Company Of Heroes 3 is the long-awaited return of a series that’s learned a few new tricks. In this upcoming real-time strategy (RTS) game, developer Relic Entertainment swaps sequential mission-based campaigns for a sprawling turn-based campaign map, in which players manoeuvre their armies and choose priority targets at their discretion.
From a hands-on with the game, it’s hard to imagine Company Of Heroes ever going back to how it previously did things. A new campaign map handles Company Of Heroes 3‘s country-wide story: players will shuffle their forces across Italy, capturing and defending key objectives in their fight against Germany. Decisions made on this map have tangible effects on the game’s RTS battles, which occur when it’s time to get your hands dirty and capture an objective.
Ahead of marching a column of U.S soldiers into an occupied airfield, we subjected the base to a brutal bombardment from American ships stationed at the coast. When it was time to move in and seize the airfield, there was one less capture point to bleed for thanks to our actions on the campaign map, providing a sense of continuity between battles that the series previously relied on cutscenes for.
“When we started building Company Of Heroes 3, the first thing that we wanted to do was capture that core format – the RTS gameplay that everyone loves, we wanted that first,” explains Steve Mele, executive producer for Company Of Heroes 3. “The second thing was to bring in a wider strategy audience. We’d looked at [Company Of Heroes 2 expansion] Ardennes Assault and how that campaign experience was shaping up, and we thought about expanding it to that dynamic campaign map.”
The result – a blend of turn-based campaign strategising and brutal RTS clashes – may sound familiar to strategy fans. In the same year Company Of Heroes 2 was released, Relic was acquired by Sega – and the developer has learned a few things from sister studio Creative Assembly‘s Total War series.
“Yes, we do work and talk with them,” confirmed Mele, who added the two studios “communicate and share stories and ideas” as well as resources. That’s immediately clear, in the best way possible – when it was time to storm a crucial airfield, it was hard to leave this dynamic map behind when there was still so much to explore. Being able to have a tangible effect on each battle – with a bit of legwork – felt brilliant.
The battle for Germany’s airfield wasted no time in bringing us back up to speed with Company Of Heroes 3‘s gritty real-time battles. With the small army you’re first given, weeding out a heavily entrenched German position seems insurmountable. It starts simply – capturing a lightly-defended ammo dump, constructing buildings to recruit more infantry – but quickly snowballs, and you’re soon chucking entire units of battle-hardened soldiers into the meat grinder, determined to win the day.
The path to victory (seizing every required capture point) is paved in gore. One particular shootout, in a small residential courtyard, played out like Saving Private Ryan: enemy soldiers, thinking themselves safe in their occupied building’s sturdy stone walls, ran screaming as American engineers bathed the house in flame. Company Of Heroes 3 gives the series an unflinching modern makeover, and the result is a grim battlefield brought to life, where every earth-shaking explosion demands your attention and each fight tempts you into dropping your micromanagement and enjoying the spectacle.
“I just love the way the game looks,” says Mele. “With the new visuals and destruction, it just feels like you [really] get in there.” He’s not wrong – tanks feel like metal monstrosities when they drive effortlessly over anti-infantry defences, and an explosion that levels the top of an infantry-occupied house elicits a grimace. Mele adds that upgrading Company Of Heroes‘ destruction physics took an “enormous” effort from the team, and references a “bloopers” channel in Relic’s Teams chat where unintentional side-effects of the system (and a “Spider Tank” with monstrous wheel-limbs) will live forever.
Eventually, our hands-on swaps the campaign for a 2v2 skirmish match. While our teammate splits off to handle the eastern (or southern? it’s isometric!) quadrant of the map, we directed the British faction to conquer the other half. Skirmishes in Company Of Heroes aren’t dramatically different to prior entries: players will have to balance warring for supplies with contesting capture points, which are the key to depleting your opponent’s tickets and winning. It’s the same formula fans will know and love, but the skirmish mode – without all the campaign’s shiny new features to overshadow it – feels like a sublime step up for the series.
As the battle rages, it’s hard not to notice Company Of Heroes 3‘s brilliant voice acting, which makes not getting attached to your almost-certainly doomed units difficult. By the time our team closed in on the enemy’s home base I felt myself getting attached to one infantry squad’s chirpy Welshman, or the collective grumbling of ten armed northerners. Mele says Relic want to be “careful with how we’re representing different nationalities in the factions,” and says members of the community “let us know if there’s something that doesn’t feel right or authentic.”
Mele adds that the community’s feedback also pushed Relic to prioritise certain features during development. One such feature – an improved side armour mechanic for vehicles – becomes immediately clear when German forces make a last-ditch bid for survival, sweeping through the southern capture point with a tank that punches far above our weight class.
The first capture point falls with ease, and there’s a very real risk that our forces – stretched thin reaching for the finish line – will crumble under the momentum. As our weaker tanks race to stop it, everything falls on two half-strength infantry squads: one pings anti-vehicle grenades off the monster as a futile distraction, while the other races for the real prize – an abandoned anti-tank gun, positioned to the tank’s right.
Thanks to the tank’s exposed flank, the desperate ploy works, and it takes enough damage to be a manageable threat for our British vehicles – which chug on to seize the day. It’s stories like that which have always brought Company Of Heroes‘ skirmishes to life, and 3 is no different – with the game’s visual upgrades, these moments feel all the more cinematic.
Looking ahead, Mele shares that Relic is “going to be able to support both our single-player fans and our multiplayer community” beyond the game’s original launch, and it’s hard not to get excited. Combined with an already-captivating skirmish mode and what’s shaping up to be a phenomenal campaign, Company Of Heroes 3 will likely demand the attention of all strategy fans when it launches this year.
Company Of Heroes 3 launches for PC on November 17.