Company of Heroes has come a long way. The original entry in the series improved on the 40,000: Dawn of formula in all ways but one: some questionable DLC. Company of Heroes 2 promised the untold story of the Eastern Front, and then regurgitated all of the Nazis myths instead. The sequel also came with plenty of DLC that culminated in Ardennes Assault (liked by all but me). The ride was… bumpy. So, how will Company of Heroes 3 fare? We preview the pre-alpha.
This game is set in the Mediterranean Theater, which is a quick way of saying “North Africa and Italy.” But the pre-alpha only includes part of the dynamic Allied campaign that focuses on the push from Naples to Monte Cassino.
Treading the Italin soil
While the Battle for Monte Cassino and the attacks on the Winter Line in general involved 240,000 Allied soldiers, this is Company of Heroes 3 and not Division of Heroes. As such, you’ll just be pushing around companies on the command map. They are the of the show, accruing experience, unlocking units, having their own special abilities and be able to initiate real-time strategy (RTS) battles. They are supported by detachments with no experience levels or unlocks.
The game features the cast hull M4A1 Sherman II tank for the Brits and I’m all for it.
However, detachments can fight on the strategic map, user their own abilities, and add a bit of support when they’re in range. For example, medical detachments can heal other units (and provide ambulance call-ins in RTS), while engineers can remove obstacles (an important task as the pre-alpha campaign demonstrates). Company abilities are more variable and powerful, like artillery companies being able to engage enemies at range, or special forces companies disrupting enemy supplies behind the lines. Really, there’s a surprising amount of depth and mechanics at work on the strategic map.
Now, if a company is attacking a special town occupied by enemy forces, you might even play out a bespoke scenario. This ranges from regular base-building battles with special maps and cool objectives (like stealing a German AA gun to stop periodic strafing), to the crowd favorite “no base, just a handful of troops; hope you do well.” But if you run into an opposing company on the field, you might just duke it out in a skirmish battle (with some fun objectives). This latest game is trying to strike a happy medium between the real campaign we had in Company of Heroes 1 and the improved dynamic campaign of Ardennes Assault.
The anti-tank hedgehogs on the left aren’t there for just decoration… and also there’s a minefield positioned between them.
The Company of Heroes 3 pre-alpha campaign includes two types of British companies (armored and Indian artillery), as well as two American ones (paratrooper and special forces). The battles can play out very differently depending on the forces you bring. Taking an airport and defending it from an armored counterattack (the first special battle you’ll run into) is much easier if you’re British and supported by Archer tank destroyers. Fun fact: Archers only entered public consciousness after being so ridiculous in Thunder. Leveraging heavy Churchill tanks is another huge perk to the British companies as opposed to the American paratroopers that can at best get Chaffees for support (which hadn’t even been introduced at that point of).
The battles also depend on how experienced the units are. Companies unlock units, abilities, and skills by gaining experience in the campaign map. Skill and ability unlocks (which are there for the RTS battles) also have mutually exclusive upgrades. Not all were available in the pre-alpha, but enough were there to demonstrate why you don’t want to lose your armored company.
By the way, if a company in less than perfect health on the strategic map engages in an RTS battle, you can expect to see infantry units with less than the full number of troops.
Finally, a decent cover system
When it comes to the actual battles, well… it’s Company of Heroes! There’s some micro, there’s some pinning, tanks apparently now have a side armor value, American units get to choose from two upgrades when leveling up, and so on. Nothing devastating happened, and there’s fun new stuff like units storming a garrisoned building to evict the inhabitants. The storming mechanic feels like a way to just kill enemy units and destroy the enemy strongpoint while keeping the building intact (or I just haven’t seen evictees leave), but that’s balance stuff.
Infantry being more fragile than I’d like could also be just a Company of Heroes 3 thing that will change with user feedback, but we’ll see.
Fairly certain that driving over fuel barrels now damages even tanks.
Other than that, the one thing making people hot and bothered is Full Tactical Pause, which is a fancy way of saying that you can give units orders while the gameplay is paused. It only works in single-player, so in that sense, the only difference between it and time controls in the or Total franchises is the purposefulness. There are special markings to show orders during the pause, and even a timeline recording them. This is all so that you can formulate a plan easier. It’s neat in that it cuts down on micro in single player because Company of Heroes always had too much of micro.
For me personally, it just shows that a turn-based continuous resolution system is the way to go. It’s already the main way to play the Combat Mission series, and there’s a good reason why Battle Galactica: Deadlock gets mentioned in every review I write. It would be nice to see this type of “almost” real-time in a AAA multiplayer RTS, as it would make battles more about being the better commander rather than the faster clicker.
All in all, Company of Heroes 3 pre-alpha looks and plays great for a pre-alpha build. A lot of the art assets were missing, British units T-pose before firing rifle grenades, and Coldstream Guards have the icon of Soviet Guard from Company of Heroes 2, but… it’s a pre-alpha. Those are things to be expected from it. But do they make me expect great things from the eventual full game? Yes.