Whether you’re kicking up dust in the deserts of El Alamein or fighting Germans on the climb towards Monte Cassino, Company of Heroes 3’s blend of new and old is always at the forefront.
Subtle shifts in the ebb and flow of tactical battles, the introduction of a new faction to fight as, and a more fleshed-out take on Ardennes Assault’s dynamic map campaign fuel a sequel that pushes the series forward as much as it acknowledges the heights of its predecessors.
Chronologically speaking, the North African Operation is a more conventional segment of the campaign that centers around the Deustches Afrikakorps’ invasion of the region, leading up to the first battle of El Alamein.
Presented through artwork instead of cutscenes and accompanied by narration from two members of the local civilian population, the story, while admittedly brief, delves into the ways in which a war they never asked for dramatically altered their lives.
Every mission challenges the series’ latest faction, showcasing their mobility as well as the destructive capabilities of their armored vehicles and heavy artillery. The inclusion of Italian units and infantry capable of repairing vehicles (a task traditionally restricted to engineers) makes the DAK a versatile force that can swiftly recover from battle.
Digging in as the DAK.
In terms of objectives, you can expect daring assaults behind enemy lines, tank engagements in the open desert, convoy ambushes, and full-fledged battles focused on breaking through fortified positions. They’re varied and engaging yet familiar but, as powerful a force as the DAK is, the North African Operation lacks truly memorable missions like the final defense at Caen in Opposing Fronts.
The nature of the war is different here, but even the first battle of El Alamein feels like smaller scenarios stapled together, in which you assault the British position from different directions before beating them back in a fairly intense last stand. The inability to select levels individually is, however, disappointing. If you’re aiming for a second playthrough or want to switch difficulty midway, you’re forced to play the entire thing in sequence, which is one of several UI issues plaguing the third entry in the series.
The Italian campaign in Company of Heroes 3 is significantly larger, giving you relatively free rein to choose how to carve your path through the country. Once you secure Sicily, you can select one company from a choice of three, including the US Airborne and UK Indian Artillery, and you gain more control as you establish a presence on the Italian mainland.
On a strategic map dotted with cities, towns, airfields, and enemy companies, you can plan your advance. Hospitals can heal garrisoned troops, although each company’s healing ability is far more efficient. Additionally, towns marked with resource icons increase the yield of manpower, ammunition, or fuel, all of which are vital for your efforts.
Italian units complement the Deutsches Afrikakorps' German roster.
Partisan hubs enable you to reveal nearby surroundings, damage enemies, or steal resources. Airfields give you the ability to bomb targets, recon areas, or paradrop units. Ports are the backbone of your efforts in the region, increasing your supply and population cap, which enables you to recruit additional companies, planes, or naval vessels.
The choices you make and side objectives you complete or fail to reach in time affect your loyalty standing with the two battlegroups overseeing your efforts and the Italian partisan leader. The higher your loyalty standing, the more bonuses you unlock. Although it’s theoretically possible to lose favor with them, I can’t recall ever upsetting any of the three enough for that to happen during my playthrough, so the system easily fades into the background.
You can’t freely roam across the entirety of Italy from the start or forego all other objectives and set your sights on Rome right away. Instead, chunks of the country gradually open up as primary objectives guide you to conquer certain cities, following the real-life campaign’s progress. Every few turns, side objectives ask you to raid a munitions depot, recover vehicles, or save partisan units pinned down by the enemy.
You’ll advance northward, push past the Volturno Line, weaken and assault Monte Cassino, before breaking through the Winter Line at Velletri. This mixture of guidance and freedom keeps your efforts focused on specific targets while allowing you to decide which cities to take on the way, when to weaken targets using bombardments, and which companies to deploy to attack specific locations.
While this may lessen the replayability, as long as you don’t expect a “true” sandbox experience like that of the Total War series, there’s still enough here to quickly engage you.
Setting foot on Italian soil
Every company possesses a finite number of movement points and can execute one action per turn, except for any unique abilities such as the Indian Artillery’s Company Barrage. These actions may comprise destroying enemy emplacements that harm your units and provide advantages to the Wehrmacht in combat, as well as assaulting nearby towns.
On the strategic map, only specific towns instigate tactical battles, while others are captured without combat. Occasionally, some towns are more fortified, denoted by shield icons above their names. Nonetheless, launching an attack with multiple companies or utilizing ships or planes to bombard the target beforehand can facilitate a rapid and effective assault.
