experiences that are a true delight in Company of Heroes 3.
The way the dynamic campaign is structured does feel like things develop organically, mirroring what’s happening on the ground with what you’ll see on a grander scale. Securing an important supply route will make things easier for your troops in enemy territory, but adopt a costly strategy and you might just need to set things right as a secondary objective to keep from losing the edge. Knowing that things will change and respond to your actions is as dynamic as it can be.
Relic has also masterfully created a selection of maps that never seem to repeat, especially for a campaign that can easily last over 20-odd hours. Even if there are some familiar backgrounds, the context of the battle also serves to distinguish these skirmishes, ensuring that players are always going to be excited over the next encounter.
Yet, there are some issues with the AI in Company of Heroes 3 that, unfortunately, reduce some of the tension and fun involved. Whereas the actual battles can go either way, what with smart decisions making a big difference, things on the overworld are more stacked in the players’ favour. Capturing a point of interest should naturally evoke a response from the enemy forces, but that never seems to happen.
Rather than a pressing need to build defences to help hold your ground, they instead become unnecessary, allowing players to always fight battles at the front rather than on all fronts, which is an unlikely outcome of all-out war. There is a need to balance the difficulty without a doubt, and it will only make the entire system work even better. There are also technical hiccups here and there that can impact visuals and the use of certain units, which are thankfully not game-breaking.
However, for what it’s worth, the dynamic campaign in Company of Heroes 3 feels like a giant step in the right direction for the series by adding an element of grand strategy to the proceedings. The sheer amount of depth that can be mined from a system like this is enough to make a veteran player giddy with excitement, and when closely fought battles are your preferred entertainment of choice, it is a no-brainer.
If the AI is not worthy of your time, and you much prefer to pit your wits against human opponents, Company of Heroes 3 caters to that as well. The standard multiplayer options give you much to get busy with, including 4v4 co-op vs the AI and up to 4v4 online against other players. No matter how you like your war, the game is able to provide both single-player and multiplayer combat.
Needless to say, Company of Heroes 3 marks a triumphant return of the beloved RTS series from Relic. With the tight, tense battles that can be experienced in the linear North African campaign or the more player-driven dynamic campaign remaining the star attraction, further reinforced by the presence of a new layer of strategic considerations, Company of Heroes 3 is headed in the right direction. All it needs now is for the balance to be worked out and technical issues to be eliminated, and this might just be the best entry yet.
Company of Heroes 3 launches on 23 February and is available on Steam for $59.90.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A big leap forward for the series, Company of Heroes 3 may have some missteps, but it gets the bread and butter of intense battles impressively right.
Gameplay - 9/10
Story - 8.5/10
Presentation - 8.5/10
Value - 9/10