Company of Heroes dealt mostly with the fights in Western Europe, starting with D-Day. The second game visited the Eastern Front to regurgitate every myth it could before going back West. Company of Heroes 3 can do little else but tackle North Africa and the Italian campaign.
Thus, the single-player component of the game is split into two: the linear story campaign in Africa and the open-map campaign in Italy. The former harkens back to the campaigns in the original game and the sequel. And the latter takes after the much-lauded (for reasons I can hardly understand) Ardennes Assault DLC for Company of Heroes 2.
The core Company of Heroes gameplay remains: you have four different factions that can be tailored on the battlefield by selecting a subfaction tree, and then unlocking unit upgrades, support powers, and units via command points you get while fighting. You still command squads of infantry and individual vehicles, being careful to keep units in cover, while also buying the right upgrades, stealing stuff the enemy drops on the field, and so on. That part’s solid.
It’s still very much “action-per-minute land,” though. Even against tough AI (that’s a step above Standard difficulty, the lowest rung), you’ll need to learn hotkeys to really measure up. And this is when you still have tactical pause — which stops the game to let you leisurely queue up orders — at your fingertips; you have no such help in multiplayer. Combine it with reliance on unit powers (especially for special weapon-starved Wehrmacht) and fairly short time-to-kill for infantry, and any slower player is in a world of pain.
Company of Heroes 3: Nonplussed Fronts
But back in the single-player world, as a great bit of novelty, the linear African campaign follows not Allies but the German Afrika Korps. It’s… not great, but not for reasons you’d think. For one thing, where the great Company of Heroes campaigns followed fictional characters commanding, at most, a company (of heroes), in Company of Heroes 3, the only German character you have is Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox himself. You get the orders and comments from the Generalfeldmarschall of all the German forces in Africa, who seems to micro your battles involving two tanks and three squads.
The mission themselves are also fairly poor, being short and oft concerned with static defenses against waves upon waves of British forces. They don’t showcase the creativity of previous games, and frequently give you a very limited array of tools to work with. I write that with full understanding that some of the best Company of Heroes missions didn’t give you a base at all. But in the new game, campaign missions often feature objectives that only really exist to make you familiar with some of the mechanics specific for the Afrika Korps.
But wait, there’s more! While Opposing Fronts, the first and only good Company of Heroes DLC, had already allowed us to play as the dang Nazis, Relic blinked when it came to Afrika Korps. For you see, the narrative of the campaign is told by a Benghazi Jew who joined the British forces — this actually happened — and narrates both the Commonwealth setbacks and the impact of Nazi occupation back home. Generally speaking, this is an important story, as Afrika Korps and Rommel are straight-up bleached by the myth of Clean Wehrmacht. But it would be nice if the game performed it in any way competently.
It wasn’t. The story is split between the guy complaining about the British losing all the time and his daughter’s letters telling a story of Nazi occupation so typical you could set it in a random French town and not lose anything. Plus, while even Company of Heroes 2 campaign dazzled us with lovely in-engine cutscenes of characters interacting, Company of Heroes 3 uses static drawings from Benghazi and the most awful, cramped footage of in-engine destruction for the parts lamenting Commonwealth’s incompetence.
Fighting in the smelly boot
It doesn’t get much better in Company of Heroes 3′s dynamic Italian campaign. While it introduces three characters, they only exist to give you objectives on the campaign map, slightly vying for your attention. You’re supposed to have some difficulty balancing out the needs of Americans, British, and the Partisans to gain their loyalty for the eventual breach of Winter Line, but it’s laughably easy to do.
And then there’s the rest of the campaign, some of which we already saw in the previous previews. You push companies around the map of Italy, liberating towns, destroying enemy emplacements, fighting skirmish battles, and tackling the occasional bespoke mission.
It is extremely boring as at the start. You only have three type of companies available to build, and the population cap (popcap) to have no more than four. You have to use them to conquer vast, dull tracts of southern Italy. Said companies should also be able to build field emplacements, but won’t, as those cost popcap (which you don’t have) and are only useful when defending against the enemy forces (which don’t really exist for the first part of the campaign). You should also be able to recruit ships and planes. But guess what costs popcap?
At least there’s some variety when you get to fighting. The skirmish battles aren’t exactly the same as just going for skirmish outside of the campaign. Your access to units will be limited by what you’ve unlocked by leveling up the company, and you’ll often have all sorts of call-ins that depend on the proximity of supporting forces. The objectives will be more varied, too: cracking the enemy morale by destroying units; capturing and holding the sectors around the enemy base to force a surrender; or grabbing victory points.
The latter functions just like in skirmish, but they often come with secondary objectives. These can include keeping one point from ever being taken by the enemy or holding all three to force a quick enemy surrender. Other secondaries may have you capture enemy weapons, recrew and rescue a scout car, and so on. You know, stuff people liked in Ardennes Assault.
The missions can be varied, from more straight-up fights to special missions (without having a base) consisting of assisting partisans with your limited forces, and more. They are a tad more engaging, as they’re tailored to throw more interesting encounters at you.
Mussolini is going head over heels
But, again, the campaign suffers heavily from the lack of personalization; the intimate touch the shone so brightly in previous games. No characters appear in cutscenes, and you’ll have the same Corporal Conti laying out mission objectives no matter who you are commanding. It’s a bland and faceless fight.
The Indian Artillery Company — the main type of Commonwealth unit you have in the campaign — excels in this blandness. For one thing, it has two Indian units: a heavy mortar and Gurkhas. All the unit portraits, skins, and unit barks feel as if they’re straight out of Liverpool.
Meanwhile, Gurkhas exist as an essentially elite assault unit, and the unit barks lean heavily into their martial reputation. Now, how much of that is cool and good, and how much is simple orientalism, I cannot say. Neither can I comment on whether Gurkhas would lovingly quote Rudyard Kipling.
There’s always the spectacle
Now, to get anywhere close to finishing the review, the technical bits of Company of Heroes 3. First comes the good: the game generally looks good and sounds even better. Relic is still king of unit barks and audio work, so no complaints there. Engineers going “is it load-bearing? Then it’s fixed” is delivered perfectly, and it will go down as well as some of Company of Heroes‘ finest. The Germans do suffer a bit this time, but considering how much single player is focused on the Allies, you’ll be fine.
However, the Italian campaign map looks janky and works not much more competently. In fact, no part of it is pleasant to interact with. The more you play, the more it becomes the disgusting cauliflower you need to eat before you get to the treats of battle. It just feels rough and unfinished, and it extends to battles as well: I’ve seen Dingo drivers T-pose more than once; I watched a StuG MG gunner stand on the the dang thing. If my browser isn’t closed, the game risks crashing after two battles. We got reports of freezing while taking screenshots. The main menu feels unfinished, and you can’t load your campaign skirmishes without first starting a mission.
All in all, Company of Heroes 3 was delayed with good reason — and probably should have been delayed again. It would not have fixed the lifeless experiences in the Italian campaign or the absolutely bonkers narrative choices taken with the Afrika Korps storyline. But it would allowed time for polish in the menus and fixes for the last of the bugs. For the multiplayer-hungry masses, that would be enough.