I’VE long had a special fondness for Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games – Dune II: The Battle For Arrakis on the Sega Mega Drive was a seminal experiences for me back in 1994, and when Command & Conquer showed up the following year (complete with full-motion video, no less!) I knew I’d found a genre that really appealed.
When you combine RTS games with WWII, you get a winning combination – which is why the Company Of Heroes series has been so successful.
Developed by Relic and published by Sega for the PC (with console version on the way), Company of Heroes 3 is the third entry in the WWII tactical RTS series, with the focus being the North African and Italian theatres of the war.
Mechanically it’s a tactical RTS very much like Iron Harvest 1920+, although obviously it’s got actual WWII military units and vehicles in it rather than giant dieselpunk mechs.
One thing to get out of the way first: I am only reviewing the single-player content. I don’t enjoy multiplayer RTS games at the best of times, and since I got the code before the game came out, there wasn’t anyone else to play with anyway.
The first part of the game is a story-driven campaign where you are commanding the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as you attempt to push the Allies (notably British and Australian) troops out of Libya.
While the actual battles were very well done, with a range of objectives and strategic opportunities, the story itself felt like an afterthought – the character narrating is not on the map or directly involved in any of what happens in the game, and it felt like they made the battles (based around historical facts) then decided to see what sort of story could be shoehorned in afterwards.
The meat of the game’s singleplayer content is the dynamic campaign, which follows Operation Avalanche and the broader Allied invasion of Italy from 1943.
There’s essentially two elements to this – a strategic map not unlike those from the Total War games where you move individual units around towards objectives (towns, ports, airfields, enemy gun emplacements, etc) and then the battle map, where you actually fight the battles in real-time.
There are different types of battle, ranging from skirmish (where you’re trying to hold control points and essentially run out the clock as your opponent’s reserve points diminish) to defensive battles where you’re holding off waves of enemy units with no reinforcements, with other varities in between.
This does create an interesting narrative dissonance, though, as you’ll have a badly damaged US paratrooper unit, down to its last few health points, taking on a full-strength German mechanised unit on the Strategic Map yet when you get to the battle map, none of that matters and you get to do the base-building thing and call in airstrikes and build tanks and all sorts of things like that. I often had straightforward victories in this scenario where, based on the strategic map, the Germans should have steamrolled straight over the top of my unit.
While the attention to detail on the individual units is very impressive (British officers are clearly carrying Webley revolvers, US paratroopers have M1 carbines, etc) the game still takes some (mostly understandable) liberties with historical accuracy.
For example, the Afrikakorps campaign is set in 1942/1943, yet the cutscenes show German soldiers armed with StG-44 assault rifles, which were not issued in that theatre and also not widely issued until 1944-1945 anyway.
On the subject of units, I really appreciated seeing Gurkhas as controllable units. These soldiers are rightly famed for their bravery and skill, and that is well represented with their battle map units as well – a number of key battles throughout my campaign playthrough were won by Gurkha units holding vital points or beating superior numbers to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.
One of the interesting additions the single-player game is a “tactical pause” option, which lets you pause the action then queue up actions from your units, which will be executed when you unpause things. Thus, you can tell an infantry unit to run to cover then lob a grenade at a machine-gun nest from behind while simultaneously having an armoured car attack front-on to draw its fire.
As interesting as the concept is, I really didn’t use it all that often, but it was satisfying to pull off a successful combined arms attack in some of the more difficult battles with it.
What I did use extensively, however, was the repair abilities from infantry units and vehicles. Some infantry (notably engineers) can repair tanks and vehicles to full health in the field, while the Afrika Korps can field a recovery vehicle that will restore destroyed tanks (even enemy ones) which you can then use – which provided some great opportunities in battles.
The destructible environment of the battlefield is well done, too. Shell holes are blasted into the ground during artillery barrages, buildings are reduced to rubble from explosions, and even vehicles get bullet holes, scorched paint, and general battle damage.
The setpiece mission levels are very good too – I particularly enjoyed the Battle of Monte Cassino, which used some clever level design to limit the usefulness of armour and anti-tank guns and promote using infantry instead.
For all the things Company of Heroes 3 does well, however, it still manages to stumble in some areas, including with its inconsistent AI. On “Standard” level it was not especially challenging, but going up another level involved a steep difficulty curve. On the campaign map the AI also seemed to do silly things like send Stukas to fly around in circles above captured towns (but not actually attack anything), or send units into battles it was obvious it would not win.
The US Special Forces unit didn’t seem to do anything particularly useful on the battlefield either – it certainly wasn’t any more effective than regular infantry or engineers in my experience.
At the other end of the scale, some of the abilities are unbalanced – I won a number of battles by calling in off-map artillery and/or bombers to pummel the enemy HQ to rubble while my troops safely stayed some distance back from the front line.
Some of the upgrade paths weren’t well explained either – I didn’t realise I could use skill points on the tactical map to expand the available units in the real-time battles until about halfway through the campaign, for example.
There’s also a population cap in the real-time battles and while I understand the broader purposes of it (basically to stop players Zerg Rushing their opponents), I still found it quite limiting; on several occasions I essentially had to send units on suicide missions to free up a slot for something I needed instead.
Overall though, Company of Heroes 3 is a step forward for the series. The tactical map is a great addition to things and the ‘living battlefield’ works very well too. Yes, the Afrika Korps story isn’t very good but the faction’s units are, and they proved versatile in skirmish matches against the AI so I have no doubt they will give a good account of themselves in PvP matches online too.
There’s not a huge number of modern RTS games around, and even fewer with a WWII setting, so on that front alone Company Of Heroes 3 is a worthwhile addition to the genre – and the fact it covers two under-appreciated theatres of WWII is a bonus.