When confronting or defending against AI companies in the field, you have the option of engaging in manual combat or depending on the auto-resolve option. The latter choice can be remarkably effective, particularly after acquiring detachments that permit your troops to establish stationary fortifications such as howitzers or anti-aircraft guns that safeguard against enemy attacks that seldom occur.
Prior to each engagement, you select two bonuses that are influenced by several factors, including having a ship or airfield within range to provide support via bombardment or gaining the favor of local partisans who provide additional resources. Additionally, when two companies are within range of a targeted location, the one directly involved in the attack can take advantage of the other’s assistance and access a call-in ability that enables you to deploy some of its units.
Potenza, almost liberated.
As I focused on reaching Potenza, my Indian Artillery company had the support of Airborne units, enabling me to summon an M24 Chaffee Light Tank, a Paratrooper, a US Rifleman, and a Bazooka squad - recruits I would not have been able to acquire otherwise.
As a company engages in more battles, it gains experience and earns points that can be invested in three different areas. The first is company-specific call-ins, such as smoke bombardments, airstrikes, or the Churchill Black Prince tank - a powerful, albeit slow and costly option. The second area is troop upgrades that enhance overall efficiency. The third area unlocks new units to recruit during tactical battles when you have a base.
As the game progresses, you’ll notice a marked contrast between leading a battle-hardened company and facing the Germans with newly arrived paratroopers who lack access to Sherman tanks. This not only necessitates a shift in tactics but also underscores the strong bond between you and the soldiers you’ve been leading since the outset of the game.
Battles for towns and cities are categorized either as missions – which have a more handcrafted feel to them – or skirmishes, delivering a good amount of variety. Even if you’re technically attacking a larger settlement, you may sometimes focus on rescuing commandos searching for intel, and defending the building they’re in until they get the job done.
Taking control of Potenza introduces a new element: elevation. As you transition from the outskirts to a small portion of the city proper, the battlefield becomes more varied in terms of altitude. While the AI may not take full advantage of this feature, fighting uphill changes the dynamics of the battle. The enemy is entrenched at the high ground, and you must navigate your armor and infantry, which previously conquered open fields, through tight squares and narrow streets.
Strategic map blues (and greens).
The Battle of Anzio commences with the task of establishing a foothold on the beach and defending it against a ruthless counterattack. Then, you must push all the way into the city to destroy a railway gun that incessantly bombards your headquarters during the mission, as well as other companies on the strategic map (though its impact is negligible).
Although some standard skirmishes involve capturing victory points and depleting your enemy’s score, others have different objectives. For instance, in some battles, you must seize and maintain control of the territory surrounding the enemy’s headquarters. In contrast, others require you to eliminate enough enemy units to demoralize them, emphasizing the importance of lethality.
You may also encounter a few brief defense scenarios, such as holding a bridge with only a handful of troops or participating in missions directly assigned by the three battlegroups. These missions may involve tasks such as rescuing the crew of a crashed airplane, liberating small villages, or retrieving an Enigma machine with a limited contingent of units. You actively feel like you’re getting a glimpse of different parts of the push through Italy, and I never had to play two missions with the same objectives in a row.
On the second of four difficulty levels, Tough, the AI puts up a formidable defense and swiftly punishes infantry that venture too close to machine guns. However, it generally proves to be a bit too passive in its approach.
One of three menus where you spend company skill points.
At times, the AI also seems to overlook common sense and can be easily baited out of entrenched positions. In skirmish mode, however, it’s much more aggressive and presents a greater challenge, as it actively seeks to seize territory throughout the entirety of the matches.
In the campaign, I found that the game provided me with more tools than necessary, as the AI only attempted two or three incursions into my territory, one of which felt scripted. However, once you cross into the AI’s territory, it throws everything it’s got at you during its turns. While this lack of reaction from the AI may be justified by the Wehrmacht’s role as the defender, it does diminish the overall dynamism of the campaign.
Although visually impressive, the Battle of Monte Cassino doesn’t quite evoke the feeling of breaking through an impenetrable defensive fortress. It is overshadowed by the battles over Anzio and the final assault on Velletri, where you can actively switch between controlling two companies, adding an extra layer of excitement.
