Relic Entertainment is back with a new World War II story in Company of Heroes 3, and while “another World War II story” might seem like a cliche at this point, CoH 3 is anything but tired and rote. Its dual campaigns feature some of the best maps and intense strategy in the genre, and better still, Relic streamlined the experience so there’s much less frustration than in previous games. The commitment to shedding light on unheard perspectives from the war was one step too far, however, as Relic barely even scratches the surface.
Tell me a story
Company of Heroes 3’s traditional campaign unfolds in north Africa, and it starts with a little note saying the goal is telling the stories of how World War 2 affected local populations, mainly the Jewish community in Benghazi. The aim is an admirable one, but in a confusing turn of events, CoH 3 then spends very little time and effort telling this story for most of the campaign.
Short animated sequences between each mission tell the story of Libyan resistance fighters joining with British soldiers and often suffering from their allies’ indiscriminate attacks on German strongholds there, but they treat the subject with barely any depth and little context for what’s going on. The narrative style is noticeably shallow as well, especially compared to Age of Empires 4 and its mini-documentary style introductions to each mission. These used important historical context and even real-world footage of the locations in question. That level of detail doesn’t exist here.
The relationship between Europe and Africa in the 20th century is fraught with difficulties – but that’s all the more reason to commit to telling these stories. I spent 18 months of graduate school studying World War 2, with some time spent on Jewish studies as well. Northern Africa came up very little unless you were lucky enough to have a professor who specialized in it, and the Jewish experience there received no attention at all.
In a time when censorship in education is once again on the rise, mediums such as this are a valuable resource for telling stories that fall outside the mainstream experience and making them relatable.
Once more unto the breach
It’s an odd situation, especially since Relic was the one that set itself the task of telling these stories and then just… didn’t. The Italian campaign fares somewhat better, opting for a Band of Brothers-style narrative between each mission that’s engaging, if not entirely original. Still, while Company of Heroes 3 might not be a particularly good game about war, it is a very good war game.
Real-time strategy games, including Relic’s Age of Empires, often suffer from a lack of actual strategy once you reach a certain point. Produce enough units of the right type, bundle them together, and you can steamroll pretty much any threat. Company of Heroes 3 has a strict limit cap that makes that situation less common, and its map design and the nature of its objectives force you to plan more efficiently.
One early mission tasks you with bombarding a village to drive the British out, then quickly doing an about-face and setting up blockades to stop a line of enemy soldiers from retreating. You have a few infantry squads, some artillery, and several vehicles at your disposal and less than a minute to figure out the best way to position them along the busted rail tracks and rocky inclines. It quickly turned into a mad scramble of tossing tank grenades from behind a bombed-out train and quickly positioning artillery and tanks to block my vulnerable infantry and deal with the enemy’s reinforcements.
Tense moments and unorthodox objectives like this are peppered throughout each mission, punctuating the usual “capture an outpost” tasks and making every stage feel fresh and unpredictable, thanks also to the capable enemy AI and the diversity of the forces at their disposal.
Company of Heroes 3 does a much better job than its predecessor of giving you the tools to succeed, with effective tutorials and a cleaner user interface. Some annoying elements of micromanagement remain, though, such as having to tell tanks to reverse when they move so they don’t expose their vulnerable sides and rear or having to manually toggle reinforcements on – healing, in CoH speak – at healing posts so they actually perform their intended function.
The grand tour
Good as the North Africa campaign is, the Italian campaign is what makes Company of Heroes 3 really shine. It adopts a grand strategy approach similar to Warhammer, and not only is it absolutely brilliant, but it does a better job of making you think about the effects of war on non-combatants and the fighters who fall somewhere in between the historically accepted heroes and villains.
A short tutorial covers the landing in Sicily, before skipping over some of that campaign’s messier aspects and picking up again just before the invasion of Salerno. You learn some of the mode’s basics here, and just when it seems like it might be fairly contained and limited, the entire map of southern Italy reveals the enormity of the task – and the scale of opportunity – in front of you as you decide on the best route to Rome.
You start with just two commanders, a typically brash American who wants to push forward quickly and an equally typical reserved British officer who prefers capturing territories and shoring up supply lines.You eventually recruit more, including the leader of an Italian partisan group who opposed Benito Mussolini and now fight to drive the Nazis out. Each asks you to make certain choices at key points, choices that will influence how your campaign unfolds.
Some of them have an obvious correct decision, at least initially. Calling for a naval bombardment to soften the enemy’s defenses just makes sense. Others have more serious consequences. Pre-mission bombings might weaken the enemy’s defenses, but it can also change the map layout and provide the enemy with opportunities to place traps in the rubble or find new hiding places. A successful campaign involves tactical concessions and a level of planning that goes beyond just bulldozing the next enemy stronghold.
There’s definitely room for more – more interactions with commanders, more events that give color and personality to some of the locations you visit, and more variations in how the war can develop. Still, the Italian campaign is a strong first attempt at this kind of strategy
The maps in Italy are a marked contrast to the open deserts of the North African theater and some of the best in the game. If the North African theater is about smart formations and good planning, the Italian campaign is about big risks, quick thinking, and desperate improvisation amid endless chaos.
Towns and cities are your targets in the Italian campaign, so naturally, nearly every battle takes place on crowded, urban maps. Open streets and narrow alleys dictate the flow of battle and where combat breaks out. Most maps are tiered to some extent, making it essential to use cover efficiently and avoid getting pinned down.
Some enemies even drop special weapons your infantry can requisition, such as mortar rounds you can fire from behind a building to destroy enemy placements and deal with more difficult threats. The path to victory has several viable roads, and rarely has a strategy game offered such a sense of satisfaction from seeing your plan play out successfully.
Company of Heroes 3 is a splendid and rewarding RTS game. Tense battles, brilliant map design, and streamlined unit management make it easily one of the best in the genre, with the Italian campaign acting as an exciting blueprint for the series’ future. If Relic wants to use Company of Heroes to tell serious and significant stories, though, the team needs to commit to actually doing that beyond just giving them a surface treatment.
This review is based on a PC copy of Company of Heroes 3 provided by the publisher. Company of Heroes 3 releases for PC via Steam on February 23, 2023.
Company of Heroes 3
- Brilliant map design
- Innovative grand strategy campaign in Italy
- Streamlined interface and unit progression
- Italian campaign feels like it has unfulfilled potential
- Falls short of its promise to tell new, important stories
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, Company of Heroes 3 review: They had a good war
Other reviews are coming in. It really sounds like that Italian campaign is a big stinker and the overworld map is half baked. That's a bummer :(
Hopefully multiplayer holds up.
Damn, I have no interest in mp. I was hoping for a good single player campaign
The German North African campaign is getting reviewed better; it's this Italian campaign that just sounds straight up broken. IGN is saying the North African Campaign is about 6 hours and the Italian is double that.
Also it should be noted this Shacknews reviewer is saying almost the complete opposite of the Italian campaign that other outlets are reporting haha.
Who plays a ww2 game and thinks “oh I wish had more of a focus on Italy”??
It is pretty under-represented in gaming. I appreciate the setting just for something new.