This Italian airbase has turned into Hell. The seared, metal carcass of a plane dominates one of the airstrips, surrounded by craters and puddles of blood. The hangars are now just skeletons, and next to them screaming men dance as they burn. There’s so much shouting, with soldiers yelling orders and warnings as they move between fleeting cover. Then, a rocket-propelled grenade, and the soldiers are gone. And through it all I have this inappropriately goofy grin on my face because, finally, I’m playing Company of Heroes 3.
The scene, my first fight in the campaign, is the Company of Heroes I remember, but with the intensity dialed way up. There’s more destruction and noise and chaos, and the busyness of the battlefield speaks to the long list of new tools and units that have been flung into the meat grinder.
Among the headline attractions jockeying for position are a pair of large, dynamic campaigns set in Italy and North Africa; the ability to control the ground, air, and naval forces of both the US and UK, in tandem; an entirely optional tactical pause system, just for singleplayer; and the promise of a huge pile of customization that will be like catnip for loadout tinkerers. It has the immense scale of a Total War game, complemented by Relic’s experience with designing more bespoke, linear strategy games.
It’s the largest and most ambitious game Relic has put together, and it’s been in the works for a while. Along with a scale that evokes Total War, the team’s been inspired by another fellow Sega developer, Amplitude, borrowing its focus on the community. “They’re amazing at working with players,” says executive producer David Littman. “We’re taking the same technology that they use, Games2Gether, and we’ve been using that with a private community council. So we’ve had a 70-player council for over three years now. And they’ve been playing the game for three years.” These players are one of the reasons why Company of Heroes 3 is set in Italy and North Africa – it was initially going to be in the Pacific theatre – so Relic’s been getting feedback from the people who play Company of Heroes the most right from the beginning.
In this early build, the campaign begins in media res, following the arrival of US and UK forces in Italy. There’s already been some fighting, and I’m given one of three different approaches to select, determining what forces I get to control at the start. I have to begin in Naples, but eventually, there will be other choices for starting locations. I want all the toys, naturally, so I go for the option that lets me command a mix of US and UK forces. I’ve got one big goal: take the indomitable Monte Cassino, opening up a way to Rome. First, though, lots of dramatic battles.
While Relic has dabbled in dynamic campaigns before, it played second fiddle to the RTS action – not so in Company of Heroes 3. Both layers share the spotlight and are fundamentally interconnected. What you can do in the RTS layer can be replicated in the turn-based campaign, whether it’s bombarding the enemy with artillery strikes or plonking down some sneaky mines to scupper troop movement.
This ‘holistic loop’ is one of the main pillars of Company of Heroes 3 and makes this undeniably complex game feel significantly more intuitive. There’s a level of consistency and permanence that even Total War hasn’t achieved, and while Littman apologetically explains that the connection between the campaign and missions “simply isn’t there yet”, I think he’s being humble. Sure, there are still gaps, and some features not working quite like I expected, but broadly this is already a game where the relationships between the systems are very strong and very apparent.
BRICK BY BRICK
How destruction transforms a map
You’ve got a nice little town here, nestled in the idyllic countryside. It’d sure be a shame if something were to happen to it. Something like a pitched battle happening in the middle of it, for example.
It still looks nice if you enjoy dynamic destruction. Shells leave holes in roofs, bullets demolish buildings, and vehicles get consumed by fire. Truly explosive sound design is the icing on the traumatic cake.
Smoke blots out the sun, vehicles, and soldiers have been replaced by craters, and it’s devoid of life. The collapsed buildings and blackened hills tell the story of the fight and what caused the destruction.
TANKS A LOT
1 Nothing says “we’re the baddies” like a wee skull on your tank. Thanks for keeping it simple, Nazis.
2 This tank looks just like me the first time I went roller skating, though I didn’t use quite as many sandbags.
3 That flag is going to get so muddy. Maybe this is actually an act of rebellion, like burning a flag. Good for you, crew!
4 I’ve been saving the best for last. Is it a bush? Is it a tank? Next time you’re in the woods, keep your eyes open.
My army is hanging around Naples, with the sprawling Italian countryside stretched out before them. It’s a chunky map, but only a small slice of the full Italian campaign that we’ll get to play, along with its North African counterpart, at launch. Each discrete bit of territory offers something, whether it’s more resources, another link in the supply chain, or access to air and naval forces. You don’t need to take every town in Italy, but I quickly found myself being seduced by the promise of total conquest and all the goodies that come with it.
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