Review: Company of Heroes 3 is a brilliant, if imperfect, return for the strategy series

company of heroes 3

For some time now, the fate of strategy games has rested on a few broad-shouldered studios. While Creative Assembly and Paradox have kept grand strategy on the battlefield, Relic Entertainment have kept a tattered flag flying for traditional real-time strategy. Through their work on Dawn of War and recently Age of Empires, the Canadian company has become almost synonymous with the genre. Now, they return with the most anticipated game of what promises to be an uncommonly packed year for strategy – Company of Heroes 3.

With this long-awaited sequel, Relic have again focused more on refinement than on revolution. Online and off, it will be immediately familiar to fans of the series but comes with a refreshing change of setting. It doubles down on the intense, small-scale battles for which the series is known and they are more tense and exciting than ever. Where Relic have been less successful is in their attempts to do something different with the main campaign. Here and elsewhere, there are real rough edges in Company of Heroes 3. In general, though, this is a fantastic return to the front and easily one of the best RTS games available.

It is clear right away that this is a big game. At launch, CoH 3 comes with four fully-fledged factions, two very different campaigns, and 14 maps of various sizes for skirmish and online battles. What unites all of these modes is Relic’s frenetic, visceral squad-level combat which returns largely unchanged from previous games. Capturing points in order to control territory remains the order of the day. Every encounter is rich with incidental detail, some tactical and some merely visual. Troops now hop deftly over walls and fences, and environmental destruction is better than ever, as buildings gradually deteriorate under fire before finally collapsing.

company of heroes 3
Engineers are deadlier than ever thanks to their powerful flamethrower upgrade.

While some returning players will want to advance directly into the competitive multiplayer, the North African campaign may be the best way to become reacquainted with Company of Heroes. This is the smaller and more conventional part of Relic’s new single-player offering, an eight-mission storyline focusing on the first, successful part of Rommel’s Western Desert campaign. Leading up to the first, stalemated battle of El Alamein in July 1942, it is a good introduction to the new Afrika Korps faction.

The eight missions often represent Relic at their best – while too easy on the standard setting, they are a varied set of exciting assaults, defences, and daring raids. They reflect both the specific conditions of the Western Desert, and Rommel’s famed (if overstated) strategic brilliance and decisiveness. Between the missions, cutscenes document the life of a family of Jewish Berbers, whose members join the British side or live under brutal German occupation. This is a welcome look at a little-seen aspect of the war – and makes CoH 3 possibly the first game to have dialogue in the Berber language of Tachelhit. 

The juxtaposition of playable fascist victories with the suffering of Libyans is an odd one, though. At times, it can feel as though the tale of the Jewish Berbers – affecting as it is – has been included to offset any discomfort of playing as the Nazis, and especially the charismatic Rommel. It remains to be seen if Relic will return to the North African theatre, perhaps to explore how Montgomery turned the tables at the second battle of El Alamein.

The Italian campaign is as experimental as the North Africa one is traditional. Here, Relic have gone all out on a sprawling, dynamic campaign map reminiscent of Total War. After an introduction focusing on the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, the campaign allows players to push fascism out of the Italian peninsula as they see fit. This approach offers tremendous flexibility. Various kinds of British and American companies can be recruited, upgraded, and sent to capture towns or to fight skirmishes or hand-crafted missions. Two bickering Allied generals suggest various possible approaches in the form of compulsory and optional objectives.

company of heroes 3
Destroying fuel supplies is a key element of the North African campaign

While radically unlike an ordinary Company of Heroes campaign, the Italian strategic map is not unprecedented – the best parts of it are lifted from Ardennes Assault, the excellent single-player expansion for Company of Heroes 2. While Relic have greatly expanded upon that formula, many of the complications are unfortunately uninteresting. Crucially, the Axis forces are extremely passive, to the extent that the campaign feels less like a bloody epic and more like a lazy stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Additionally, a number of elements feel like busywork or, worse, just useless. There is no need to engage in naval warfare, to deploy aircraft, to build emplacements, or to pay much attention to how the two Allied generals or the Italian partisans feel about the player.

Somehow, Relic have managed to make the Italian campaign feel both overcomplicated and half-baked at the same time. Adding to the frustration is the plethora of bugs. Many of these are very minor, but they are common enough to detract from the experience. The developers have already begun to squash these, but many still remain.

Ultimately, the Italian campaign is a disappointing and confused framework – but it supports many hours of gripping skirmishes and bespoke missions. The core CoH gameplay is so superb that even playing skirmishes on the same maps multiple times takes a long while to get old. At times, the unique missions reach the same high level as the Afrika Korps campaign. 

In all of its modes, CoH 3 gives players a tremendous sense of control, and the ability to tailor their forces and tactics to a particular style of play. The gameplay is as accessible as ever, while retaining a perilously high skill ceiling online and a visceral, boots-on-the-ground atmosphere. The game also looks and sounds great, even if the technical leap from the previous game is more modest than might be expected – at least it will deliver rock-solid performance on a wide range of PCs, even when the action heats up in a 4v4.

Company of Heroes 3 is a game that wrestles with how to improve on the brilliance of its predecessors. Relic should be applauded for trying new things with the Italian campaign, even if there are a number of issues still to be ironed out. In skirmish and multiplayer, its modest but welcome improvements to a fantastic formula should give the game a long life. This sequel may not single-handedly return RTS games to prominence, but it is a gripping experience and a very welcome contribution to that effort.

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