Developer Relic Entertainment has big plans for Company of Heroes 3. The upcoming real-time strategy game is slated to launch with what it describes as the biggest content offering in series history, comprised of four playable factions, two campaigns, alongside co-op and multiplayer modes.
It also turns its attention towards two parts of the world that are less represented in World War II strategy games. The title explores the Mediterranean theater in a dynamic campaign inspired by CoH 2’s Ardennes Assault expansion, as well as the North African theater in a separate, more traditional narrative-driven campaign.
I recently got a taste of the latter, playing through its very first mission. Set at the start of Operation Theseus in 1942, it was a straightforward affair that acted as a tutorial to the very basics of the Afrika Korps, the series’ newest faction.
Tasked with taking back territory from the British, the mission introduced familiar concepts like cover, unit recruitment, and point capture, while also going through Company of Heroes 3’s newest tricks. Infantry can now ride on the sides of tanks, which not only allows them to get around faster without a dedicated transport vehicle, but also fire back while doing so.
If the enemy decides to dig in and build trenches, tanks can now simply move across them, even when carrying infantry.
Armored skirmishes – which will be plentiful when playing as the Afrika Korps – also highlighted the addition of side armor. Although less potent than any piece of front armor, it does encourage flanking from the back while giving defenders more positioning wiggle room.
The faction also has access to recovery half-tracks that can restore wrecked vehicles – regardless of their original owner – bringing them back into fighting shape.
I couldn’t experiment a whole lot during the mission but, as long as the unit’s limitations aren’t severe, it could be a handy tool for when you need to beef up your forces at a moment’s notice.
Another small but notable change in Company of Heroes 3 comes in the shape of regular infantry units receiving a repair ability. It’s slower than that of specialized engineers, but can help patch up tanks when the situation demands it.
A lot of the series’ DNA is still there, so returning players should feel right at home. The mission started with my compact base already built.
Made up of only a handful of structures that doubled as a place to recruit units and research upgrades, the focus doesn’t seem to be shifting away from battles and properly controlling units.
Infantry lasts longer behind cover – whether that be a wall, building, or (the remains of) a tank. Panzers equipped with flamethrowers work wonders against infantry, but an anti-tank gun hitting the back side of your armor takes a good chunk off of its health bar.
Interestingly enough, certain units can even fire at targets outside of their line of sight now. This lets you punch holes in buildings even before your units enter the enemy’s line of fire, potentially making garrisoned structures less reliable positions for defenders.
Assault Grenadiers can also breach occupied buildings, damaging the enemy garrison and evicting the occupiers. A neat visual change comes in the form of garrisoned troops taking to the rooftops, raining fire on their enemies from above even as the building gradually crumbles.
The resource game, on the other hand, hasn’t changed much. You still collect manpower, ammunition, and fuel by capturing points across the map.
Doing so brings sectors under your control and allows you to reinforce the flag with a structure that increases resource gain; it also gives enemies looking to capture the point more trouble, as they have to destroy it first.
Each unit has access to abilities like frag or smoke grenades and can equip weapons such as grenade launchers or MG 34s, helping them specialize while on the field. Replenishing is not only less costly than recruiting a new unit, but also ensures you have a veteran fighting force on the battlefield.
If the fighting ever gets too overwhelming, you can use the full tactical pause feature to stop time with the press of a button, freely survey the battlefield, and queue up orders.
This is one way in which the developers come to aid new players looking to learn the game. It’s also complemented by the traditional difficulty settings, which I’m told will be available at launch.
Certain captured points can be transformed into replenishment spots but, otherwise, you have to rely on ambulances or retreating to the nearest HQ to bring veteran units to full strength and keep them in the fight.
The Afrika Korps can also field Italian units, of which I could control two – the Guastatori, assault engineers equipped with flamethrowers and demolition equipment, alongside the nimble L6/40 Light Tank, which could quickly flank enemy armor while the heavier Panzer IIIs kept it occupied.
The Italian units could be called in via abilities on the right side of the screen, which unlocked progressively as the mission went on. Two additional abilities allowed me to call in air support for a Stuka strafing or bombardment run.
The developer opted to embed Italian units in the Allied and Axis armies – rather than give them their own faction – in order to stay authentic to the period and portray the Italian army as it was included in the two theaters, I’m told.
Another fairly significant change in CoH3 enables heavy artillery pieces to be towed, allowing players to reposition them across the map.
In the work-in-progress build I played, doing so felt quite clunky, heavily contrasting the Afrika Korps’ focus on mobility, to the point where I didn’t look forward to setting up my Flak 36, despite its devastating firepower.
The mission’s final stretch saw my tanks and infantry rolling into a captured village, destroying the British troops there and blocking off the retreat of the remaining forces.
Watching groups of enemy soldiers get blown to bits by panzers and light artillery is as satisfying as it sounds, the defense being a tried and tested yet nonetheless great climax to the campaign’s first mission.
The developer tells me the North Africa operation is shorter than its Mediterranean counterpart, but it has all the chances of complementing its bigger brother by providing a more traditional experience that, nevertheless, lets the new mechanics shine.
Company of Heroes 3 also comes with a noticeable visual upgrade. Its models look sharper, explosions look more realistic and buildings crumble in a more natural way.
The environments, too, feature more color than their predecessors, and you’ll see vehicles picking up dust and grime as the fight keeps going.
From the small slice I played, CoH 3 retains a lot of what made the older games great while pushing things forward in both small and significant ways.
The mold hasn’t changed drastically but the third entry has the potential to feature the most refined version of Relic’s successful RTS formula.
And, if the idea of a dynamic campaign isn’t exactly what you were hoping for in terms of single-player, the North Africa operation has a good chance of satisfying that itch for a more linear experience.
Company of Heroes 3 is slated to launch on PC, via Steam, on November 17.