‘Company of Heroes 3’ review: this is the thing war is good for
Don’t be fooled by Company of Heroes 3’s slick cinematic presentation and bombastic firefights. At the beating heart of the thing, it’s a fiercely intelligent real-time strategy (RTS) that drowns players in interesting choices and it could just be one of my favourite RTS games ever.
This is a bold claim but, I think, an easy one to justify when you look at both how well the game plays but also how much content is already in here for fans of single-player, co-op and even PvP strategy.
If you haven’t played an RTS before that’s reasonable. The genre has fallen on hard times and while before we might have had mega-franchises like Age of Empires, Command & Conquer and even Supreme Commander, now games where you control units from a top-down perspective and try to take over the world (or you know, win World War 2), are few and far between.
Though World War 2 is a popular setting for RTS games, Company Of Heroes 3 has some of the best-looking battles in the genre. Tanks cook off with a burning roar, naval artillery thumps down over the battlefield and .30 Cal machine gun fire rakes the battlefield, pinning infantry under a withering hail of bullets. The red mist when a squad gets hit by high explosives and just stops existing is cool to the inner teenager but horrifying to the armchair general who has just realised a bad strategy (or sometimes a misclick) has condemned so many digital men to their deaths.
Even the murder is stunning. Every individual soldier in your units has their own animation, and this could mean you’re watching a single panzergrenadier in your squad stumbles slightly while running towards a capture point, or you’ll see individual soldiers in a heavy weapon squad keep watchful eyes on the flanks while the rest set up the heavy weapon itself.
Layer on the fact that every map in the game is beautifully detailed and tactically interesting, and it’s hard to think of any RTS that looks better, that feels more immersive despite your eagle-eye view physically separating you from the battle.
Sink your teeth into Company of Heroes 3 however, and you’ll see the real depth behind developer Relic’s flashy presentation. The game’s dynamic campaign – a charming invasion of Italy as you batter the German war machine while levelling up your armies and fortifying your captured territory – owes more than a little to NME favourite Total War: Warhammer 3 and even had developers from that game work on it. You can feel Creative Assembly’s input in the overworld and the army-based upgrades, and see the studio’s little fingerprints every time you use an ability or position armies with adjacency so you can call in American commandos to back up your British artillery regiment.
This campaign is the main event for solo players, and it feels replayable. Players have real freedom: get a plane and a squad of special forces into the same location and you can drop them behind enemy lines, snagging resistance bases and seaports so you can reinforce your push, or clearing anti-air emplacements so you can bomb enemy cities into submission.
Of course, if you bomb the cities with civilians, your contact in the French resistance will be pissed. Ignore the warmongering American general who wants to invade Rome by lunch and he’ll be pissed at you, while the British guy that works a slow and stable push can also get pissed if you don’t do what he wants. But if you, somehow, keep them on side you’ll get increasingly powerful abilities and passive skills to help you batter the Germans.
The beauty here is that not every town you have to capture is a fight and not every scrap is a skirmish either. There are scores of bespoke missions that you can tackle, some laughably easy if you’ve brought the correct forces. One mission that has you on a timed slog through enemy forces to rescue French resistance fighters was rendered meaningless when I dropped some paratroopers from the sky and a heavy machine gun, letting me fortify the area until my real force could move up. Had I approached this without the ability to drop in paratroopers I’d have had my work cut out for me, but I felt smart for stumbling upon this mission with the perfect counter.
My only real complaint is that it’s too easy at a campaign level. You can always overpower even the toughest enemies by outplaying them with your abilities. Your armies will upgrade in interesting ways, letting you drop white phosphor barrages or call in the biggest tank you’ve ever seen, screen shaking with the enormity of the thing as it rolls in to help support your next big push.
Enormous tanks aren’t relegated to the dynamic campaign though. The story mode drops you in Africa as part of Rommel’s big push, and not only will you control Rommel in a huge tank himself, the large flat battlegrounds are perfect for rolling tanks around in. This is where another cool feature comes into play: your infantry will use tanks as solid cover given half a chance, meaning you create your own steel wall to let soldiers push up to capture locations.