Overall, the tactical battles in Company of Heroes 3 feel more refined. Battle phases and terrain that impede unit movement have been replaced by a tactical pause feature, which allows you to actively halt the battle, assess the situation, and queue up orders for your units. While not mandatory, the tactical pause can be useful for dealing with positioning during chaotic situations, saving veteran units from untimely deaths, and helping newer players get accustomed to the game’s mechanics.
Tanks in Company of Heroes 3 can now drive over trenches and transport infantry squads. However, soldiers still need to utilize cover effectively, as flamethrowers can easily negate their protection. Garrisoned units can now be forcefully evicted with the new Breach ability, but strategically demolishing the entire building with a well-placed artillery barrage remains a worthwhile alternative. A tank in the right place can turn the tide of a battle, unless you leave it facing the wrong way, with its weaker side or back armor exposed to enemy fire. Retreating and reinforcing units helps maintain their veterancy, while recon flights and artillery help prepare an assault on entrenched positions or take out troublesome emplacements from afar.
Skirmish mode in Company of Heroes 3 features a restructured commander system, grouping together the battlegroups from the game’s four factions. During matches, players select one of the three available battlegroups, unlocking unit call-ins, passive abilities, and active abilities. Points are earned by conquering territory and eliminating enemies, which can be spent on these abilities, some of which are mutually exclusive.
The battlegroups allow for the deployment of special infantry units such as the Gurkha Rifle Section for the British or the Guastatori engineers for the DAK, as well as the ability to focus on a breakthrough group that eventually lets players command a Tiger tank as the Wehrmacht. The US Forces can use strafing runs and paratroopers to gain an edge in battles. With several options to try out and master alongside a decent 14 maps set across both fronts, skirmish and multiplayer have a good foundation on which post-launch support can expand.
Flamethrowers don't care much for silly concepts like cover or flesh.
Company of Heroes 3 boasts more detailed unit models and destruction alongside more fluid animations. The grime and visual wear and tear of vehicles allow you to easily spot armor that’s seen battle, as it inevitably gets riddled with bullet holes or blackened by explosions, which persists past repairs.
Unfortunately, the build I played for this review suffered from UI and other minor issues on the grand strategy map. Icons and messages overlapped as my fleet of ships and planes grew, making it difficult to distinguish between them.
The objectives required to prepare Monte Cassino for the assault were not clearly detailed, and the objectives for breaking through the Winter Line were inaccurate. Taking Veletri without conquering the other two towns was enough to wrap up the campaign. The skirmish menu lacked text descriptions for Battlegroups, while the optional objective to capture Ortona failed to trigger after the town was under my control.
Softening up German defenses at Monte Cassino.
On occasion, units would have a hard time walking around each other, while tanks moving through debris would sometimes cause it to instantly teleport to a different plane of existence, rather than show off the game’s improved destruction. Most aggravating, upgrading the Churchill Heavy Tank call-in to spawn two tanks still only gave me one. These blemishes didn’t seriously hamper my enjoyment, but I’d be remiss not to mention them.
On an i7-13700K, 32 GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 3080@1440p, Company of Heroes 3 ran well, the only notable frame drops occurring when I panned the camera at ground level and had the entire level in view. Previous games in the series also had this issue but, as it’s an angle used mostly for cinematic purposes, I didn’t feel any performance decrease when playing using the game’s default camera.
COMPANY OF HEROES 3 VERDICT
Aware of its past yet looking towards the future, Company of Heroes 3 offers something for everyone. The dynamic map of Italy is a great experience, although it’s slightly marred by passive AI, abilities that don’t always work, small UI issues, and a gameplay loop that doesn’t encourage the use of all available tools.
Apart from the two campaigns, Company of Heroes 3 presents more options than ever before with its four factions, including the Deutsches Afrikakorps, which is an outstanding addition to the roster. Although it still relies on past strategies, the modifications to tactical battles and the addition of new units demonstrate that almost two decades after its inception, the formula that helped Relic Entertainment become a household name in the strategy genre still holds up.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Holding Anzio against a German counterattack, then pushing past enemy defenses and taking over the town.
Four distinct playable factions
Familiar yet refreshed tactical battle formula
Improved visuals and animations
New fronts look great
Engaging dynamic campaign
The campaign AI's passivity
Small visual and ability-related bugs
About Bogdan Robert Mateș
When not brewing coffee or debating serious topics with my cat, you'll either find me playing video games or writing about them.