The campaign itself feels a little lackluster compared to the shining beacon of the dynamic Allied campaign, but it’s well-written and full of tense scripted beats. Letting you play as Rommel is… well, odd. It’s personal preference but I think i’m just about comfortable with playing WW2 German factions because they’re theoretical fascists, it’s very different when you’re playing as a for real “he actually existed” fascist. It feels icky, and I can imagine it’s worse for anyone who experienced actual persecution at the hands of the Nazi Party.
Regardless, the mechanical side to the campaign highlights a lot of new changes, particularly a beefing up of the game around vehicles, with it being easy to see where your tank has its stronger armour, while tanks that do survive a beating will come away looking weathered and messed up, scorched and pock-marked from attempts to defeat them.
The game would be worth buying for these two modes alone, honestly, but Skirmish is the real meat of the game and where you can play with others both cooperatively and competitively. This feels like Company of Heroes has always felt: there are three different trees for each faction, you capture control points and bleed the enemies tickets down until you win.
I think the fact the game has launched with four factions that feel so diverse is a real win. The American forces feel fairly standard and they’re mostly flexible. Veterancy with U.S forces lets you choose between two different upgrades so you can quickly make a squad of riflemen into a squad that can sprint fast or a squad capable of leathering people with extra firepower. These constant tactical choices make things more interesting in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
The Wehrmacht plays more like a traditional German Company of Heroes army, all big tanks and panzer grenadiers, while the Afrika Korps are fast-moving and can pull off some ridiculous skirmish nonsense with access to a motorbike with a machine gun strapped to it from the start of every match.
The British feel like the weakest faction of the bunch, and are best suited to specific roles. In a game where tanks can often reign supreme, it can feel in a lot of ways like there isn’t an answer to this with the British forces. Further play could make this a little clearer, but after just a few hours with each, they’re the faction that feels the least fun.
Regardless, each faction has three different trees – with the way the UI is set up and because of how Company of Heroes 2‘s development went after launch, there will definitely be additions to this – that can allow you to specify which specific flavour you want. This could mean playing with Paratroopers as the US, or even getting access to Italian tanks and soldiers to support you as the Afrika Korps.
Multiplayer fights feel pleasingly scrappy. It’s less about creating a blob-like deathball than other RTS titles and this means that getting completely outplayed tactically or falling to one momentous push can quickly turn a winning game into a losing one. Crucially, it always feels like you have a chance to get back into things, and I found I couldn’t resist hopping in for another go.
There are few multiplayer maps at launch, although in the 20 or so multiplayer matches I played we were often going through the same map again and it just wasn’t an issue, as spawning from the “other side” often creates a whole new set of tactical challenges and opportunities. A bridge you might previously have mined is now a vital road for you to get tank reinforcements, so you’re now protecting it with machine guns and anti-tank emplacements, or a balcony you used as a defensive line is now top of your list to shell with artillery.
It’s hard to see what the long-term depth of the game will be like, but NME has had access to the game for around a month at this stage and it feels like it’s holding up. It’s become a lunchtime staple to hop on for a few rounds against the AI or against each other, and even now filing this review, my brain is replaying the last loss to think about how I could have turned it into a win.
That has always been what identifies an exceptional game as opposed to a great one, for me. That Company of Heroes 3 has burrowed so far into my head that I’m spending a lot of my waking hours thinking about both the game and how the systems and strategies within it might interact, is why I know it’s a must-play.
With continued support, it’s easy to see Company of Heroes 3 becoming the go-to RTS. In its current form it’s already a stellar RTS that’s an essential pick for strategy gamers, and it’s hard not to be excited about what might come next.
Company Of Heroes 3 launches on February 23 for PC, with console versions planned for a later date.
Quite simply, Company of Heroes 3 is probably the best RTS of the last decade. A wealth of single-player content and a solid foundation for long-term multiplayer action have combined to make this a cinematic WW2 masterpiece that’s essential for strategy games.
- Scrappy skirmish mode
- Exceptional dynamic campaign
- Four completely different factions offering diverse play styles
- Few multiplayer maps at launch
- Menu UI is a bit ropey in places